Teibele and the Demon

Reviewer's rating

Teibele and Her Demon first appeared in 1963 in the form of a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It tells of a 33-year-old Jewish woman whose husband deserts her after the deaths of their three children. That makes her an “aguna” who can neither divorce nor remarry until proof of her runaway husband’s death is offered, but he is never to be heard of again. Alchonon, a teacher’s helper, sneaks into her house one night and presents himself as a demon named Hurmizah. The two embark upon a steamy affair, offering each other respite from their hard and very lonely lives. Teibele never suspects that the demon who excites her with stories about his conquests in the underworld is the poor man in ragged closes whom she sometimes sees in the street. When Hurmaizah stops coming at the very same week that Alchonon dies after catching a cold, she believes that she was deserted yet again. Teibele is left alone with her secret, which she never shares with anyone.

In 1979, one year after Singer won the Nobel Prize, a play loosely based on his story opened on Broadway. It was written by Singer and Eve Friedman and featured F. Murray Abraham in the role of Alchonon. The New York Times called it “a disappointment” and It closed after 12 previews and 25 performances. An Israeli adaptation of the play did better when it was performed at Habima Theatre in Israel in 1985.

The version now presented by the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem is a whole new adaptation. The original story was reworked by Roni Sinai, who added songs (composed by Lior Ronen) and new characters to give this tale, set in a small Jewish village in 1880s Poland, a folksy atmosphere. It also offers a sweeter ending. Teibele (Natalie Eliezerov) is now a young and naïve bride, who is deserted by a closeted gay husband shortly after their wedding. As in the American play, she has a lively friend, here named Gitel (Suzanna Papian), who shares her secret and is happy to believe in ghosts, as it supplies her with an explanation for the early deaths of her two husbands. There is also Menashe, a shy baker’s helper (Itay Shore) who loves Gitel, a crow (Shachar Netz) and a klezmer band.

Alchonon is the only character that was more or less lifted from the story as is, and he is beautifully played by Vitali Friedland in a quiet performance that seamlessly combines humour and emotion. The most shrewd and creative choice of this adaptation is the addition of a storyteller, in the form of the devil himself. If needs, he also stands in for some minor characters, such as the bookseller who gives Teibele a book of ghost stories that inspires Alchonon’s prank. The devil is nicely played by the veteran actor Yehoyachin Friedlander, who adds some knowing presence to the light, and a little too slight, affair.

The tale is filled with potential for comedy, longing, desperation and eroticism. The production, directed by Shirily Deshe, has more of the first, and a little less of the rest, though it does have a couple of inspired ideas and tender moments. There’s a fine build-up to the union of the two misérables, but the stylized suggested sex scene doesn’t quite achieve full bloom.  The audience, happy to return to the theatre after a year-long Covid lockdown, responded very well to the comedy. Some of the humour was endearing, but when Menashe and Gitel became aware of the “demon” and tried an exorcism, the play transformed, at least for a while, into a silly comedy of errors.

The stage, designed by Frieda Klapholz Avrahami, is almost bare, except for a bed and a window that seems to float in the air. An image of a dark forest in the background suggests the subconscious from which this tale erupted. All in all, this production offers a pleasant pastime, but it doesn’t leave a lasting impression.