Upper East-Side Dybbuk

In Yiddish, “besharet” means soul-mate. The soul-mate in question in Besharet, by Chana Porter, is the restless ghost of a girl who died many years before the actions of Besharet take their course. Drawing from Yiddish mythology – the Golem and Dybbuk legends in particular, and invoking anti-Semitic prejudice, the Holocaust and the 5000-years of suffering of the Jewish people, this play attempts to fuse all these elements in a work of magic realism, the Jewish edition. Samuel (William Tatlock Green) and Renee (Tia Stivala), his law partner, hire a new assistant, Eli (Macleod Andrews), who charms his new employers and inserts himself into Samuel's life. Eli fascinates and spooks Samuel with his knowledge of past events. Eventually Samuel convinces himself that Eli is “inhabited” by the ghost of his first love. At the same time, Eli inspires (and possibly impregnates) Ruth (Olivia Rorick), Samuel’s sickly wife. When Samuel disappears for several weeks, Eli manages the law office together with Renee, who is very pregnant.

By Act Two Ruth has recovered her health and female vitality. Dancing around the apartment, she holds forth to Renee about the nature of Jewish suffering and to Samuel about his uselessness as an emasculated (he had a vasectomy) man who cannot give her the child she craves. In a final tableau we find Ruth, Samuel, Eli (now in a woman’s dress in acceptance of his female soul) and Renee at the lake-side cottage where the love of Samuel’s youth had died and where she was given a water burial by Samuel and his father, who feared anti-Semitic persecution if the girl was discovered dead in their cottage.

Besharet kept my interest through the end of Act One, where the intrusion of Eli comes to its dramatic high point and Samuel’s anguish and guilt about his past reaches the point where he can no longer go on with his current life. In Act Two Ms. Porter attempts to show us the effect of the possessed Eli on the other characters, in scenes that are unconnected to the world of her characters as introduced. Some are outright dream scenes that are supposed to reveal the unmoored states of her characters. In others, Ruth, who at this point seems to be the author’s spokesperson, holds forth in long monologues about Judaism, its history of suffering, the power of women and their liberation from their emasculated male appendages (certainly no besharets there). It is not clear to me if Ruth has also become possessed as well, or at least discovered magical powers – she talks at length of her ability to create a child without a man.

The actors battle this unwieldy material bravely, with intensity and undeniable skill. One regrets that their efforts are not in the service of a better vehicle. The unit set designed by Eric Berninghausen is evocative, opening with an office setting that has the reeds of the lake-side cottage in the background; the many scene changes, however, executed by the actors, encumber the flow of the evening.

Besharet suffers from the author’s anxious attempt to fill it with all she holds dear and important. Since she lacks, despite a certain knack for story telling and dialogue, the skill to forge her ideas into dramatic scenes, she lets her characters tell us about them in long speeches. What is at its core a simple skeletons-in-the-closet with mysterious-stranger-as-catalyst domestic drama becomes overloaded with invocations that are rendered clichés here - 5000 years of Jewish suffering, blood libel, the holocaust, female power and the grace of forgiveness. True as they may be somewhere, they are used here to give a melodramatic story unearned gravitas.

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