Left to right, Katherine Matlashewski (as Shayna Schneider), Advah Soudack (as Margaret Grant) and Amitai Marmorstein (as Jankl Schneider) in Courage Now, playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until Dec. 4. (photo by Youn Park)
One does not often get a chance to see a world première of a play in Vancouver. After writing my preview article on Courage Now in the last edition of the Independent, I was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing the final product. I was not disappointed.
It is a difficult story to tell but it is done with such sensitivity and style that I highly recommend seeing it. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, any story of courage and heroism arising out of that era resonates with me – this one in particular had me in tears.
From the moment you walk into the intimate Firehall Arts Centre theatre, you know you are about to see something special. The set is austere – a desk, a bench, a lattice-like trellis, an empty wall-mounted picture frame – with a pagoda-style roof and an archway backlit with vibrant colours. (Kudos to set designer Kimira Reddy and lighting designer Itai Erdal.)
To summarize the backstory, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1940, against the instructions of his government, issued more than 2,300 handwritten visas in a 30-day period to save Jews trying to leave Poland and Lithuania. He was supported in his decision by his wife, Yukiko, who knew the price the family would pay for going against the government edicts. And a price was paid: career loss, humiliation and Sugihara’s self-imposed postwar exile to Russia for 16 years.
The play follows what appear to be two separate narratives that intersect in an unexpected way in the final scene. In 1986, Yukiko (playwright Manami Hara) is forced to revisit wartime when a visitor from Vancouver, Margaret Grant, born Shayna Schneider (Advah Soudack), comes for answers from Sugihara as to what happened to her father after he put her on a train out of Kaunas when she was 13 years old. She has resented her father through the years, feeling abandoned and betrayed by his sending her off alone; she is also coping with a difficult divorce and her own daughter’s hatred. Sugihara has recently died, however, and Margaret must turn to Yukiko for answers instead.
The play opens with Yukiko waking from a dream where she is visited by the ghost of her husband. Then Margaret enters her garden. She tells Yukiko, “I am a Sugihara Jew, Sempo saved my life.” The play then moves through a series of memory flashbacks, as the audience is transported back and forth between 1940 Kaunas and 1986 Japan.
Katherine Matlashewski plays the teenage Shayna and Amitai Marmorstein plays her father, Jankl. Jankl visits Sugihara (Ryota Kaneko) to plead for visas on behalf of the thousands of Jews who have been lining up every day outside the consul’s office. In a touching and poignant scene, something as simple as a shared cup of coffee gives you a sense of the integrity and honour of these two men as they strive to do the right thing. Kaneko plays Sugihara with a quiet intensity and Marmorstein portrays Jankl with dignity. The scene where he sees Shayna off at the train station is heartbreaking – he watches his only child (his “little mouse,” as he calls her) walk away from him, tattered suitcase in hand, in a fog of smoke and the eerie sound of a train whistle in the distance.
In many ways, the journeys of the two women are love stories. Yukiko grapples with the grief of losing her husband, moving through the stages towards acceptance, and Margaret comes to the realization that it was her father’s love that put her on that train in 1940. Both characters become conduits for the other’s catharsis. When Yukiko shares her husband’s journal from that time, Margaret says, “My father lives in that journal.”
All five of the actors do credit to their roles in this ensemble piece but Hara and Soudack’s performances are sublime. The play is particularly effective when all five actors are on stage at the same time in the memory flashback vignettes.
My one criticism is that there is quite a bit of Japanese dialogue between Kaneko and Hara and it would have been helpful to have either a reader board translating or a program insert with translations.
Hara has penned a lovely tribute to Sugihara and I, for one, am grateful to her for her work.
Yukiko and Chiune Sugihara (photo from Firehall Arts Centre)
It is written in the Mishnah that, “If you save the life of one person, it is as if you save the entire world.” Chiune Sugihara saved 6,000 Jewish lives – 6,000 worlds – in the summer of 1940, despite the dangers of doing so to himself and his family.
