Dead Souls

I sit on your grave: Leye (Angela Haigh) in University Theatre's production of <I>The Dybbuk</I>

I sit on your grave: Leye (Angela Haigh) in University Theatre's production of The Dybbuk

There is a new goddess in Paris. Her creed is liberty, and her price fresh necks upon which to bestow her kiss. Even the king bows to receive her benediction (her creed is also equality, for all men look much the same below the collar). So we are introduced to Mary Worth Theatre Company's gothic epic of the French Revolution. The messenger, Marie Antoinette (Rhonda Lund), already has her date at the altar set. Her message articulates the theme of Mary Worth's feverish vision: Murder, once released from Pandora's box, serves no one. Thus revolutions are born, and become slaughters of the innocent.

The Gods Are Thirsty takes its name from an essay by Camille Desmoulins, who saw in the Aztec culture of ritual sacrifice a correlative for the savagery of the Reign of Terror, during which some 17,000 French citizens were separated from their shoulders. Like the crumbling Aztec empire, Desmoulins posited, the New Republic was a society spun wildly from its moral axis. In his recreation, director and designer Joel Sass makes use not only of Desmoulins, but also Peter Weiss's Marat Sade, Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, and Hilary Mantel's sprawling historical novel A Place of Greater Safety. Though often lauded for their high-camp aesthetic, Mary Worth proves with this latest production that their metier is inspired thievery: As Theatre de la Jeune Lune often does in its original productions, Sass borrows liberally from a trove of textual forebears to construct his tale. The result is, as might be expected, both relentlessly imaginative and barely under control.

If, as Desmoulins asserts, the Reign of Terror was actually the work of a secular cult of human sacrifice, its high priest is Joseph Fouché (Stephen Cartmell), chief of Robespierre's secret police and handmaiden of the revolution. Along with his reptilian aide-de-camp, Mordu (Jodi Kellogg, looking dangerous indeed in leather and tinted glasses), Fouché holds court in a dank Paris cellar where unhealthy green light struggles to pierce the gloom and long shadows fall upon decaying rococo. In a nice irony, Fouché is actually a fallen priest. Now, however, his faith is in the rhetoric of the revolution, and his daily ablutions performed in the blood of aristocrats. He has been commissioned to dispatch Marie Antoinette, incarnation of corrupt royalty. But, we learn, the deposed queen has somehow managed to escape. If he cannot recover her within the span of one night, Fouché must let his mistress, a royal look-alike named Nenette (Ann Michels), go to the ax in the queen's stead.

Fouché, as inhabited by Cartmell, is both more conflicted and more loathsome than his bloody business necessitates. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that the officer's teachers scorned him for his rigid and ascetic nature. "Do you think you are a saint?" one priest asks him before administering a lashing. This unholy admixture of faith, ambition, and brutality has made Fouché a dedicated misanthrope. His emotional poverty, he says, is like "a fist in his chest," consuming his already meager supply of human compassion and driving him to cold-blooded slaughter. As the gaunt but preternaturally intense Cartmell careens about the wreckage of his temple, he perfectly captures Fouché's disharmony: Here is a fire devouring itself. Saving Nenette, for whom he seems to have some genuine affection, represents a final chance at salvation.

Though the political intrigues of Paris and the agonies of Fouché's immortal soul are enough to keep Mary Worth's tale interesting, Sass and company add a creepy gothic veneer with some nifty low-budget mise en scène. In one recurring interlude, the cast flops around in a danse macabre--a sort of waltz with pantomime decapitation. In another, a troop of soldiers burst through the doors of an enormous cabinet, where, minutes before, a decadent spy (Jeffery Goodson) was discovered holing up with a bottle of wine and two inflatable demimondaines. Though Sass's visual imagination occasionally gets the better of his narrative, the apocalyptic aesthetic underlines the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the revolution. Liberty, equality, and fraternity, we're reminded, are so much hollow demagoguery without compassion.


For pure narrative sprawl, Mary Worth's epic has nothing on The Dybbuk, the classic of the Yiddish theater now making a rare appearance at the University of Minnesota under the direction of Stephen Kanee. Written by S. Ansky in 1913 and revived only a few times thereafter, The Dybbuk is of a scale that would put most small theater companies on the street. For that reason alone--and it is, unfortunately, a lonely reason--the University's current production is worth seeing.

Although it is deeply rooted in Hasidic culture and cabalistic cosmology, The Dybbuk was once a favorite of Marxist Russia. The play's puzzling popularity may lie in the fact that it largely dispenses with bourgeois notions such as character and dialogue in favor of a grand Gogolian tangle (the most obvious comparison might be the rambling social survey-cum-satire of Dead Souls). Also like Gogol's most famous novel, Ansky's play has often been interpreted as a polemic on the exploitation of the proletariat. Indeed, the moribund inhabitants of the play's dreary, half-lit shtetl are sharply divided between the mystical, symbolized by the Messenger (Shanan Edelheit), and the material, symbolized by the bourgeois Sender (Eric Severson). Nevertheless, The Dybbuk is less a political treatise than an eerie fantasia (in Russia, the distinction always seems negligible).

In brief: A dybbuk--the wandering soul of a dead person--inhabits the body of a girl (Angela Haigh) on her wedding night, and rudely refuses to vacate. When a flock of rabbis--all bearded, all enigmatic--orchestrate an eviction by exorcism, they discover that the sins of the girl's father may be responsible for the ghostly squatter. In the climax of the exorcism, the rabbinical ghostbusters summon the litigious dead to air their grievances in religious court (this scene, among many in Ansky's play, might lend itself to a lighter, perhaps even farcical, staging). In the University Theatre's orthodox production, all is dry and steady. If one were feeling ungenerous, one might conjecture that Ansky's restless spirits might be causing mischief largely out of boredom.

Admittedly, it's laudably ambitious to resurrect a play like The Dybbuk. Nevertheless, though Haigh, as the possessed, dispossessed heroine, summons some real terror in her scenes, her efforts are hampered by a leaden pacing that heaps gravitas on what is already a bewildering and relentlessly dour period piece. Where's Linda Blair when you need her?