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Fable-like Teibele appeals with simplicity, lusty humor

Nada Despetovich and Rebecca Bayla Talchman star in Teibele and Her Demon.

Teibele and Her Demon

The New Repertory Theatre.

54 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands.

Shows weekly (Wed.-Sun.) through Dec. 18.

By Hur Koser

The play Teibele and Her Demon focuses particularly on one human drive that is indispensable in its nature: lust. This erotic "fable" is set in a late 19th-century Polish town (known as a shtetl), where Jewish tradition forbids an abandoned wife to remarry, unless her missing husband is proved to be dead.

Teibele is such an abandoned wife that has managed to live alone for years. She is prominently attractive; yet bound to tradition and religion, untouched since her husband has left.

One of her admirers, Alchonon, finds out about her superstitious beliefs about demons and decides to make use of it. The play proceeds rapidly with lusty humor and burning passion, entertaining the audience with the mesmerizing tale of a desperate lover's plot to win Teibele.

The play is performed in a theater room which perfectly serves for the intended effects on the audience. It is a relatively small, cozy room in the Newton Highlands Congregational Church with a capacity of about 150 people. The stage is tilted toward the audience to maximize the audience's silent involvement as outsiders in the fast progression of events. The overall effect resembles a miniature Greek amphitheater that has been modified for the modern audience's needs.

Even the climax and the conclusion is similar to that of an ancient tragedy, in the sense that they are presented as unironic, inevitable consequences of the first part of the play. I don't think that Teibele and Her Demon can be classified as a "liberal" stage work - although the themes of demons and deadly lust might well be considered in such a category. Rather, the format and the setting of the play is simple, which makes the play somewhat appealing.

Also worth noting is that the author of this play, Isaac Bashevis Singer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Originally from Poland, he emigrated to New York in 1935. He is well-known for his short stories and novels; this particular play is the author's adaptation from one of his short stories. One is tempted to think that it is probably due to this reason also, as to why the play manifests itself as "familiarly simple."

Unlike a customized short story, though, Teibele and Her Demon is far more than a skillful construction of events in succession. It's a close-up look at a tightly-knit community that was isolated from the outside world. The shtetls continued their existence as a shelter for Jews until after World War II, when most of the shtetls and its inhabitants vanished.

In Irving Howe's phrasing, the shtetl was "nestled in the crevices of a backward agricultural economy, where Jews, often prohibited from ownership of land, had to live by trading, artisanship, and their wits."

The inhabitants of these small but overcrowded towns naturally chose to use their community life to relieve their alienation from the world outside. Religion pervaded every aspect of their lives, acting as a barrier against the hostility of that outer world. Many of the men were engaged in religious scholarship: For the learned, there was the Talmud; for those who wanted to go beyond, there was the Cabala. It turns out that Zohar, one of the books of the Cabala, deals with demonology, a subject that fascinated Singer and occupies much of his work.

The role Singer has designated for Alchonon, who disguises himself as Teibele's demon, seems to be the only challenging one, though to a certain extent it depends on his interaction with Teibele (Rebecca Bayla Taichman). I should remark that Michael Hammond, as Alchonon, deserves much of the credit for presenting the duality of human nature in his performance.

Teibele and Her Demon is the second of five productions scheduled for the 1994-95 season at New Repertory Theatre in Newton Highlands. Tickets ($16-26) are available through the theater box office at 332-1646. It definitely promises to be an entertaining evening, and, if you can manage it, is worth the trouble of rescheduling your busy time.