A new play about Sugihara sees its world première at the Firehall Arts Centre this month. Written by Japanese-Canadian actor and playwright Manami Hara, Courage Now opens Nov. 19.
Contrary to his government’s strict instructions to not issue visas to Jewish refugees, Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, handwrote in a 30-day period more than 2,300 visas for Jews trying to escape from Europe via the Soviet Union to Japan. Sugihara was a husband, a father, a career diplomat, a linguist, but, above all, with his strict Samurai upbringing, he believed in respect for, and sanctity of, human life. As he said, “They were human beings and they needed help.”
Sugihara’s actions are responsible for more than 40,000 Jews being alive today. Yet, after the war, the Japanese government dismissed him from diplomatic service and treated him as a persona non grata. However, Israel has honoured his courage and his memory on three occasions – in 1985, by recognizing him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem; in 2016, by naming a street in Netanya after him; and, in October 2021, by dedicating Sugihara Square in Jerusalem.
In an interview with the Independent, playwright and actor Hara talked about the journey that led her to write Courage Now.
“About 12 years ago, my mentor from Studio 58, Jane Heyman, approached me and asked if I knew about Sugihara and I said that I did not. She told me his story, that her parents and uncle had been saved by him and that she would not be here if not for his actions. We talked about collaborating on a play. Her story and my being Japanese made it very personal for me, as I was very embarrassed by how the Japanese government treated him after 1945.”
Getting a play from conception to the stage is a long process.
“I heard that a Japanese playwright, Hiraishi Koichi, had written about Sugihara. I got a hold of his play, translated it into English and worked with Jane on it but it just did not seem dramatic enough,” said Hara. “I talked to Koichi and asked if I could adapt the play and he gave me permission. So, I researched the Jewish families who were Sugihara survivors and created more scenes. But it still did not seem to have the theatrical weight it needed to be a success so I put it away for a couple years, as I felt I had lost my vision.
“About five years ago, I traveled to Japan and had a chance to speak to Sugihara’s daughter-in-law and two of his grandchildren, which gave me a firsthand intimate look into his life and that of Yukiko, his wife. Then it dawned on me that the way to tell the story was from two female points of view, that of Yukiko and of a child survivor, Margaret. So, I went back to the story and after many years of writing drafts and workshopping, here we are.”
There are five characters in the play: Sugihara, Yukiko, a young Margaret, an adult Margaret (Jewish community member Advah Soudak) and young Margaret’s father (community member Amitai Marmorstein). Margaret is a fictional character, created from the stories of many survivors. Scenes are set up to move between the Lithuanian summer of 1940 and mid-1980s Vancouver, where an adult Margaret now lives.
Hara does double duty in this production, as the playwright and performing as Yukiko. “It is difficult to switch, wearing both hats, you feel like you have a split personality,” she acknowledged. “However, I take off my playwright hat and then I concentrate on my character in terms of what are her needs, where should I be focused and what is happening with the other characters. So, when I am on stage, I am the actor and I let the director take over from there. If he or the other actors see anything that needs tweaking or fixing, they will let me know. It is a very collaborative process. We are three weeks from opening and still finalizing many of the details.”
Hara sees her character as a spirited, stubborn, strong woman, not as stereotypically subservient, but rather as someone who also was idealistic and who was supportive of her husband in all that he did. “She knew the risk to her family and the sacrifice that would have to be made in carrying out her husband’s plan to save the Jewish refugees,” said Hara. “It is an amazing role and I am so honoured to be able to bring this story to Vancouver audiences. I hope the audience takes away that there is always hope, that there is always a way to find courage to walk towards that hope and one should never give up.”
Director Amiel Gladstone got involved in the project, having worked with Hara before.
“She was looking for the right kind of collaborative director for the show and she reached out to me because I work so much with new plays,” said Gladstone in a telephone interview with the Independent. “She told me that she had been hoping for a Jewish director…. I told her that my father was Jewish.”
