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LOOKING THROUGH GLASS at JRT is a darkly beautiful magical mystery, get your tickets early

THE BASICS: LOOKING THROUGH GLASS, a play by Ken Kaissar presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, directed by Saul Elkin, starring Zachary Bellus, Arin Lee Dandes, Angelo J. Heimowitz, David Lundy, and Tina Rausa, runs through June 2, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays off, Saturdays at both 4 and 8, Sundays at 2 at The Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville (650-7626). Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: LOOKING THROUGH GLASS is the story of a woman, “Leah,” who, on the eve of her wedding, is possessed by an apparently malevolent spirit known in Jewish folklore as a Dybbuk, which is seeking redemption in the afterlife. The play is an updated version of the 1914 Russian/Yiddish play about life in a shtetl titled “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds” by (pen-name) S. Ansky. The “two worlds” are this day-to-day world and the “other world” as described in the Jewish Kabbalah. Our retelling is set in modern-day Brooklyn where “Leah” age 31, is a doctor, single, living with her widowed mother, “Miriam,” who expects her daughter to marry a man she’s known since childhood, a conservative, respectable businessman, “Shmuel.” A chance (or is it?) meeting with “Jacob,” a handsome, young, long-haired, bearded, intense itinerant political activist who cares little about comfort and security, and who dabbles in mystical religion, immediately puts “Schmuel” and “Miriam” on high alert. The complications which follow are illuminated, shepherded, and explained by three men (all played by one actor, David Lundy): “An-sky” the scholarly playwright, “Rabbi,” and “Mordecai.”

Photo credit: Stephen Gabris

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Set on a bare stage with minimal props in the intimate, darkened three-sided JRT, LOOKING THROUGH GLASS is theater at its finest. We willingly suspend disbelief as we travel through time and astral planes. The sound (Tom Makar), the lighting (Brian Cavanagh), the costumes (Kari Drozd), particularly “Jacob” in his all-white suit, are stunning technical elements and yet they do not call attention to themselves, but rather focus the spotlight on the actors. And what actors they be!

Handsome young Zachary Bellus as “Jacob” moves on stage so smoothly that you can see why the sad eyes of Arin Lee Dandes as “Leah” light up when in his presence. The attraction of “Leah” to “Jacob” is frustrating to the man she is “supposed” to someday marry, the religiously and politically conservative jeweler “Schmuel,” or “Schmueli” as “Leah” affectionately calls him, well-played by Angelo J. Heimowitz. Tina Rausa, having just wowed audiences as the Jewish sculptor Louise Nevelson over at Burchfield-Penney, quickly stepped into the role of “Leah’s” watchful, protective mother “Miriam.” Rausa is always good, but here she is unbelievably moving as she sees everything she’s planned for coming apart before her very eyes. And David Lundy was spellbinding as he changes like quicksilver between the old, bow-legged mystical Jewish philosopher “An-sky” and the other two roles he takes on, the “Rabbi” who is in a bit over his head, and “Mordecai” who is Leah’s late father. The direction by Saul Elkin is sure and impressive as he takes this very dramatic story right to the edge of melodrama, but never crosses the line.

The Writing Cooperative, in an article titled “Top 12 Overused Story Tropes in Modern Literature” lists “The Love Triangle” as the number one commonly recurring literary and rhetorical device, motif or cliché. So why does this trope still work? Well, one reason might be apparent when the mystical philosopher An-sky asks: “What is the hardest sin to resist?” and quickly reveals that the answer is “Lust.” Now, if the words “sin” and “lust” put you off, think of the slogan “the heart wants what the heart wants” which implies that there are forces at work inside all of us which are beyond our control. And control, taking control and losing control, and questions of who or what controls us – our minds? our hearts? our culture and tradition? God? A dybbuk? our parents? our promises to others? our ancestors? – these are central to this play.

And, there is the Jewish concept of “beshmert.”

As the advertising slogan on the side of the bread trucks used to say “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s real Jewish rye,” you don’t have to be Jewish to be powerfully affected by this play. Still, here are some terms you might want to know:

Beshert can mean “destiny,” “inevitable,” or “preordained” perhaps as a result of divine providence but it’s often used to refer to the one person whom an individual is divinely destined to marry as in “You are my beshert.” So who, “Shmuel” or “Jacob,” is Leah’s beshert?

The Torah (Genesis – Exodus – Leviticus – Numbers – Deuteronomy) as given by God to the Prophet Moses contains 613 commandments including injunctions against murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual relations (remember “Lust?”).

