A classic in Yiddish theatre, The Dybbuk, written by Russian playwright S. Ansky in the early 20th Century and adapted here by Toronto’s accomplished Anton Piatigorsky, is an intense and surprisingly moving piece. Equal parts Romeo and Juliet and The Exorcist, it is as beautiful as it is unsettling.
Opening on a bare stage, the action floats toward us as if through the mists of time. With ghostly, dream-like efficiency, the actors silently assemble the simple wooden set and the tale begins.
A poor, idealistic student (Colin Palangio), madly in love with the unattainable daughter of a rich man, begins dabbling in mystical Kabbalah, leading to his early and unholy demise. The object of his love, Leah (Hailey Gillis), betrothed to another, is suddenly inhabited by his malicious spirit – a dybbuk. A mysterious stranger (Diego Matamoros) has also entered the isolated shetl community, though it is unclear whether he is there to help or hinder.
The powerful cast, a mixture of established theatre artists and young talents, does not disappoint. Hailey Gillis shines as Leah, the young woman whose soul hangs in the balance. Gillis has some heavy lifting to do in the role, between the yearnings of youthful love and lust, and that whole nasty demonic possession business. Her work is sensitive, captivating and never overdone. Colin Palangio as the intense, conflicted Channon and Diego Matamoros as the grim yet affable Messenger also stand out, a difficult task in such strong company.
Lorenzo Savoini’s evocative set reflects the values of the village – well worn and threadbare, yet practical in their efficiency. The ethereal set changes are incorporated seamlessly into the story, and add to the sense of uncertainty and ambiguity of time and place.
Perhaps the biggest star of the night is director and Soulpepper chief Albert Schultz, whose hand rests upon every aspect of the show, and yet is almost invisible. Through simple theatrical conventions and crystal clear storytelling, he keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire 2.5-hour running time.
One terrifying scene near the end of Act 1 has more bang for your buck than most horror movies these days, and the cleanly effective special effects in the second act will take your breath away.
The word “dybbuk” comes from the Hebrew “to cling,” which is exactly what this show will do – it will cling to your mind, demanding further reflection and enjoyment. In the wake of such a superb and well-rounded production, there is much to chew on.
All told, The Dybbuk is an extremely enjoyable night at the theatre, confirming once again the power of a well-told love story and the value of a good scare.
The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until June 18. For more information visit www.soulpepper.ca.
photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann