Tarragon Theatre & 2b theatre company/OLD STOCK: a refugee love story, written by Hannah Moscovitch, directed by Christian Barry, songs by Ben Caplan and Christian Barry, Tarragon Mainspace, Apr. 16 to May 26. Tickets available at 416-531-1827 or tarragontheatre.com.
Hannah Moscovitch is one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights, perhaps because of the wide-ranging choice of subjects that engages her imagination. Her latest effort is OLD STOCK: a refugee love story, a klezmer musical, which she created with Ben Caplan and Christian Barry. Both men are mainstays in the Halifax cultural scene. Collectively, the trio has come up with a rousing, toe-tapping show with a decidedly dark edge.
The wellspring of Moscovitch’s inspiration is her paternal great-grandparents, Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch. The two initially met in 1908 waiting in the immigration line on Pier 21 in Halifax, both refugees from Romania. Both were escaping the anti-Jewish pogroms that were sweeping that country in the early twentieth century. The two settled independently in Montreal where they became reacquainted and later married. The set by co-designers Louisa Adamson and Barry appears to be a shipping container when you enter the theatre, which then opens up to reveal the dimly lit band and playing space. Somehow the claustrophobic set design and Carly Beamish’s period costumes suit the refugee experience very well.
While the courting and marriage of Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady) are the musical’s backdrop, the bulk of the show rests on the character of The Wanderer (Caplan), part storyteller, part rabbi. In fact, Caplan’s impressive beard makes him look like an old world prophet, and he gets to sing all the songs. The structure of the show comprises of short scenes from the life of Chaim and Chaya, interpolated by long commentary, either sung or spoken, by The Wanderer.
Moscovitch is a deft hand at edgy text, and OLD STOCK is at times graphic, even scatological. It is almost as if the three creators were determined to get down and dirty on their subject matter. In fact, the story of Chaim and Chaya is an excuse for The Wanderer to riff into Jewish history and traditions, philosophical musings on love and marriage, and cynical commentary on life in general. The title of the show is definitely ironic. Chaim and Chaya were not old stock. That phrase was reserved for the privileged English-speaking gentiles of Montreal. Yes, the couple were refugees, but their less than happy marriage was not a love story.
Klezmer is the celebratory musical-folk tradition that grew out of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, heavily influenced by the Roma people. The fact that klezmer is joyous, associated as it is with Jewish weddings, has been turned on its ear in OLD STOCK, because the lyrics are dark, foreboding and satiric. One song, “Plough the Shit”, is a good example, as it talks about suffering and hard times, while the music is positively festive. This dichotomy certainly makes for strange bedfellows, but it also seems to sum up the Jewish experience.
Oore and Coady give charming performances. He is a tentative if optimistic soul, bowing before the heavy presence of his wife who devastates him with her caustic wit. Both serve double duty because they are topnotch klezmorim (klezmer musicians). Oore (woodwinds), Coady (violin), Graham Scott (keyboard and accordion) and Jamie Kronick (drumset) can certainly conjure up a musical storm, and the minute any Jew of the Ashkenazi tradition hears the wailing clarinet and the thumping accordion is going to know that they are in klezmerland.
Which brings us to Caplan’s Wanderer. He is certainly a charismatic performer with a deep rolling baritone that produces a compelling sound. Barry has directed him to overact the Eastern European Jewish stereotype – think Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof on steroids. His character coyly plays with the audience, inviting us to be on the inside as he imparts his wisdom that is mocking, sardonic, even brutal. Caplan’s performance is larger than life.
What then is the intention of OLD STOCK? It is certainly much more than an immigrant’s story, although the encounters between Chaim and Chaya are appealing enough to stand on their own. Clearly there is information that Moscovitch and her colleagues want to get out, including the horrors of the Romanian pogrom that wiped out Chaim’s family, and the rampant anti-Semitism that permeated Montreal life. For example, Chaim tells us that Jews were not allowed in movie theatres. On the other hand, there are all kinds of diversions. For example, the text seems to be obsessed with Jewish attitudes towards copulation, as The Wanderer recites a veritable litany of euphemisms for the sexual act.
In short, the themes seem to be all over the map, and while everything that happens in the show, including the music, is interesting, you are left with a fractured focus.