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Habima Brings Together The Old And The New

July 9, 2009

While some state funding of the arts is, to my mind, an important way to keep a country's culture alive and kicking, one negative thing about state-sponsored theatre companies is that traditionally, they've been able to keep running productions of plays for way too long past their sell-by dates. Mothballed sets, going-through-the-motions actors and stale direction become hallmarks of shows that continue playing on the national dime. The fact is that people tend to become lazy when their bills are all being paid, or when the entity that's paying them decides that this or that production is representative of the best of the nation's culture and should therefore be presented in its original state, regardless of how stale and old-fashioned the work may have become.

In light of this, it's quite refreshing to experience Israel's National Theatre Company, Habima, performing its latest production of the great Jewish play by S. Ansky, The Dybbuk. The company (pictured above, left) opened its San Francisco run last night at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. To my mind, director Shmuel Shohat's production represents a perfect marriage between paying homage to tradition and keeping things bold and contemporary.

The Dybbuk was first performed in Moscow in 1920 by the Yiddish-speaking Vilna Troupe. Habima's Hebrew production, launched in 1922, immediately became a huge hit. The company kept the original staging in its repertoire for decades. (See above, right, for a 1922 production still of the actress Hannah Rovina as Leah, the daughter of a rich merchant, Sender, who becomes possessed by the spirit of her forbidden lover, the brilliant but tortured rabbinical scholar Chanan). Habima's latest staging evokes the 1920s original through its use of stark, Expressionistic makeup and Cubo-Futurist scenery, the centerpiece of which is a deeply-raked wooden table which later transforms into a graveyard. The actors turn up on stage as they would have 90 years ago, striding on with suitcases and proceeding to dress themselves and ready the performance area for the play.

In its use of puppets, this Dybbuk feels very new, however. Apparently the large-eyed, white-ethereal mannequins representing Leah and Khanan were inspired by Tim Burton's movie Corpse Bride. Intriguingly, Burton was in turn reportedly inspired by early productions of The Dybbuk. Other puppets used in the play for the comic characters including the rabbis and Leah's dim, milquetoast of a fiance, are made of foam with outsize, squishy, cartoon faces and tiny insect-limbs. These puppets are more reminiscent of Sesame Street or Muppet Show marionettes. In fact, the two curmudgeonly rabbis in the play remind me strongly of the Muppet Show's resident windbags, Statler and Waldorf.

The interactions between the puppet and human actors are powerful. Sometimes performers Ayelet Shadmon (Leah), Yaron Sancho Goshen (Sender) and Nimrod Eisenberg (Chanan) manipulate the puppets from behind the scenery, and cannot be seen. Elsewhere, they stand on stage with the puppets, but "keep out of the way" of the puppet actors. Meanwhile, in some of the production's most ghostly and arresting scenes, the human actors interact with the puppets, almost as if they are the human consciousness behind the characters. Every now and again, for example, the puppet Leah looks to the human actress holding her for what seems like a second opinion or verification of her actions. It's as if Shadmon is on stage coaxing on her puppet alter ego to trust in her feelings. There are even occasions when the human actors perform without puppets. Sender never appears in puppet form. Goshen plays him in a bravura style. Paradoxically, the only non-puppet character in the play is the most grotesque.

The effect of all of this is to disorient and delight the audience. A little girl sitting in front of me giggled in all the right places (and some of the ones where the adults were very quiet.) I felt like I was engaging in a piece of theatre history as well as being sucked wholeheartedly into the present moment. It was magic.

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