Adam Henderson stars in Jerusalem, at the Jericho Arts Centre June 7-30. (photo from United Players)
The play Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth sees its debut in Vancouver this month at the Jericho Arts Centre and its lead actor, Adam Henderson, is a member of the Vancouver Jewish community.
Henderson grew up in New York City, moved to Winnipeg as a teenager and, after studying and working as an actor in England for 20 years, relocated to Vancouver in 2000. “I wanted to have a more balanced life than was possible in England, with more time to raise a family,” said Henderson, who is married with two children at home ages 5 and 12.
Asked about his Jewish identity, he said he describes himself as “a New York Jew from a mixed upbringing, but Jewish by birth and culturally interested.”
Henderson’s acting career began at the Manitoba Theatre Centre when he was 17 and has taken him all over the world, including to Israel, where he starred in War Shepherds in the 1980s. Today, in addition to doing live theatre, he teaches accents and dialects at the Vancouver Film School, and voice acting at the University of British Columbia. As a dialect coach, he specializes in helping other actors with their accents and dialogues, and he records audiobooks, too. “Vancouver doesn’t easily support actors, so we have to do other things to make our acting happen,” he explained.
As he rehearsed for Jerusalem – a play that references a poem by William Blake and not the holy city of Jerusalem – he was also working on Altered Carbon, a television show for which he’s coaching an actor from Berlin to sound more American. “It’s exciting for me because my family is originally from Berlin and I have a strong connection with the city,” he told the Independent.
Jerusalem, presented by United Players, is about a squatter called Johnny “Rooster” Byron and his retinue, and has a cast of about 16, Henderson said. “It’s quite a remarkable play and was made famous by Mark Rylance, one of my heroes, who played the role of Rooster. It’s a great adventure taking on a role that he’s put his stamp on, and it’s both intimidating and inspiring, because he sets the bar quite high!”
Henderson said anyone who enjoys classical theatre will enjoy Jerusalem, a play rich in language and “quite epic.” As for his lifestyle move to Vancouver almost two decades ago, that’s worked out well, he added.
“I have a successful family and I can organize my schedule to be there to raise my kids. In London, I was constantly busy with my career and, though it’s an exciting place to work, it’s harder in that environment to have a stable life. In Vancouver, I don’t travel much and there’s more contact with nature, which I find calming.”
Jerusalem runs June 7-30 at the Jericho Arts Centre. Tickets, which range from $22-$28, are available at the door or online at unitedplayers.com.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Dylan Floyde (Willy), left, and Stephen Aberle (Evens) rehearse for Slamming Door Artist Collective’s production of The Sea, which opened May 2 at Jericho Arts Centre. (photo by Michelle Morris)
“Published in 1973, The Sea is fiercely, presciently relevant. [Edward] Bond seems to anticipate David Icke’s mad, xenophobic alien conspiracy fantasies, flat earthers’ denial of gravity, ‘fake news,’ societal upheaval and the potential for devastation – and, through it all, glimmers of hope through stoic resilience, change and growth,” said Jewish community member Stephen Aberle, describing Bond’s play, The Sea.
Slamming Door Artist Collective presents The Sea at Jericho Arts Centre until May 19. It opened last night, May 2.
Director Tamara McCarthy told the Independent that she had seen a production of The Sea at the Shaw Festival in 2014 “and was deeply struck by the complex poetry and stitch-ripping humour, all playing out within a beautiful tragedy.
“There are many current resonances, from Trump to Brexit,” she said. “Interestingly, The Sea debuted in 1973, the same year Britain joined the European Union.”
On a more solemn note, she added, “Eventually, the sea will sweep us all away. Until then, we choose to live in hope or despair. Or both. This play intricately explores these themes.”
The synopsis reads: “A wild storm shakes a small East Anglian seaside village, and Willy is unable to save his friend from drowning. The raving coast guard is too drunk to do anything, Hatch the draper is passing by but he believes that hovering alien spaceships are slowly replacing people’s brains and he refuses to help, while the grande dame, Mrs. Rafi, bastion of respectability, amateur theatricals and velvet curtains from Birmingham, sets her face against the chaos.” The play is set in 1907.
“There are big time echoes of [Shakespeare’s] The Tempest, for sure,” said Aberle. “Storm, shipwreck, collision of worlds and societies, innocence blossoming into love, monsters and a kind of shimmering magic. I would say there’s a strong parallel with the Book of Jonah as well: shipwreck again, and the struggle to find meaning in an often apparently unkind and unfair world. Ecclesiastes, too: ‘the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.’”