As to the play, he said, “It is a memory play dealing with two women trying to piece together what happened to them years ago during those dark times. We had to create a space that includes both 1940 and present-day locations: a Japanese home and garden, a Jewish refugee apartment, the Kaunas consul office, a park, the train station, with all the locations in view at the same time. It becomes a dream world, where the actors move from set to set as they go back and forth in time. Itai Erdal’s lighting design will inform the audience as to the change in time and place.” (Erdal is also a member of the Jewish community.)
Soudack’s character, in her 50s, is going through a difficult separation and divorce. In an interview with the Independent, Soudack explained, “She realizes that she has a big hole in life, as she does not know what happened to her parents. She travels to Japan to seek out Sugihara and to ask about her father but learns that Sugihara is dead (he died in 1986) so she looks to Yukiko for answers. At the same time, Yukiko is also going back and remembering that time through her interaction with Margaret.”
Soudack had to grapple with capturing the essence of Margaret’s psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“She has broken pieces of memory that she wants to fit together. She has had a difficult life,” said Soudack. “It must have been terrifying to be leaving your family, everything you know and being put on a train and sent off on your own. She has a lot of anger, sadness and abandonment and betrayal issues. She does not form close loving relationships very easily, as she learned that people closest to her disappear. She has to work through all this as she seeks the truth.”
Working with Hara has been a treat, said Soudack. “It is fabulous with the playwright right there so, when a question comes up, she can give us the explanation. It is a beautiful sense of collaboration, respect, joy and appreciation of what she wrote and it is a gift to be right there with her working through this project.”
As to being a Jewish actor in this role, she said, “As a Jewish person, you grow up with the Holocaust and the plight of the Jews – it is so part of our DNA that, when you come across a story and people that you never heard of, it makes you have such gratitude and respect for these non-Jewish heroes who, in the face of so much antisemitism, still found the courage to do the right thing. If I could meet Mr. Sugihara, I would hug him, look him in his eyes and thank him for his bravery and courage.”
Courage Now runs to Dec. 4. For tickets, visit firehallartscentre.ca or call the box office, 604-689-0926.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Ghazal Azarbad and Daniel Fong in Bard on the Beach’s Romeo and Juliet, which runs to Sept. 24. (photo by Tim Matheson)
William Shakespeare’s tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet, about teenaged lovers who come together despite the objections of their families, resonates with contemporary audiences as much as it did with the Elizabethan crowd.
Since it was written in 1595, ˆ has spawned countless adaptations, including the musical West Side Story, the animated feature Gnomeo and Juliet, and even a Palestinian girl meets Israeli boy version. So how do you present this well-known tale from a different angle? You do what director Anita Rochon did for this year’s Bard on the Beach production – start at the end, when Juliet wakes up in the family crypt next to dead Romeo, and flash back to the beginning. As well, tell the story from Juliet’s perspective, as she grapples with the question of how this situation came to be.
Rochon has taken some creative liberties with Shakespeare’s text, nipping and tucking here and there, and leaving out the characters of Lord Capulet and the Montague parents. Purists may not appreciate that surgery but will like that the play is set in its proper era. However, if you don’t know the story, the time line is a bit confusing, as the scenes jump around a bit, unlike the linear unfolding of the original text, so you should read the program summary beforehand.
From the minute you walk into the small tent and are met with the sight of the set, you know you’re in for a treat. Front and centre is an elevated marble-like tomb surrounded by 300 skulls strategically stacked around the macabre crypt, all bathed in flickering candlelight. The crypt’s massive iron doors open and close on an ever-changing backdrop as actors make their entries and exits. The tomb disappears into the ground on scene changes while a balustrade rises from the ground for the iconic balcony scene. Kudos to set designer Pam Johnson for a job well done.