Unlike Christians, who are defined by a faith commitment to Jesus Christ as the Messiah, what defines a Jew is more of an adherence to a culture, a language, and a way of life. That’s where The Talmud comes in, a collection of interpretations of the Torah written by, studied by, and commented on by rabbis over decades. The most famous interpreter of both the Torah and the Talmud was Maimonides, who was considered a rationalist. And so “Shmuel” would identify with the “Talmudic” tradition.

But during the time of Maimonedes there was an increasing influence of mystical Eastern notions into Jewish thought known as Kabbalah. Kabbalah is intended to show that separation from God is an illusion. Over time Kabbalah developed versions of the afterlife, similar to what Christians would call “heaven” and “hell.” Our businessman would consider Kabbalah outside his tradition.

Kabbalist concepts reached their most ornate descriptions in a book, which you will see on stage, called the Zohar, which explains that every person has three souls. Upon death, one is immediately reincarnated, one soul has to be slowly purified as it moves up through various levels, and one is so holy that it immediately goes to the Garden of Eden to be united with God.

So, Jews revere the Torah and are aware of the Talmud, even if they don’t know much about it other than their own family traditions; studying Kabbalah is seen by many as “a little bit out there;” but reading the Zohar could be considered somewhat threatening to an everyday Jew concerned mostly with just getting through the day. If you remember the language of the 1960s, the Zohar would be considered “Far Out, Man.”

Still with me? So, is there significance in the characters’ names? Of course there is.

The Bible tells of the twins Jacob and Esau who are seen as opposites. Jacob is clever and “smooth” and some say scholarly and Esau is the rough crude hunter. Jacob stole his brother Esau’s birthright. But he stole even more than that. Esau was supposed to marry Leah, Laban’s older daughter, and Leah’s younger sister, Rachel, was supposed to marry Jacob. But Leah was in not in love with Esau and she spent her days weeping and praying that God would let her marry Jacob instead. She got her wish through a deception played by her father. Oh, those tricky dads. On her wedding night Leah’s father pulled a fast one, and in the morning Jacob and Leah woke up married.

In the play the character Mordecai, is named after the Biblical prophet who, like Laman, was something of a tricky operator himself and his behind the scenes machinations to save the Jews are celebrated to this day. “Mordecai” on stage also has his ways of getting what he wants.

Shmuel is Hebrew for Samuel, who is venerated as a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. He is seen as a leader and an upright man. While our stage character “Shmuel” might not be a leader of men, he is certainly an observant Jew and from his behavior and the gushing approval of his future mother-in-law Miriam, we assume he’s also an upright fellow.

Miriam in the Bible was the older sister of Aaron and Moses, who became the bringers of the law. Miriam is patient, watchful, and loving, and it was she who watched and protected Moses as he was left adrift in the river Nile. Miriam then and Miriam on stage is the very personification of care and observance to Jewish law.

If you’ve read this far, you don’t have to know any of the above, but it might inform your appreciation of the play.

By the way, the title “LOOKING THROUGH GLASS” comes in an explanation that a mirror is nothing more than a pane of glass with one side coated in silver. One way you see others, add the silver and you only see yourself.

Also, if you enjoy this play, you might want to read or re-read the young adult novel Holes by Louis Sachar (or rent the 2003 Disney movie) about the trials and tribulations of young “Stanley Yelnats” of Latvian heritage whose story touches on themes such as family honor, arranged marriage, and the past affecting the present.

One minor quibble in the production was the very realistic, prop-heavy Shabbat meal table, with challah, and wine, and serving dishes that had to be rolled noisily off the stage. These actors don’t need complicated props. On the other hand, if that’s all I must complain about, you can assume this this is one riveting production. And it is.

Theater etiquette: I have expressed frustrations with cell phones intruding on the evening (and that goes for EVERY theater in Buffalo) and I am glad that others are speaking up as well. A fellow reviewer, blogging about her opening night experience at LOOKING THROUGH GLASS wrote: “Sidenote: this is intense and riveting theatre in a small, quiet, dark space. For the love of all things holy and mystical, before you enter this space, turn off your cell phones and keep them off.  All the way off. Not just the ringer. The whole device. No text that you may receive is all that important and your social media feed can wait. There were the usual distractions from audience members who put their need to stay connected above the respect live theatre deserves.”

We have a phrase in our family: “Off-off.” Let’s hope it catches on.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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