The ghostly and the ghastly haunt two stages at the Plex just now--one a folk tale metamorphosed into coolly intellectual high art, the other a literary classic mutated into a pop musical. Tony Kushner's adaptation of S. Ansky's A Dybbuk offers a rare window into nineteenth-century Hasidic culture with its tale of spirit possession and love regained. Jekyll & Hyde is a monstrous revisionist version of Robert Louis Stevenson's moral story of a doctor's attempt to isolate and cure human evil in the brain. All that's missing this time around is the "moral."
The movies do a better job of scaring us--but theatrical ghosts are usually classier. The wandering soul in A Dybbuk is certainly an elegant specter. The story concerns a poor man, Chonen, who is driven by forces he doesn't understand to find his predestinated bride. But her greedy father has neglected an ancient promise he made to the boy's father and has instead arranged the marriage of his daughter Leah to a patently unsuitable rich man. In his despair, Chonen pries into the dark side of the Jewish mystical text, the Kabbalah. And in between saying the wrong words and fasting to the point of anorexia, the poor lad dies, his soul sent to wander the earth in torment.
Leah, too, fasts and resists her arranged marriage; she even runs to the graveyard to call her dead mother's spirit to the wedding. And it's there that Chonen's soul slips into her body. Leah's distraught father responds by taking her to a great rabbi for exorcism. But sometimes destiny takes a hand.
The show is beautifully designed. Andrew V. Yelusich's fabulous set is one of the best things about the show; his simple and elegant wooden wall and distressed wooden stage evoke both the sacred precincts of a synagogue and the terror of a cemetery. Better yet is the lighting design by Don Darnutzer, who makes the Talmud and the mystical signs of the Kabbalah appear eerily on stage in ghostly gray forms. And the choreography by Annie-B Parson delights the eye with ancient dance and ritual forms.
But while always handsome, the whole production seems somewhat labored, as if the cast were uncomfortable with the play's spiritual dimension. The one exception is Mark Margolis as The Messenger, who comments on the action, underscores the moral dilemma and acts as mediator between the action and the audience. His alternately cool objectivity and warm involvement embody the spirit of the play.
Melia Bensussen's heavy-handed direction, though intellectually absorbing, is never emotionally riveting. The show looks terrific and the information about Hasidism is wonderful, but this production just doesn't capture the spirit of its sacred subject. The first act drags on too long--we get lots of data but very little action. The second act moves much more quickly and, again, design elements are used magnificently. Maybe the fault lies in the translation, or maybe the play just can't leap the culture gap, but the characters are types rather than persons. That may work well enough in fairy tales, but we really need to know the principal characters in a ghost story if we hope to feel the spirit move us.
Still, A Dybbuk is at least lovely to look at, something that can't be said for the emphatically ugly Jekyll & Hyde. That ugliness may have been intentional given that this is a play about a serial murderer. But it's still hard on the eyes. The set is all steel and chicken wire--more appropriate for the twentieth than for the nineteenth century. And that, sadly, sums up the whole problem of this time-warped show.
Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic tale of horror came to him in a dream. The classic story questioned the power of science and its amoral desire to further itself, to experiment despite the consequences. It also spoke to human fascination with evil--and how such a fascination, no matter how nobly inspired, could lead directly to hell on earth.
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It's perhaps not surprising that casting Stevenson's story as a musical cheapens the author's vision. The music itself is a pale imitation of Andrew Lloyd Webber (whose Phantom of the Opera may have sparked this effort by Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse). I kept thinking of a Simpsons parody in which the TV cartoon characters performed a musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
But though Bart and Homer may be infinitely preferable to Dr. Jekyll's self-pitying rants, there are a few good tunes and some excellent pop voices. The two women in the cast--Christiane Noll as Jekyll's good-girl fiancee, Lisa, and Linda Eder as Hyde's bad-girl victim, Lucy--are particularly stunning. Robert Cuccioli, too, is an accomplished performer who moves from Jekyll to Hyde with plenty of melodramatic glamour.
The real problem lies in the simpleminded script and its ripoff of Stevenson's superior work. Instead of questioning the arrogance of scientists bent on their own ends, the musical implies that science has its necessities and its rights. Fiancee Lisa has a song in which she declares what a strong woman she is--gratuitous PC platitudes that lead nowhere and are later proven quite baseless by the events of the story. Hyde has evolved here into a socially acceptable serial murderer--a guy who, after all, only assassinates hypocrites. Worse yet, Jekyll respects Hyde because Hyde "loves life." How the playwrights square this love of life with cold-blooded murder is hard to fathom.
Jekyll does succeed as spectacle at odd moments, such as in a terrific full-company number called "Murder, Murder!" when lighting, dance and music come together powerfully. The very best moment of the show comes near the end, when a rear-screen projection of Hyde (a menacing green image blown up to Wizard of Oz size) sings about his intention to cling to Jekyll's soul forever. It's a terrific special effect that stays with the viewer for a long time--frighteningly longer than anything else in this production.