By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“We all come out of the same box,” declares the top-hatted bushy-bearded Wanderer (Ben Caplan) who’s just emerged from an outsized shipping container at the start of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.
What is so true of our fellow human beings in this land of immigrants isn’t necessarily true of theatre, my friends. So I’m urging you to catch this exceptional piece of theatre, travelling like its characters from town to town, before it’s on the move again. It arrived here from a two-month success (with critical raves) Off-Broadway, and it’s only staying through Sunday.
What happens when the doors of the shipping container (a magically cozy design by Louisa Adamson and director Christian Barry) open is a highly original theatrical creation from Halifax’s 2b theatre company. It’s a klezmer musical/song cycle, a multi-generational folk tale, a love story prised from a particular real-life family history (the great-grandparents of the playwright Hannah Moscovitch who arrived in Canada as Jewish-Romanian refugees in 1908). And it’s also the larger story of a world of perpetual displacement — of inhumanity, terrible suffering, and dreams of refuge, of something better. And what could be more topical than that?
Even the title is topical: it references a prejudicial distinction made by ex-PM Stephen Harper for political reasons between“old stock” Canadians, presumably legit, and more recent arrivals who, presumably, aren’t.
The Wanderer presides, as narrator, Jewish chorus and, occasionally, God. And in the figure of musician/composer Caplan (who wrote the songs with director Christian Barry), he’s a fantastical figure, a kind of capering Old Testament zany with a Tom Waits growl and air of puckish melancholy. In him is embodied the flavourful gallows sense of humour of a piece with theatrical chutzpah and a complex tone. Old Stock is funny, and also tragic and moving, with a klezmer liveliness that is jaunty in a minor key. You might want to call quintessentially Jewish (so I will).
The cast of characters are also the musicians in the band, led by Chaim (woodwind player Dani Oore) and Chaya (violinist Mary Kay Coady). Their first meeting, tentative on his part and prickly on hers, happens in a medical queue at Halifax’s Pier 21, where most refugees arrived in this country by boat a century ago, fleeing violence and pogroms in Europe.
What did Chaya think of the boat? wonders the younger Chaim fumbling about for a pick-up line. “I don’t have another boat to compare it to,” says the phlegmatic Chaya. She cuts to the chase: “what kind of wife are you looking for?” The Wanderer cuts to the chase too, in a salty selection of euphemisms for “the conjugal act.” He alludes to the biblical exhortation to be fruitful and multiply, alongside more modern notations. The sense of a ripple through time and generations might well bring a tear to your eye; that’s what happened to me.
Moscovitch’s script is a fascinating, and lively, blend of the lyrical and the earthy. And the twinkling theatrical framework of this memorable little 85-minute “musical” is unfailingly inventive, with compelling performances from Oore and Coady, the one sweetly gangly and the other with a bristling carapace of defences.
“You gotta live in the world to get to the truth,” as one of the clever songs has it. And it’s in the world that Old Stock finds its place, as the setbacks, the dangers, and the possibilities of life in a new land unfold, and resonate. You can survive, if you’re very lucky. But can you be happy in a world that’s “a bundle of burdensome yesterdays”?
There’s the question. It’s for all of us, the lucky ones, to help with the answer.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story
Theatre: 2b theatre company at the Citadel
Created by: Hannah Moscovitch, Christian Barry, Ben Caplan
Directed by: Christian Barry
Starring: Ben Caplan, Mary Fay Coady, Dani Oore, Graham Scott, Jamie Kronick
Where: Citadel Club
Running: through Sunday
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com