Aberle plays the character of Evens, who he described as “the grizzled, weathered, often drunken ‘wise fool.’ A bit of the Prospero type, if we want to look at The Tempest connections, with aspects of both Jonah and the big fish, as well. He has withdrawn from society and lives (and drinks, ‘to stay sane’) in a little hut on the beach. It’s said of him in the village that he ‘knows the water round here,’ though, as he points out, ‘… luck and chance come into it. It doesn’t matter how clear the main currents are, you have to live through the details. It’s always the details that make the tragedy….’ The young hero, Willy, comes to him, looking for answers. Whether he finds what he seeks is a question whose outcome you’ll have to watch for.”
“Slamming Door Artist Collective presents classic contemporary works that aren’t otherwise being produced in Vancouver,” said McCarthy. “We provide not only opportunities for our audience to see these plays, but for established and emerging actors and designers to play with us on material they likely wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise.”
Joining Aberle on stage will be Raes Calvert, Genevieve Fleming, Dylan Floyde, Jessica Hood, Elizabeth Kirkland, Cheyenne Mabberley, Michelle Morris, Melissa Oei and Mason Temple. The collective’s members “work professionally in film, television and theatre throughout the Lower Mainland.”
Aberle said he is “overjoyed to be introduced to this play and this playwright.”
“In my experience,” he said,
“Edward Bond is sadly unsung and underproduced – I’d never seen or read any of his work before and it’s delicious. My sense is that, when he came on the scene, he alienated the powers-that-be in British theatre. He’s from the working class and he writes about class alienation, struggle and societal transformation, with sometimes brutal clarity of vision. Apparently, there was nearly a riot when one of his early plays, Saved, was first performed – shouting from the audience and fisticuffs in the lobby.”
A scene from United Players’ production of Taken at Midnight, which is at the Jericho Arts Centre until Nov. 26. Seen here are Brian Hinson as the Nazi Dr. Conrad and Suzanne Ristic as Irmgaard, Hans Litten’s mother. (photo by Nancy Caldwell)
As a Jew, a lawyer and a child of a Holocaust survivor, I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Hans Litten until I saw United Players’ production of Taken at Midnight, which runs to Nov. 26 at Jericho Arts Centre.
Litten was a brilliant young Jewish-German lawyer, known for his defence of opponents of the Nazi movement. In 1931, he had the audacity to subpoena Adolf Hitler as a witness in the trial of four Nazis charged with murder, and subjected him to a grueling three-hour cross-examination, exposing the Nazi party for what it really was – a murderous bunch of thugs. Litten called Hitler “a cross between Baron Munchhausen and Attila the Hun.”
Unfortunately for Litten and the world, within two years Hitler was in power and he started to exact his revenge on his opponents. At midnight on Feb. 28, 1933, after the Reichstag (German parliament) fire, Litten, along with thousands of others, was arrested or, as the Nazis euphemistically called it, taken into “protective custody” at a series of concentration camps. Litten became known as “Hitler’s personal prisoner” – the cocky Jewish lawyer who had dared to expose the Fuhrer’s weaknesses – and, over the years, was subjected to brutal torture and unspeakable degradation as punishment. Despite the valiant efforts of his mother, Irmgaard, to obtain his release over the five years of his incarceration, Litten ultimately committed suicide in Dachau in 1938, which was a bit messy for the Nazis, as they wanted their political prisoners to die accidentally or naturally, not by taking their own lives.
The irony is that Litten was not technically Jewish. His mother was not Jewish and his father had converted to Christianity (to make things easier). As Litten says in the play, “I am an atheist Jew and, prior to that, I was an atheist Lutheran.” Of course, that made no difference to the Nazis, who went back three generations to ferret out Jewish blood.
Playwright and filmmaker Mark Hayhurst’s 2010 BBC films The Man Who Crossed Hitler and To Stop a Tyrant planted the seeds for this staged work. It had its West End (London, England) debut in 2014. Reviewers called it a “masterpiece of theatre not to be missed.” Now, United Players has taken on the formidable task of presenting this gripping story to Vancouver audiences. From the minute you walk into the theatre, the dark, shadowy, stark set – an elevated wooden platform fronted by barbed wire positioned between two floor-to-ceiling red banners emblazoned with black swastikas – is a harbinger of the grim things to come.
