Review: The Dybbuk

Old Yiddish ghost drama still fascinates.

By Byron Toben

For a bodiless spirit, S. Ansky’s Dybbuk sure has legs.

Written in Russian 100 years ago and translated into Yiddish for its first performance in Poland in 1920, it has had many incarnations over the century. The latest version is the powerful one now at Montreal’s Segal Centre, as its annual Dora Wasserman Yiddish theatre selection.

scene from The DybbukThe subtitle, Between Two Worlds, at one level refers to the relationship between Laya and her dead love, Konen, whose ghost inhabits her body as a soul seeking to avoid the state of limbo. This untenable situation requires an exorcism, leading Albert Schultz, of Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre (which staged The Dybbuk in English last May), to describe it as “Romeo and Juliet meets the Exorcist.”

I believe the subtitle has a broader meaning: Europe broke into the Age of Enlightenment from around 1620 to 1790, (you know, Voltaire, Spinoza, Bacon, that gang). Most Jews were bound to ghettos until Napoleon broke them down and the detailed but confining Talmudic governance was open to broader vistas in the late blooming Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. This resulted in a scientific, rational approach in urban centres, including Moscow, where Ansky lived, but left the rural dwellers in the shtetls of East Europe bound by poverty and superstition and perpetual status quo. As with the English masses during Shakespeare’s time, who really believed in ghosts and witches, possession by wandering souls was a real phenomenon. Thus all this mixture was a ripe crucible for the growth of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, with its emphasis on letter shapes and incantations. And so the rational Ansky, who was an ethnographer, set out to record the legends and mores of the dying shtetl culture in pre-World War One. The lore of dybbuks led him to write this classic play, where the two worlds, the tradition bound Talmudists and more ecstatic Kabbalists collide.

scene from The DybbukBen Gonshor, who started acting in the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre at age 5, portrays Konen superbly, as does Shauna Bonaduce as Laya. The poor torah scholar drawn to the more mystical Kabbalah teachings, loves Laya but her father has arranged for her to marry a rich man’s son. The two really nail the pre-Freudian underpinnings of the dilemma. But as fine as the ensemble acting is by each of the 19-member cast — especially Wasserman stalwarts such as Sam Stein as the local rabbi, Aron Gonshor as another rabbi, and Edit Kuper as Laya’s mother — the gripping “feel” of the play is due to the many offstage talents.

Co-directors Bryna Wasserman (now based in New York) and Rachelle Glait (who once played Laya herself) have introduced several directorial touches that enhance the total effect. Jon Dinnng’s surrealistic geometric set seems inspired by the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Louise Bourret’s costume design of swirling black, grey and white robes, gowns and shawls captures the feel of the time and place.

The Segal is famous for the choreography of its shows and Jim White does not disappoint, whether in groups of revelers or little stage movements. Josh Dolgin’s haunting musical score is perhaps the unifying linchpin to this blend of creative talents.

The English and French supertitles are clear and easy to read.

Just as the famous New York ads proclaimed, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye,” so You Don’t Have to Speak Yiddish to Love Ansky’s Wry.

The Dybbuk continues until Aug. 27. For more information, call 514 739-7944 or go to

Images: Andrée Lanthier

Byron Toben is a past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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