Review: The Dybbuk (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto dazzles audiences with a mesmeric ghostly tale

The Dybbuk by S. Ansky is one of the most famous Yiddish plays in existence and the new production, an adaptation by Anton Piatigorsky, brings it to life with Soulpepper‘s trademark technical wizardry and attention to beauty. I’m being a bit funny using the term “brings it to life”, as the play is concerned with death, the afterlife, and the condition of the immortal soul.

Immediately as the play begins, an environment of fear and oppression is set as a terrified man reviews the series of pogroms the shtetl has suffered in preceding years. He is afraid because he has seen a stranger (Diego Matamoros) — a rare thing in the small community — and wonders whether the new person is a threat or is instead a saint and the man will be punished for not making him welcome.

A lively feast scene then sets up an unspoken love between a young man and woman, bringing in a musical motif that will recur throughout the show. Integrating music, including live instrumentation and song, with the action is one of Soulpepper’s many strengths.

The narrative becomes slow after this as men sit around in the synagogue telling folkloric tales of rabbis with supernatural powers and then gossiping about a rich neighbourhood man, Sender (Alex Poch-Goldin), who finds elaborate excuses to keep his daughter from being married.

The play was written sometime between 1912 and 1919, set likely in the 1890s, and is rife with very specific references to Ashkenazi Jewish history and mythology. Though at the time I felt like it was taking too long to delve into dramatic territory, in retrospect I’m glad that it included history that is important in itself, as well as providing context for the ensuing plot.

Once the story gets spooky it’s a thrilling ride to the end. A “dybbuk” is a ghost that possesses a living person, and Soulpepper skillfully uses special effects and stagecraft to produce the element of horror. Leah (Hailey Gillis), Sender’s daughter, becomes possessed with the soul of a man (Colin Palangio) and speaks with a doubled voice that must have required incredible timing. A trap door, crowds of people, and tablecloths conspire to make phantom characters appear and disappear with the deftness of a magician’s sleight of hand.

Later on there is a trial where the accuser is another dead man, conjured by a jury of rabbis, furthering the spectral nature of story and providing interesting insight into old school Jewish concepts of justice and mysticism. It seems like the danger of dead souls was very real to the Ashkenazis at the turn of the century; why shouldn’t it be, when they lived on land repeatedly soaked in the blood of their people via the aforementioned pogroms?

One of the shows I have loved best in my theatre-going life was Soulpepper‘s Of Human Bondage, and in my review I talked about their use of light and shadow. Those techniques are in full force in The Dybbuk as well, contributing greatly to a stunning finale.

In conversation afterward my companion and I agreed that we were glad we had a basic understanding of Jewish history before going into the play – i.e, we already knew what pogroms, shtetls, Kabbalah, the Talmud, etc. were. So if those words are unfamiliar to you, you may want to bone up a little before seeing The Dybbuk. Even if you don’t though, I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed with the look, sound, and feel of the production once the ghost story takes over the plot.


Photo of William Webster, Hailey Gillis, Alex Poch-Goldin & Leah Cherniak by Cylla von Tiedemann