The entire cast, mostly comprised of veteran actors, is stellar and, as an ensemble, makes this a truly remarkable theatrical experience. Particular mention has to be made of the two main protagonists – Suzanne Ristic as Irmgaard and Sean Anthony as her son. Ristic is sublime in her portrayal of this strong, heroic woman who takes on the Gestapo establishment in a relentless battle to free her son. She often takes centre stage to talk directly to the audience, thereby breaking down the fourth wall, making for a very intimate encounter. And Anthony plays his difficult role with dignity, yet shows uncompromising defiance. We ache as we watch his physical and mental decline – his transformation from ordinary citizen to bloodied, head-shaven prisoner; a business suit to the striped concentration camp uniform, replete with the obligatory yellow Star of David.
Supporting, but not lesser, performances come from the rest of the cast.
Brian Hinson as Dr. Conrad, Irmgaard’s Gestapo contact, portrays a man of culture and intelligence who appreciates this feisty woman and appears to feel affection for her. The scene where they share an ice cream on a summer’s afternoon in a park seems incongruous, juxtaposed against the darkness of this play. Yet it speaks to some form of humanity even in the worst of times.
Litten’s cellmates – Erich Muhsam, an anarchist (played by Richard Hersley) who refers to Hitler as “the Austrian transvestite,” and Carl von Ossietzky, a newspaper editor and winner of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize (played by Jewish community member Michael Kahn) – show the camaraderie and trust that can evolve from difficult circumstances. The triumvirate produces an amusing reenactment of Hitler’s cross-examination, providing an island of levity in their sea of despair.
Douglas Abel plays Fritz Litten, Hans’ father, as a calm counterpoint to his wife’s intense persona. John Harris, with his posh English accent, is Lord Clifford Allen, an English diplomat, patrician and pacifist who Irmgaard seconds in her quest for her son’s freedom. Allen is able to secure a meeting with Hitler to discuss the matter, but to no avail. Allen’s political attitude highlights the European appeasement zeitgeist of the early 1930s – that Germany was just experiencing growing pains and Hitler was an effective statesman, not a threat to the world. If only it had been so.
The play provides an historical lesson in the rise to power of the fascist Nazi regime and the consequences of speaking truth to power, but, at its heart, it is the story of the love of a mother for her son and her fight, at great personal risk, to try and save him.
As director Michael Fera, states in his notes, this is “an informative and deeply engrossing play about the high price paid for resisting tyranny,” and is as relevant today as it was in 1933. “People are living it now, again. History is repeating itself in many ways.”
Taken at Midnight is a tough watch and an emotional ride but well worth a trip to the Jericho Arts Centre. Kudos to artistic director Andree Karas for having the courage to stage this work. The show runs to Nov. 26, Thursdays to Sundays, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinées Nov. 12, 19 and 26. For more information, visit unitedplayers.com or call 604-224-8007, ext. 2.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
William Samples and Christine McBeath in People, now at Jericho Arts Centre until Nov. 29. (photo by Adam Henderson)
Character actors are like wine – they only get better with age. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United Players production of English playwright Alan Bennett’s satirical farce People, currently playing at Jericho Arts Centre. Directed by Jewish community member Adam Henderson, it’s cheeky fun served up English style.
Two sisters, Dorothy (Christine McBeath), an aging former model, and June (Kate Robbins), an archdeacon of the local church, have to deal with the decay of their 500-year-old Yorkshire ancestral home, Stacpoole Manor. Dorothy, who lives in the home with her companion Iris (Nancy Amelia Bell), wants to sell off the contents to a London auction house, while June wants to endow the house and its grounds to the National Trust.
The trust is an English charitable institution that preserves and maintains historic homes for the benefit of the “people.” But that means lots of tourists invading the home with their questions and cameras, and Dorothy is a recluse who basically doesn’t like people. By chance, one of her old flames, Mr. Theodore (William Samples), happens upon the manor, and he offers a third option to the sisterly impasse – renting out the home for a porn film shoot. This could get interesting.
The play opens with a glimpse of a porn actor caught in flagrante delicto. Cut to the suave London auctioneer Bevan (Brian Hinson) and then the smarmy National Trust evaluator Mr. Lumsden (Matt Loop) as they traipse through the house eyeing the contents for their respective purposes, each man trying to convince his patron sister of the strength of his option. The audience is introduced to valuable papers, artifacts and a collection of chamberpots famous for their users: George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling and T.S. Eliot, to name a few (with the original contents still intact).
In the meantime, Dorothy, unbeknown to June, opts to let Mr. Theodore and his company into the home to make their film.
