Capturing time for the theatre: Hannah Moscovitch talks about Infinity

Ryan Parker in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Time. It surrounds us, envelopes us, embeds us in a present that’s gone before you know it. It accumulates when you don’t want it and dwindles to nothing when you do. It keeps the past and future from colliding. It’s something to be saved, or lost, or gained….

Or else it doesn’t exist.   

It’s the elusive multi-limbed subject that the acclaimed Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch wrestled down, made flesh-and-blood, and shepherded into the theatre in the play that opens Thursday at Theatre Network.

“Time is fake,” declares  Elliott, the theoretical physicist in Infinity. “Like religion … a dumb story that got repeated too much.” The playwright isn’t one to deal in that kind of certainty. Time, she sighs, re-tracing the origins of her 2015 play,  “is so fundamental and structural, it’s not even a topic. It’s like starting with … air!”

Moscovitch, who has an appealingly wry, tentative way of sharing insights on the big, dark, complex subjects that attract her, is laughing. She’s on the phone from New York. That’s where another highly unconventional Moscovitch project, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story — a 2b theatre production coming to the Citadel Club May 9 — is currently getting raves Off-Broadway. 

If Elliott says of time that it’s “a persistent illusion,” Moscovitch might be inclined to disagree outright these days.

“Everything’s been a little … ah, like, hectic,” concedes the country’s starriest playwright of a life divided between Halifax, where her husband Christian Barry (a co-creator of Old Stock, with Ben Caplan) is artistic director of 2b theatre, and Toronto. Ah, and Brooklyn, where she’s currently hanging out with 2 1/2-year-old Elijah, “spending a lot of time at the zoo and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.”

“Am I enjoying myself? (pause) I think so; I’m not sure….” She laughs.

And then there’s Philadelphia where Sky on Swings, a Moscovitch opera with composer Lembit Beecher, opens the Opera Philadelphia season in the fall. The list goes on.

playwright Hannah Moscovitch

“We seem to live in Halifax; I’m not sure if we’re lying to ourselves,” says Moscovitch, bemused. “It’s incredibly quiet and there’s an ocean…. I work daycare hours.”

“I’ve always been fear-based in my writing: all these deadlines…” laughs Moscovitch of her multi-media list of commissions. The morning last week when she’s on the phone from Brooklyn, she’s carving time from a day without much of that to spare since it includes Elijah, and meetings with TV and opera people.

And now, in light of the first production of Infinity in western Canada, she’s considering again a play that embraces competing ideas in theoretical physics to become a love story — a love triangle  when you add an unexpected kid to the push-and-pull geometry of marriage.

“In a lot of ways my work (with Infinity) was to find a way for big ideas to be personal to me,” Moscovitch says of a play, seven years in the making, that acquired had its own real-life theoretical physicist (Lee Smolin, author of Time Reborn: From The Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe) as a consultant.

Larissa Pohoreski and Cayley Thomas in Infinity, Theatre Network. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

In Infinity, a theoretical physicist, a composer, and a mathematician, each with a different view of time, collide in the time-strapped laboratory of modern family life. “I spent a lot of time connecting time to death, time to love…. That’s my way in to what felt like an impenetrable beginning point.”

A decade ago, the provocation was a challenge from Ross Manson of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre to “write a play about time.”  As dramatic propositions go, the theoretical physics of time wouldn’t be alluring to every writer of plays, to say the least. But then, Moscovitch has never shied away from oblique doorways into vast labyrinths. 

East of Berlin, for example, Moscovitch’s full-length breakthrough hit that launched a much-awarded cross-border career in 2007, explored the inheritance of the Holocaust from an unusual optic — the perspective of the children of perpetrators. This Is War probed the reverb from Canadian participation in the Afghanistan war. Little One, the tense little thriller that Theatre Network audiences saw in 2014, was spun from the clash between liberalism and socio-pathology.

The troubled characters of What A Young Wife Ought To Know, a 2015 Moscovitch touring this season in a 2b theatre revival, are a window into the fraught history of women’s reproductive rights, again contentious in a world that often seems to be spinning backward. 

Moscovitch, an indefatigable researcher who grew up in the Jewish activist circles in Ottawa, says “I’ve heard criticism of my work sometimes that I don’t go after the big, existential questions…. For me those actually aren’t the big questions. For me, the big questions are about sexuality, identity and politics, psychology and anthology!”

As she confirms ruefully, Moscovitch has said that Infinity is “more personal” in inspiration than other plays she’s written. What she simply meant, she said, was that as the child of two high-powered academics with different specialties — like Sarah Jean in Infinity — she “had a bit of an insight into the world of professors trying to create a body of their own work, trying to contribute to the discourse and never having enough time.”

“Now I have written something that actually is super-confessional,” says Moscovitch of a solo piece about motherhood (going up at The Theatre Centre in Toronto): Maeve Beatty plays a character named Hannah Moscovitch.

Old Stock, too, has a personal provenance. A musical love story with an original klezmer score, it’s inspired by family history: Moscovitch’s great-grandparents arrived in Canada as refugees in 1908. That sort of story has a newly tragic currency, times being what they are.

The same thing has happened with What A Young Wife Ought To Know and Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, which recently had a reading at Seattle Rep. The latter, which Moscovitch had been working on “for a number of years,” chronicles an affair between a first-year university student and her professor. “Wow, I’ve never been so in step with the zeitgeist before!” she says. “When we premiered what A Young Wife Ought To Know in 2015, the questioned we most often got asked was ‘is this even relevant?’ Now every interview starts with ‘this is so relevant!’ The whiplash is insane!”

“Women want to hear about their own history,” concludes Moscovitch. “They’re empowered, in a way. And the other side is that the forces of conservatism are stronger.”

Has Moscovitch’s sense of Infinity changed since it premiered, in a joint Volcano/Tarragon production in 2015. The difference, she thinks, is Elijah. “I was six or seven months pregnant at the opening night. Now I know (first-hand) what it’s like to bring a child into the dynamic between a man and a woman,” one of the crucial developments of Infinity.

“You become more aware of what you’ve inherited and what you’re passing down,” Moscovitch muses. “You hear yourself say things that echo through time, great-grandparents, grandparents, my parents.  One of the beautiful things about having Elijah is watching my mother and father be so wonderful with him. And you have an insight into what they were like with you….

“There’s more connection between between Infinity and Old Stock than I’d thought….”

PREVIEW

Infinity

Theatre: Theatre Network

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by: Bradley Moss

Starring: Ryan Parker, Larissa Pohoreski, Cayley Thomas

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: through May 6

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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