The adroit and tangy puppet show “The Dybbuk Between Two Worlds” tells of a spooky tug of war between the natural and supernatural realms. But the “two worlds” of the title could also be the spheres of high and pop culture. One moment from this entertaining Israeli production finds a menacing, mist-shrouded human figure — face luridly lit, limbs oddly contorted — clambering up a surface that’s skewed like a crooked tooth. It’s an image that might be at home in a German expressionist film.
But here’s another moment: a comic palaver between puppets whose huge, colorful felt heads feature wide eyes and broad, hingelike jaws. If you weren’t sitting in the Shop at Fort Fringe, you might swear you were watching “The Muppet Show.” Two puppets in particular, though dressed in the garb of a long-ago Eastern European Hasidic community, distinctly resemble the balcony-seat hecklers Statler and Waldorf.
This bold melding of styles and tones adds to the energy and accessibility of “The Dybbuk,” a work commissioned by the Habima National Theater of Israel and adapted by director and designer Shmuel Shohat from S. Ansky’s classic early 20th-century play. On Thursday night, the hour-long puppet piece helped kick off Fall Fringe, the performing arts festival produced by Capital Fringe for the pumpkin-and-leaf-blower season.
Running through Nov. 18 at three indoor venues at Fort Fringe, this year’s Fall Fringe features 13 productions, of which a dozen are either encore versions of summer Fringe successes or new works by past Fringe artists. The offerings include “R.U.X. (Rockwell’s Universal seXbots),” from Surly Robot Presents, a comic hit of Capital Fringe 2012; “Double Consciousness Redux,” a movement-infused piece by writer/performer Holly Bass; and “The Brontes,” by frequent Fringe participant Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue.
To this lineup, “The Dybbuk” — running through Sunday — adds an extra dollop of humor, cosmopolitanism and profundity. Speaking in Hebrew — there are English surtitles — but also making expressive use of mime and movement, three actor-puppeteers rollick through Ansky’s story, which tells how a dybbuk (a discontented, disembodied spirit) possesses a young bride named Leah in the aftermath of a broken vow.
The action unspools on and around a slanted altarlike slab that becomes, by turns, a desk, a banquet table, part of a synagogue and a graveyard. Sometimes the performers hide behind the slab, allowing the puppetry to do the talking, as when village men try, and fail, to put some backbone into Leah’s nincompoop fiance, a chirpy-voiced Fozzie Bear type.
At other times, the performers remain in view so that the two shapes — human and puppet — create an eerie doubling effect. Willowy human-size puppets with huge eyes stand in for Leah and her soulmate, Chanan, for instance, but performers Miriam Kirmaier and Nimrod Eisenberg sometimes act the characters, too. (Eisenberg also channels the dybbuk.) A nifty exorcism scene exploits both modes: Puppet Leah swoops between the two performers like an off-balance figure in a Marc Chagall work. (Shohat has acknowledged riffing on Chagall, the expressionists and the Muppets.)
The human-puppet interactions can be comic, too. Performer Yaron Goshen does a wicked impression of Sender, Leah’s avaricious father (who practically smacks his lips upon receiving cash as a wedding present). But Goshen also animates a puppet version of a rabbi character, and, at one point, the puppet rabbi grabs Sender’s nose, leading to an extended tussle. This bit of shtick, like all the human-puppet scenes in “The Dybbuk,” seems to speak of the struggle between soul and body, freedom and limitation, that is an inescapable part of the human experience.
Wren is a freelance writer.
in Hebrew with English surtitles. Through Sunday. Part of Fall Fringe, running through Nov. 18 at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave. NW. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.capitalfringe.org.