In an interview about his daring, intermittently powerful adaptation of The Dybbuk, Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski says he “wanted to see this text ripped from Jewish folklore” and placed “within the frame of our present thinking and present spirituality.” A casualty of this revision, created for a post-Neighbors Polish audience, is the Mipney Ma, the traditional song which opens and closes the play: “Why, oh why did the soul plunge/From the upmost heights/To the lowest depths?/ The seed of redemption is contained within the fall.”
Ansky conceived The Dybbuk during a two-year expedition through Eastern Europe that he called “a survey of Jewish life on a national scale if not larger”a term only slightly less hyperbolic and elusive than “present spirituality.” Though he gathered 1,800 folktales, 1,500 folk songs, and 1,000 melodies in his travels, the world of The Dybbuk was already disappearing, and Ansky set his play in the past.
Warlikowski has no time for nostalgia: His spirit haunts a modern, minimalist landscapemore Godot than Fiddlerwhere God cannot be taken for granted. The last line in Ansky’s play, just before the song, is spoken by the mysterious, nearly omniscient Messenger, “Blessed is the true Judge.” Warlikowski refuses to offer any such certainty.
Still, Warlikowski can’t escape the religious content woven so deeply into the original text. For Ansky, transformation of Khonen from lovelorn scholar to dybbuk had as much to do with his dangerous embrace of Kabbalah as the pains of unfulfilled longing; at BAM he died in a tantrum of ecstatic, uncontrolled sexuality, stomping on the ground and screaming to the heavens. It should have worked better than it did, in part because without the traditional frame, Khonen’s ravings sound like meaningless madness.