Many people have suffered through long, tedious and not very memorable toasts at numerous weddings. Very few, however, can say they have listened to an 80-minute speech during such an occasion.
The toastmaster in The Dybbuk for Hannah and Sam’s Wedding, is the groom’s Uncle, Jerry (Ron Campbell). Full of life and energy, Jerry starts the night off with a few jokes and congratulating the newly married couple.
Out of the blue, he launches into a one-man interpretation of the early 20th-century Yiddish drama, The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds – Dybbuk being a Yiddish term for a malicious possessing spirit. The play within a play focuses on a young Jewish girl, Leah, who is about to enter into an arranged marriage to a man called Menashe. Their wedding becomes a nightmare after Leah is possessed by the spirit of her late boyfriend, Khanan.
In a solo show, a performer should enhance the story. When it comes to the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s premiere of The Dybbuk, it’s the other way around at first. Early scenes feel a little bit like Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding: Jewish Edition. A good portion of the viewers sit near Giulio Perrone’s set and take part in audience participation with Jerry. In the opening minutes, this comes across as gimmicky especially during Joe Huppert’s video montage of Hannah and Sam. Writer and director, Todd Salovey (San Diego Rep’s associate artistic director), wants theatregoers to be fully immersed into the story. However, the introduction at the Lyceum Space feels like filler before the plot begins.
Campbell plays the part of a boorish family member in a way that might connect with some of the families at Horton Plaza, and wears Anastasia Pautova’s attire like a person who doesn’t care what others think about his physical appearance. While his early dialogue goes on a little too long, Campbell’s comedy skills are fun to experience.
Salovey’s script really takes off after Campbell starts reenacting the events of S. Ansky’s classic tale. Salovey interprets Ansky’s prose in a way that is suspenseful to watch.
Even those not familiar with Ansky’s writing should find themselves glued to the stage as the plot features a timeless eeriness. Jerry often pauses the action to explain situations that might be alien to a gentile or non-observant Jewish crowd.
Once the wedding reception transforms into a metaphoric stage, Salovey’s direction is gleefully unrestrained. No one can guess where Campbell will go next as he moves briskly to different parts of the theatre.
Helping to bring emotion to Ansky’s plot are accordionist, Mark Danisovky, bassist, Tim McNalley and composer/fiddler, Yale Strom. Without drawing too much attention to themselves, the klezmer ensemble’s musical stylings range form playful to quietly intense.
After Khanan starts to take over Leah’s body, Salovey uses fantasy-like audio and visuals for the narrative. When Jerry portrays the deceased Khanan, he speaks with an intimidating voice with echoey effects from Huppert. In addition, Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting turns otherworldly as supernatural elements increase.
Since Ansky’s plot is so captivating, some might question at first why Salovey made the evening revolve around Jerry. That question is answered when information is revealed about Jerry’s personal life.
What Salovey accomplishes by creating Jerry is to remind everyone how art is able to be a reflection on reality. In a couple of moving sequences, Jerry discusses why Ansky’s classic is important to him. These moments humanize Jerry, which Campbell depicts with emotional earnestness.
Saolvey’s The Dybbuk offers plenty for fans of mystic and contemplative storytelling. Don’t let the hokey introduction be a dealbreaker. You’ll be rewarded for meeting the very funny and eccentric Jerry.