It happened more than six decades ago, but the Shoah still haunts and possesses us. In British playwright and director Julia Pascal’s Holocaust-themed reworking of S. Anski’s surrealistic play, “The Dybbuk,” to be presented beginning next week by the Theater for the New City, the overtaking of a girl’s body by the spirit of her dead lover assumes new echoes and reverberations in the wake of the destruction of the Jews of Europe.
When Pascal’s production premiered in London in 1992, John Peter of the Sunday Times lauded its “raw and unforced reality that is grief-stricken and well as proud.” Thomas Kampe choreographed the dance sequences, while Juliet Dante, Stefan Karsberg, Adi Lerer, Simeon Perlin and Anna Savva are featured in the cast.
Pascal grew up in Manchester and Blackpool as the granddaughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. After a visit to Germany in the 1990s, she felt an “incredible absence, an emptiness of Jewish life and culture.” In “The Dybbuk,” a British Jewish woman named Judith imagines five Jewish residents of an unnamed ghetto being thrown together in an underground room as they await deportation to Auschwitz. As rapid-fire shooting takes place overhead, the terrified group acts out dimly remembered scenes from chasidic myths about the dybbuk, the supernatural creature that cleaves to the body of a living person.
Kampe, the son of a Wehrmacht veteran, studied with the celebrated Austrian Jewish dancer Hilde Holger. As in Michal Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film version, which contains a Dance of Death sequence during the prenuptial celebration, the possession of the girl’s body is expressed through an expressionistic dance. The staging is simple, with ladders, buckets and wooden pallets used to create a forbidding landscape infused with mystical elements drawn from the Kabbalah.
“The Dybbuk,” which has been performed in Germany, Poland, Sweden and Belgium, is the third in a trilogy of works about the Holocaust. The first two plays are “Theresa,” about a Jewish woman living in the Channel Islands during the Nazi occupation, and “A Dead Woman on Holiday,” set during the Nuremberg trials.
The playwright often reinterprets classic works in radical ways, such as in “St. Joan,” a satire about a black Jewish woman in London who dreams that she is Joan of Arc. While she has never had a play produced here before, some of her plays are set in New York, including “The Yiddish Queen Lear,” an updating of Jacob Gordin’s Yiddish adaptation of Shakespeare, and “Woman on the Bridge,” about a middle-aged Londoner who resolves to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
In an interview from London, Pascal told The Jewish Week that she is entranced by the “forbidden territories” that we carry within us, “dream worlds and imaginative worlds, our fantasies, and our creative and artistic impulses” — worlds filled, she noted, with danger, excitement and eroticism. “How thin our veneer of civilization is,” she remarked, “how thin the line between sanity and madness.”
“The Dybbuk” will be performed through Aug. 25 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue between Ninth and 10th avenues. For tickets, $15, and schedule information, call SmartTix at (212) 254-1109 or visit www.dreamupfestival.org.