Curtain Calls

Review: 'The Dybbuk for Two People'
Love inhabits center stage in spirited production at JET

There was a moment early in the opening night performance of "The Dybbuk for Two People" at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre where I thought I was totally out of my element.
Being a good Catholic boy, I'm the first to admit that I'm not well versed in Jewish culture, customs and lore. (It's tough enough trying to keep my own highly ritualized religion straight – so to speak!) So when everyone around me joined actress Shelly Gaza in singing a Shabbos song I'd never heard before – totally without prompting, I might add – I had the sinking feeling that I'd be lost without a translator the rest of the evening.
That quickly passed, however, as I became more engrossed in the play's universal theme and its excellent performances. Sure, the production is filled with terms and concepts with which the average goy is probably unfamiliar, but one of the reasons good theater exists is to educate – not just entertain – and "The Dybbuk for Two People" accomplishes both quite well!
The production staged by JET is a modern adaptation of the Yiddish classic originally conceived by Scholem Ansky during the second decade of the 20th century. In this version, playwright Bruce Meyers reduces the cast of more than 30 characters to only two – well, three, really, thanks to some inspired concepts added to the mix by director Gillian Eaton – yet it never loses the meaning of the original. The result is a challenge for its two talented actors – Gaza and Loren Bass – and a delightful evening of theater for the rest of us.
It's a fascinating and worthwhile addition to a season that celebrates 350 years of Jewish life in America!
The play opens in a modern-day household as a Man and a Woman prepare their Shabbat (Sabbath) Table. The two go through the rituals, but the Man breaks down and admits he's only going through the motions; the celebration means nothing to him.
Surprised, the Woman tries to comfort and strengthen her husband with an old Jewish tale about another man and another woman – destined to be together – and the restless spirit that unites them – even if only for a moment.
To simply TELL the tale would be boring, of course, so Meyers' two characters (and the audience, I might add) take on the roles of all the villagers needed to bring the dybbuk's story to life. It's a fun and demanding style of theater – yet one fraught with danger: Each character must be distinct from every other, and the story's flow must never be hampered by set or costume changes.
What the script requires, then, is a director who can combine all of the show's elements – mystical, religious and otherwise – into a cohesive and understandable whole, and actors with the skills to deliver both the language and the characters in a totally believable fashion.
JET couldn't have done better on both counts!
Eaton's briskly-paced staging and creative vision serve the script well. The result is yet another finely-tuned production from this award-winning director.
Gaza and Bass have the unenviable task of speaking and singing Hebrew convincingly in this production and moving seamlessly – and sometimes quite quickly – from character to character. Both feats are accomplished with great skill. What's more, each is called upon to play both male and female roles – and both deliver characters that come vividly to life, each with a unique persona.
Daniel Kahn adds much color – musical and otherwise – to the production. The third in this two-person show, when an extra character is needed, he steps into it; when the moment calls for a tuneful underscore, he supplies it.
Sets by Monika Essen, lights by Michael J. Beyer and costumes by Mary Copenhagen all contribute to the spirit of the production, as well.
"The Dybbuk for Two People" Staged Wednesday through Sunday (excluding Friday) by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the DeRoy Theatre, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield, through Jan. 2. Tickets: $27 – $37. 248-788-2900.
The Bottom Line: A timeless love story well told by the Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company!

Review: 'Sister's Christmas Catechism – The Mystery of the Magi's Gold'
The Good Sister returns to solve centuries-old Christmas mystery

It's no mystery that Catholic-themed shows are popular in southeast Michigan, especially those that recall the "good old days" of Catholic school education. Nuns sell – a fact not lost on playwright Maripat Donovan who created the "Late Night Catechism" craze that's been sweeping the world.
Not content with "Late Night Catechism" and its popular sequel, "Late Night Catechism 2," Donovan returns to the convent for yet another round of rosaries and holy cards with "Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold," a new interactive comedy that made its Michigan premiere at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts this past week.
Donovan takes her traditional concept – the Good Sister is teaching an adult religion class – and mixes it with a mystery reminiscent of the "CSI" series of television shows. Add in some Christmas Carols – too many, actually – and a "living nativity scene," and the result is a holiday-themed production with plenty of laughs, yet not quite as satisfying as her earlier efforts.
Like the previous shows, Donovan generates much of the first act humor through Sister's modern-day interpretation of various ancient beliefs and practices. In the second half, however, Sister tries to solve a mystery that has always eluded her: Whatever happened to the gold given to the baby Jesus by the Magi?
So to investigate the case, Sister invites (or demands, in some cases) 10 people from the audience to come on stage and create a "living nativity" to determine which person present at the birth of Jesus had the motive, opportunity and proximity to swipe the expensive gift.
It's an interesting concept, one that delivers the best laughs of the evening. (You've never seen it all until you've watched a Magi cross the stage with a toilet lid cover on his head!)
What's missing from this production, however, is a slickness found in earlier productions. (As a brand new show, there are undoubtedly some wrinkles to be ironed out.) But more importantly, it's never clearly established who Sister is, where we are and why we're there. (Was such needed exposition dropped accidentally, or does Donovan assume everyone has seen the prior two shows?)
Actress Lisa Buscani – who previously wowed local audiences with her performance as Sister – seemed to struggle through much of the first act, but she was at her finest when improvising the living nativity. It's still a fine interpretation, one that will surely improve as she becomes more familiar with the material.
"Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold" Presented Tuesday through Sunday at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield, Clinton Twp., through Dec. 19. Tickets: $30. 586-286-2222.; then in the Music Box at The Max, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Dec. 21 – 23, 26 – 30 and Jan. 2. Tickets: $34. 313-576-5111.
The Bottom Line: Playwright Maripat Donovan and actress Lisa Buscani prove there's still plenty of Catholic material to mine in the "Late Night Catechism" series of interactive comedies!