The acting in this production is also first rate. Each and every one of the nine actors gets the job done. Daniel Fong as Romeo, Ghazal Azarbad as Juliet and Jennifer Lines as Lady Capulet are particularly strong in their roles. Fong nicely portrays the naïve confusion of the young swain while Azarbad shows strength of character and resolve not normally seen in depictions of teenage girls. The chemistry between the eponymous duo is palpable.
But it is Lines – morphing from gracious and charming party host to ferocious tiger mother when she gives Juliet the disinheritance ultimatum – who captures the essence of the play’s unspoken dilemma: Do we marry who our parents/families pick for us or do we marry who we love, no matter the consequences.
In a nod to role reversal, which seems to be the flavour of the season for Bard, Andrew McNee plays Juliet’s nurse, Sara Vickruck does double duty as the doomed Mercutio and the Apothecary and Anita Wittenberg plays Friar Laurence. McNee is one of the best comedic actors this city has, and his antics on the boards inject much-needed comic relief into an otherwise dark script.
Raising the production to sublime are the costumes (richly coloured, textured gowns for the ladies and sexy doublets and britches for the men), the dramatic lighting and the trio of choreographed sword fights – all backgrounded by the haunting tones of handheld bells that herald scene changes.
As Rochon points out in the program notes: “We know how their story ends and, in a way, we know how all our stories will end. The way we get there is where the mystery begins.”
You don’t have to be a hopeless romantic to appreciate the beauty of this production, which runs to Sept. 24 on the Howard Family Stage at Vanier Park. For tickets, visit bardonthebeach.org or call 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
The company of Bard on Beach’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (photo by Tim Matheson)
The thespian delights of Shakespeare set against the glorious backdrop of mountains, sea and sky have been missed. But now, after a COVID-induced two-year hiatus, Bard on the Beach at Vanier Park is back with a bang, based on the audience buzz on opening night.
The comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a perennial crowd pleaser, will occupy the BMO Mainstage all season. Harlem Duet, a tale of Black life spanning three periods in American history, runs until mid-July on the smaller Howard Family Stage, with Romeo and Juliet taking over that stage in August through to September.
This is the seventh time Bard has produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this rendition has “hit” written all over it. It is one cheeky dream.
Set against the backdrop of the upcoming marriage of Athenian Duke Theseus (Ian Butcher) to foreign Queen Hippolyta (Melissa Oei), three stories weave their way through a mélange of mistaken identities, unrequited love, feuding fairy royalty and would-be actors, riotously intersecting in the enchanted wood outside of Athens.
Four young lovers, Hermia (Heidi Damayo), Lysander (Olivia Hutt), Helena (Emily Dallas) and Demetrius (Christopher Allen) dash through the woods in a mad, “looking for love romp” replete with a WWE-worthy cat fight and zingy insults.
Meanwhile, in the sylvan wonderland, Fairy King Oberon (Billy Marchenski) and his queen, Titania (Kate Besworth), are in the midst of a custody battle. Oberon sends his trusty servant, the mischievous Puck (Sarah Roa), to exact revenge on his queen with a potion meant to make her fall in love with the first thing she sees when she awakes.
Finally, we meet a troupe of bumbling tradesmen who seek refuge in the forest to rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe, the play they have written in honour of the duke’s pending nuptials. It is during this rehearsal, that one of them, Bottom (Carly Street), morphs into an ass, both literally and figuratively, and becomes the love interest of Titania.
In a nod to diversity and gender fluidity, director Scott Bellis (who knows this play from top to bottom, having performed in five of Bard’s previous Midsummer productions) has cast lovers Hermia and Lysander as a lesbian couple, while two of the tradesmen, Bottom and Snug (Jewish community member Advah Soudack), are played as females.
Bellis has also incorporated some interesting staging devices. Oberon arrives on stage on stilts, towering over his subjects. Bottom makes numerous asides to the audience and takes forays up the aisles. And the Mechanicals characters, at one point, move in a shuffling turntable motion around the stage.