The action really picks up in the second act, with the stage transformed into a periodesque bedroom shoot of the porn film Reach for the Thigh (tastefully done, no nudity please, we’re British). Colin (Kevin Hatch) as the male actor and Brit (Charlotte Wright) as his female counterpart (who knits between takes) are hilarious in their four-poster bed passionate romp.
Of course, during the shoot, the bishop (Hamish Cameron) makes an appearance with June to check out the home – luckily, he was having trouble with his new specs and could not really see what was going on. If you haven’t had your fix of double entendres for the night, these scenes ought to satisfy you.
The crew – cameraman Les (Peter Robbins), wardrobe mistress Louise (Demi Pedersen), fashionista grip Bruce (Eric Keogh) and assistant director Nigel (Sidartha Murjani) – rounds out the cast with small, albeit memorable, roles.
McBeath and Samples are superb, and Bell really brings out Iris’ dotty character. Collectively, the actors – many of whom are ex-pat Brits so the accents are authentic – make it all work. The fact that at least half of the cast is over 65 adds to the reality of the production.
The set morphs from decrepitude and decay into sophistication and grace. Kudos to Marcus Stusek for this work and to Marci Jade Herron for her costume designs, from shabby chic for the Stacpoole women (mink coats and sneakers) to edgy togs for the film actors. Charming song and dance routines and nostalgic music from the 1960s (think “Downtown” and Petula Clark) complete the mix.
In the media release, Henderson notes, “We really don’t treat age with much respect, and it’s a youth-obsessed culture. This play goes a long way in dealing with those issues.”
So, you can take the opportunity for deep consideration of contemporary issues or you can just sit back and enjoy a good laugh. Your choice.
For tickets and more information, visit unitedplayers.com or call the box office at 604-224-8007, ext. 2. People runs through to Nov. 29.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Daniel Meron co-stars in The Normal Heart, which runs July 18-Aug. 16. (photo by Javier R. Sotres)
Larry Kramer is an incendiary activist who was among the first – and most irate – to raise alarms about a new disease that began killing gay men three decades ago. Kramer was at the forefront of the movement to direct public – and, notably, government – attention to what would become known as AIDS.
Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, is a polemical cri de coeur written at the North American height of an epidemic that has become the world’s leading infectious killer and the cause of 36 million deaths to date. That is a number almost equivalent to the number of people currently living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And, while extraordinary scientific advances have been made in controlling the symptoms of the disease, most of those treatments remain out of reach for the vast majority now fighting the virus, who are in the developing world.
While the severity of the health crisis has now become clear to most people, Kramer was writing in a time when almost no government resources were allocated to the virus and few in the power structure – from media and medicine to the president of the United States – seemed to care or even acknowledge that gay men were dying in exponentially increasing numbers.
A Jewish playwright, Kramer drew parallels to the world’s reaction to the first reports of the Holocaust. A later book by Kramer, in 1989, would be titled Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist.
The Normal Heart opened on Broadway in 1985. Its power remains, with an HBO drama broadcast in May of this year, starring Mark Ruffalo, indicating that social sensitivities to the issue have progressed perhaps as much as the retroviral medical advancements that have made the virus something closer to a manageable disease than the certain death sentence it meant as recently as a decade ago.
The play is now being staged in Vancouver. In it, Daniel Meron, who received a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting from the University of British Columbia, plays Felix Turner, the closeted lover of the main character, Ned Weeks, a stand-in for the playwright Kramer in this barely concealed autobiographical play.
It is a script trembling with rage and Meron sees the topic in a continuum of Jewish activism.
“There is definitely a strong sense of social justice in the Jewish tradition and, like Kramer, I find myself fighting for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” said Meron, who was active in Hillel and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi during his time at UBC.
“The thing that stands out to me from doing this show was how the U.S. government, the gay community, and the entire world wanted to turn a blind eye to the entire situation,” he said. “As Ned [Kramer’s character] mentions numerous times in the play, the events that took place are eerily similar to the Holocaust.”
Meron, who was born in 1987, said he was struck by the impact The Normal Heart had among gay men who lived through that period.
“Before starting the journey of this play, I wasn’t aware how important The Normal Heart was to so many people,” he said. “It reminds me of speaking to Holocaust survivors. I feel so fortunate to play such an integral part of this story. The greatest thing for me would be to do justice to the story of all the men and women who fought and continue to fight for LGBTQ rights.”
The Normal Heart previews July 14, opens July 18 and runs in repertory until Aug. 16 at Jericho Arts Centre with two other plays as part of the Ensemble Theatre Company Summer Festival. Details and tickets are available at ensembletheatrecompany.ca.