A scene from The Dybbuk(Photo © Stefan Okolowicz)
A scene from The Dybbuk
(Photo © Stefan Okolowicz)
Five of the 13 actors in Krzysztof Warlikowski's retelling of The Dybbuk wander in at the same time as the audience and take seats in a row of metal chairs downstage. "We're you," they imply as they face out in street clothes and with casual expressions. One wears a yarmulke, already a striking -- not to say arresting -- image in a piece by a Polish theater company. Though Jews made up about 10 percent of Poland's population before World War II, the number is minuscule today. The anti-Semitism rampant in post-war Poland drove most of the surviving Jews across the borders; in Krakow recently, the official record listed 140 Jews.

So this isn't a performance piece developed with local B'nai Brith branches as its target audience. Quite the opposite -- and there's the problem that Polish director Warlikowski addresses in this spare, stunning piece. He's on record as saying, "If Poles do not start thinking about Jews in a different way, we will never be true to ourselves. Anything we say will be dishonest. Theater will be dishonest." Well, no charges of dishonesty will be leveled at this production -- not by theatergoers eager to see the latest in image-heavy European theater and/or wanting to give themselves over to the emotional stirrings that accompany scripts about the dark recesses of humankind's heart and soul. Warlikowski's intermissionless two-hour-plus theater piece, mounted by the TR Warszawa company, satisfies both cravings. The director delves deep; he's dealing with demons as represented in myth and mysticism, and with demons as metaphor. To establish his perspectives, he takes a contemporary version of Szymon Anksy's classic about a bride possessed by the spirit of a rejected suitor and melts it into a 1996 short story by Hanna Krall about a Holocaust dybbuk.

Before Warlikowski gets around to his play on and about dybbuks, he has the first-arrived seven performers tell stories with a Talmudic flavor and in a conversational tone. The stories are culled from collections by Shlomo Carlebach and Susan Yael Mesinai and by Zev Ben Shimon Halevi and deal with the fantastical, with the spiritual, with prayer shawls and imaginary fish. They're amuse-bouches for the cold feast to come when the actors vacate their seats and invade the large space that set designer Malgorzata Szczesniak has enclosed in one-story-high scaffolding and furnished with only a few tables and chests. (The lighting is by Felice Ross; the music by Pawel Mykietyn.) At the back, the walls are occasionally filled with animated projections that pun on gateways as entrances to Torah study. That's right, Warlikowski is generous with the Jewish lore. (Supertitles are flashed above the set in a translation from the Polish by Awiszaj Hadari.)

The familiar Dybbuk narrative is played with Lea (Magdalena Cielecka) in a contemporary bridal gown that Vera Wang wouldn't be ashamed to claim as hers. To register her madness at one point she presses her face against a downstage transparent divider and at another moment sheds her gown. She's stalked by Channan (Andrzej Chyra), the would-be groom whom her father refused to let her wed. It's when both of them lie naked in an upstage bed that Warlikowski lets loose a subtle coup de théâtre. Suddenly Channan and Lea are Adam S. and wife, mundanely post-coital. The bride lights a cigarette. The Hanna Krall story begins, and it's the tale of a man whose half-brother was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The dybbuk causing havoc for Adam S. (still Chyra, of course) is the brother he never knew. When he's offered the chance at successful exorcism, he can't bring himself to set his demon sibling free. By the way, a Bronx-born, crippled Jew turned Buddhist initiates the treatment Adam S. ultimately refuses. No, this is not your father's Dybbuk.

A scene from The Dybbuk(Photo © Stefan Okolowicz)
A scene from The Dybbuk
(Photo © Stefan Okolowicz)
Adam's making his startling decision is when Karlikowski's intentions kick in like a shot of schnapps. The director is not handling the material as if he's infected with Kabbalah fever as a result of Madonna's most recent poly-Esther detour. He's thinking long and hard and perhaps in pain from his own dybbuk about the Holocaust and the advisability of expunging the scarring memory of it. The message is completely clear: There are some demons we need to hold on to or risk losing our humanity. Elie Wiesel would approve, despite the continuing anguish such a conclusion promises. The statement is so psychologically complex it takes the breath away. With his piece, Karlikowski -- whose list of credits is astonishing -- joins the argument over the proper time to move on from the Holocaust. He comes down on the side of those who say that time has yet to come. He iterates his conviction with a final stage picture that'll go undivulged here but is at one and the same time profoundly troubling and greatly uplifting.

Declaring his staunch beliefs, Warlikowski involves his actors in a few obscure sequences. In theater pieces of this sort -- productions influenced by European experimental directors and by Robert Wilson -- there will be personal symbols. Shortly after The Dybbuk begins, two naked men in a steam-room battle. Maybe they're Jacob wrestling the angel or someone else wrestling with his conscience. It's an encounter echoed later when the Bronx Buddhist tries to extract Adam S.'s dybbuk, but its meaning remains obscure. Or maybe just redundant, just another demon tussle. The production as a whole is neither obscure nor redundant. It's eye-opening and vital.