Street steals the show as Bottom, the know-it-all of the working class group. Although given the lead of Pyramus, she wants to play all of the parts, thinking she can act better than the others. In her quest to prove this, she gives whole new meaning to the concept of emoting. It generally works and the audience loves it, although she often upstages her castmates.
Roa provides a refreshing spin on her impish character and Soudack, although in a minor role, is hilarious as the timid lion in Pyramus and Thisbe, as is Flute (Munish Sharma) as Thisbe, the reluctant object of Pyramus’s affection. Many of the actors are making their Bard debut and it is good to see new blood in the Vancouver theatre scene.
Jewish community members are prominent behind the scenes in this production. Amir Ofek’s set, backed by two leaded glass windows framing the view of the North Shore, easily transitions from the staid royal Athenian court to the warehouse of the tradesmen to the whimsy of the Oberon realm. Mishelle Cuttler, as sound designer/composer, provides original music that complements Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s ethereal choreography, as performed by students from the Simon Fraser University School of Contemporary Dance. You don’t usually get to see Shakespeare with so many dance elements, which adds an interesting layer to the mix.
Christine Reimer’s costumes are a delight – earth-toned, tailored day suits and cloche hats for the women, a white bejeweled gown for Titania, frothy candy-coloured tutus for the fairies and silky evening frocks for the final scene. Gerald King’s lighting – the greens, the purples, the reds – all work in harmony with the sun as it sets behind the stage.
Bard on the Beach’s Done/Undone, written by Kate Besworth, co-stars Harveen Sandhu and Charlie Gallant. (photo from bardonthebeach.org)
Throughout COVID, Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach has been unable to mount its popular summer festival at Vanier Park. However, it is easing its way back into the hearts and minds of Shakespeare fans with its innovative film production Done/Undone, written by Kate Besworth and starring Bard veterans Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu, who take on multiple and diverse roles. The creative team includes community member Mishelle Cuttler as sound designer.
The film raises many probing questions. Is time up for Shakespeare’s works in the #metoo, woke, cancel culture era? Is there room today for plays written 400 years ago that can be interpreted as misogynist (The Taming of the Shrew), racist (Othello) or antisemitic (The Merchant of Venice)? Are the Bard’s works not just the reflections of a white, privileged male, written for colonial audiences to glorify British mores and culture? Or was English writer Ben Johnson, who died in 1637, right when he said Shakespeare was “not a man of his age, but a man for all times?” Should any form of Bardolatry continue or should Shakespeare and his folios be laid to rest as we move forward with contemporary artists telling contemporary stories?
To answer these questions, the film, set against the backdrop of a working theatre, uses snappy vignettes to showcase the pros and cons of the debate with interesting and perhaps unexpected results.
It opens as the two actors arrive at the theatre to prepare for a production of Hamlet, and the question first arises. Sandhu appears as Shakespeare to state that the purpose of writing is to “hold a mirror to humanity,” as she lists off the myriad subjects that the Bard explored – the sea, star-crossed lovers, a donkey in the arms of a fairy queen, an exiled warrior, an emperor of Rome, a triumphant king, how choices matter, and how governments fail us.
We then are spectators to a battle of wits between dueling professors, explaining and emoting from their respective lecterns. Gallant emphatically argues that Shakespeare is a product of a white, patriarchal society, using words as a tool of cultural imperialism written, originally, for white men to perform (women were not allowed to act in Shakespeare’s times, so male actors would take on the female roles) and that there is no place today for his work. Sandhu counters that Shakespeare’s texts still evoke emotions that resonate within the contemporary world – his topics of love, hate, greed and lust are timeless and embedded in the human character, she argues. She sees Shakespeare as remarkably progressive, with many of his characters in gender-fluid roles and with his portrayals of strong women – Rosalind, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, to name a few. His works can provide teaching moments, says Sandhu, giving the examples of Taming of the Shrew to show the harm that misogyny causes, King Lear, the scourge of elder abuse, and Othello and Merchant as vehicles to elicit tolerance and empathy in society.
