July 20, 2019

Theatre dybbuk Explores Hell and Ritual Exorcism

From left, Rebecca Rasmussen, Jonathan C.K. Williams, Diana Tanaka, Rob Adler, Julie A. Lockhart (masked), Jenny Gillett, Nick Greene. Photo by Taso Papadakis

While you might expect hell, demons and ritual exorcism from a Halloween film festival, theatre dybbuk’s new show in Los Feliz, titled “hell prepared: a ritual exorcism inspired by kabbalistic principles, performed within a dominant cultural context,” positions these concepts as Jewish social commentary. 

The production, which depicts a descent into hell from a Jewish perspective, is inspired by the 17th-century narrative poem “Tofteh Arukh,” written by Moses Zacuto in the Jewish ghettos of Venice and Mantua, in northern Italy. Erith Jaffe-Berg, a theater, film and digital production professor at UC Riverside, found the text through an academic colleague of hers, professor Michela Andreatta, who had translated the text from Hebrew to Italian a few years ago. Jaffe-Berg began thinking about a possible translation and presentation in English. 

“I thought this was a text that deserved to be known by a wider circle of people,” Jaffe-Berg told the Journal. She thought immediately of theatre dybbuk and its founder and artistic director, Aaron Henne, as a “natural home” for it. 

According to the Philosophical Research Society’s website, “hell prepared” features “a landscape of choreographed movement, poetic text, shadow puppetry and choral scoring,” and “follows a spiritual leader as he endeavors to exorcise the dominant culture and its influence on his world. In the process, he is driven down through the pits of hell where he sees visions of a challenging past and an uncertain future.”

Jaffe-Berg said that theatre dybbuk’s adaptation uses “the earlier text [from the 17th century] as a symbolic mirror for viewing our own times. The company members added many of their own questions about assimilation, difference and the evolution of communities in terms of preserving and changing their own culture. The result is an enriching contemplation of how humans deal with change and culturally, ethnically, racially and religiously varying identities.”

“I’m getting more and more interested in American society’s questions of dominance and subjugation and power and looking for material that speaks to those concerns,” Henne said. 

“Good artistic work should upend our expectations, leave us thrilled or provoked or upset. That’s the way we forward our society.” — Aaron Henne

Jaffe-Berg said “hell prepared” is also about “how moments of cultural crisis necessitate communities to rethink their own identity and existence,” referring to Zacuto’s struggles after the period of Shabbetai Zevi, the false messiah. 

“This was a personal as well as a community crisis for Zacuto and others within the Jewish community,” she added. “In our own 21st-century American context with radical shifts in the results of recent elections, we are also facing questions about leadership and the process by which we elect our leaders. In that sense, the questions Zacuto asked himself may be resonant for us today.” 

A longtime theater artist, playwright and director, Henne has “experienced a variety of ensemble development practices,” he said, explaining theatre dybbuk’s collaborative process. Actors, choreographers, a musician/composer and a scholar when available meet regularly. Eventually, the script is “formed in the fire of those conversations,” he said. 

Jaffe-Berg actively participated in theatre dybbuk’s “hell prepared” meetings, “providing research, background information and input on the evolving text.”

Julie Lockhart, theatre dybbuk’s marketing and communications director, who is also a performer with the theater company, said, “I really appreciate the long process we have for developing our scripts and in the case of ‘hell prepared,’ the time we took getting up on our feet and playing in different forms [of physical theater, dance, shadow puppetry and performance] with the themes we’re exploring in the show.”

Henne said “hell prepared” is “probably more character-driven and classically plot-trackable” than some of theatre dybbuk’s previous work. Still, the style may be different for those who expect theater experiences to be either extremely realistic — a clear plot with relatable characters — or entirely abstract, where dance and visual art live, Henne said. “Our work lives in that space between, where we have some semblance of the things we recognize but are doing what music or dance does.”

Brad Culver, Tiffany Sweat; Photo by Taso Papadakis

A New Jersey native, Henne has seven generations of Ukrainian rabbis on his father’s side and briefly considered becoming a rabbi before disengaging Jewishly for most of his 20s. But in his 30s, art brought him back. His work with theatre dybbuk is an artistic rabbinic pulpit of sorts, forged in the 21st century. 

“We think of engagement as a line but it may be a circle,” he said. “I started to get these ideas. I pulled from the learning I had when I was younger, combined it with working with scholars and unpacking history to create work. … The act of creation was an act of learning. Learning to create made my learning rich and deep.”

Theatre dybbuk previously created and performed four other original, full-length theatrical pieces, as well as two original short pieces, plus numerous staged readings and community events. It has a number of partnerships and collaborations with sacred spaces, including Valley Beth Shalom.

Theatre dybbuk is a nonprofit supported by a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, with additional support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

If some audience members bristle at the style or content of a show, that’s part of the role art plays in the world, Henne said. “We think of provocation, upset or discomfort as being problematic. But good artistic work should upend our expectations, leave us thrilled or provoked or upset. That’s the way we forward our society. A push forward can sometimes be difficult, exposing the darkness. But we do a disservice to our humanity if we don’t explore and expose the darkness.”

“Hell prepared” is playing at the Philosophical Research Society, 3910 Los Feliz Blvd., the weekends of July 26-28 and Aug. 2-4. For more information, visit theatredybbuk.org.