‘The Dybbuk’ has been adapted from a 1914 play by Igor Golyak, founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre.

‘The Dybbuk’ showcases how throughout history, Jews have lived ‘Between Two Worlds’

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‘The Dybbuk’ showcases how throughout history, Jews have lived ‘Between Two Worlds’

‘The Dybbuk’ has been adapted from a 1914 play by Igor Golyak, founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre.

Igor Golyak, founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theatre, was an 8-year-old growing up in Kyiv – then part of the Soviet Union – when his family gave him news that would change the trajectory of his life.

They told him that he was Jewish.

Because the practice of Judaism was suppressed by the state, Golyak had never even heard of Jews. His family moved to Boston in 1990 when he was 11 and – other than returning to Moscow to study theater after graduating from high school – he has called the area home since.

In 2009, he founded Arlekin Players, a Needham-based company of mostly Jewish immigrants from the former USSR. It has risen to national and international acclaim, especially since the pandemic and the launch of its ground-breaking Virtual Theater Lab in 2020. The New York Times recently cited him as “among the most inventive directors working in the United States.”

Although Golyak has said he never thought he would be a “Jewish theater director,” the company has increasingly presented works that underscore themes of immigration, antisemitism, displacement, and Jewish cultural and religious identity.

“It’s what’s happening in our world and in my community. I’m Jewish. These are things that I’m trying to understand. These ideas and questions have captured my attention, my imagination and, at least right now, is what’s compelling to me,” he told the Journal by email.

Right after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Arlekin Players launched its Jewish Plays Initiative with the goal of shedding light on voices and stories that aren’t being heard; on pain points that are misunderstood; on ideas that are silenced; and on the “beautiful culture of a people that needs to be shared and celebrated.”

“The Dybbuk,” its latest project, was adapted by Golyak and Rachel Merrill Moss and will celebrate its U.S. premiere in partnership with the Vilna Shul, Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, from May 30 through June 23.

Steeped in Jewish tradition, folklore, and mysticism, “The Dybbuk” – also known as “Between Two Worlds” – is one of the most widely produced plays in the history of Jewish theater. It was written in 1914 by the Russian S. Ansky and is based on the mystical concept from Hassidic Jewish folklore of the dybbuk, a disembodied human spirit that wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person.

In Ansky’s work, a young girl’s father refuses to let her marry her lover, betrothing her to another more worthy suitor. The rejected suitor dies of heartbreak, and his spirit enters the body of his beloved. The two eventually reunite supernaturally.

It is the account of two suspended souls trapped between two worlds, tethered to each other yet also displaced. To Golyak, the tale of these disoriented young people is particularly pertinent.

“Isn’t this where we live? As Jews, as immigrants? It’s where we so often have lived as Jewish people for centuries: between worlds. It’s our story – ancient and mystical, the story of our ancestors, but also our story of living in America today,” he said.

While researching “The Dybbuk,” Golyak learned that its original production in Poland was performed by the Vilna Troupe. When he visited the Vilna Shul in Boston for the first time last fall, he was struck by its history, architectural details, and layers of paint, murals, and Judaica. He could feel the company of several generations, from those Eastern European immigrants who built the shul at the turn of the last century to those who use the space today.

As the only surviving landmark of Boston’s immigrant Jewish past, he knew it would be the perfect space to share “The Dybbuk.”

Elyse Winick, director of arts and culture at the Vilna, hopes the audience will gain a deeper sense of the 1919 shul that is both a performance venue and a living museum. “This is a rare opportunity to synthesize those two aspects of our identity, deepening both the power of seeing the play and the significance of this extraordinary piece of Boston’s Jewish history,” she said by email.

“For us, it is as if the souls of the Polish Vilna Troupe have taken refuge in the Vilna Shul and then come forward to share this tale,” Golyak added.

Golyak’s professional and personal lives overlap, his Jewish identity informing both. In an October 2023 article for WBUR, he wrote in support of Israel and expressed shock at the silence from others in the theater world. “I don’t know if I am an American, or a Ukrainian, or if I am somehow an Israeli, but I know that I am a Jew,” he wrote. “The more we are hated, the more I feel I am a Jew.”

He believes the theater is important as a place where people can experience others’ truths and wrestle with that exposure. “With war, brokenness, displacement, and a rise in antisemitism happening around us, I want to do plays that help us see each other and untangle how we do what we do as human beings,” he said.

In a world where unexplainable hatred exists, he is concerned about his children and the future they may face. “They should be proud of their identity. They are part of a people who feel deeply, think wisely, laugh abundantly, innovate and invent, and will always gather and share food, music and stories,” he said. “They belong wherever they are. And no matter what, they can survive and thrive.” Θ

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit arlekinplayers.com.

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