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THEATER REVIEW: "The Dybbuk" has fine acting, production values

Human possession, marriages “meant to be” and lovers separated in life and united in death are time-honored notions not specific to any one group.

In the Jewish tradition, possession is accomplished not by a monster but by a person – specifically, a dybbuk, the spirit of a person whose life was cut off before his work could be completed. This spirit wanders until it enters a living person, where its work will at last be finished.

S. Ansky (born Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport in 1863 in the Russian Pale of Settlement) was an ethnographer, activist, folklorist and poet. He was also the author of the best-known Yiddish play “The Dybbuk,” first staged two months after his death in 1920.

UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance presents Joachin Neugroschel’s translation of “The Dybbuk” through Nov. 19 at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre on campus.

This is a long play with a lot of extraneous verbiage, but the basic plot goes like this: two college buddies vowed that when they married, if one had a son and the other a daughter, those children would marry.

It was so, and when Khonen (Jack Mikesell) meets Leah (Taylor Shurte), it’s love at first sight. But Leah’s father Sender (Daniel Rubiano), unaware of Khonen’s parentage, instead signs an engagement pact with a richer man.

Khonen dies on hearing this, becomes a dybbuk and possesses Leah, for whom exorcism is ordered. The story ends well only in the sense that Leah and Khonen are united in death as they were not in life.

Director Joshua Kahan Brody, a second-year MFA candidate, does a fine job of giving this talky play a little action and visual drama with actor placement and dance (choreographed by Anya Cloud). He’s also helped immeasurably by Mary Rochon’s phenomenally inventive costumes.

The actors are universally fine, headed by Mikesell and Shurte as the ill-fated lovers. Jennifer Putney is excellent as The Messenger, a mystical Greek chorus-like character with fantastic costumes and some influence on the action.

Megan Robinson’s Fradde (Leah’s old nanny and a wondrously calming influence) even calmed me down. Hannah Larson is fine in the underwritten part of Fradde’s compatriot Gitl.

“The Dybbuk” touches many bases and covers many concepts – love, death, obedience, breaking vows, evil among them. While this version (which runs two and a half hours) would be improved by a cut of at least 30 minutes, it is worth seeing for its fine acting and production values.

The details

“The Dybbuk” plays through Nov. 19 at UCSD’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre.

Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Saturday, Nov. 12, at 2 pm.

For tickets visit HERE or call (858) 534-4574.