Other vignettes in the film include a Bard board member – a neurosurgeon – who, during an opening night audience address, poignantly recounts the solace he found in the dark spaces of the theatre during a production of King Lear after the loss of a patient. He says that darkness was the escape from the reality of his grief.
Another scenario depicted is a couple taking in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, where the woman is clearly more into it than her male partner, who finds the Shakespearean language highbrow and difficult to understand.
Then there are the gothic, spectre-like creatures who denounce the Bard’s portrayal of women and Blacks in a macabre pas de deux; a talkback session after a Measure for Measure performance, where the female actor embarks on a scathing indictment of colour-blind casting; and the finale, in French, as the two actors attend an inventive Shakespeare festival in Montreal.
Shakespeare’s influence is global. At any given time, somewhere on the planet, one of his plays is being produced, either in its original form or as an adaptation. Do we judge him with our contemporary lens or should we remember the times in which he wrote and appreciate his genius? Done/Undone is a thoughtful and intelligent production that seamlessly blends the worlds of cinema and theatre, and considers some difficult questions. It leaves you to draw your own conclusions.
Done/Undone, with a run time of 76 minutes, is available for streaming online until Sept. 30. Tickets can be purchased at bardonthebeach.org or from the box office at 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Jennifer Lines and Andrew McNee in The Taming of the Shrew. (photo by Tim Matheson)
Bard on the Beach celebrates its 30th season with an eclectic, nontraditional mix of three Shakespeare plays – a western Taming of the Shrew, a Bollywood All’s Well that Ends Well and Coriolanus, a political drama with gender reversal – and a stage version of the Oscar-winning movie Shakespeare in Love.
A Western-style Shrew
How do you present Shakespeare’s tale of a strong-willed woman brought to her knees by a tormenting husband in today’s #metoo world? Can you justify staging a misogynistic play in the 21st century? That was the dilemma facing director Lois Anderson, who played the female lead in 2012. Her solution? Take some liberties with the script – nip it here, tuck it there, add in some role and speech reversals, set it in the American Wild West of the 1870s. While purists may bemoan the surgery, there is a lot to like about this production.
In Shrew, Lucentio (Kamyar Pazandeh), the son of a wealthy merchant from Pisa, comes to Padua to study and is smitten by Bianca (Kate Besworth), the lovely younger daughter of Madam Baptista (Susinn McFarlen). He is resolved to marry her but the good Madam insists that her older daughter, Katherine (Jennifer Lines), must be married off first. Unfortunately, Kate has the reputation of being an über shrew and none of the local men sees her as wife material. Enter Petruchio (Andrew McNee), a down-on-his-luck Veronan who has come to Padua to “wife it wealthily” and sees Kate (and her dowry) as both a challenge and an answer to his prayers.
Their first meeting is a fiery battle of evenly matched wits and an insight into things to come as the “taming” journey begins from a spontaneous marriage proposal, through the outlandish wedding to the honeymoon in a canvas tent on the range. The scene with Petruchio’s men lounging around the campfire singing in harmony about tumbleweed is a harbinger of Kate’s metamorphosis from the shrew to the good wife.
Meanwhile, back in Padua, now that Kate has been married off, Bianca’s admirers are set to woo her. Lucentio and Hortensio (Jewish community member Anton Lipovetsky) disguise themselves as tutors to vie for her affections. Lucentio wins the battle of the swains, the couple elopes and Hortensio consoles himself by marrying a wealthy widow. Kate and Petruchio return to Padua to celebrate the nuptials and a wager is made among the three grooms as to which wife will be the most obedient and come when called. Although Kate is the one who appears to obsequiously respond, she makes her final exit with a bang.
Lines is stellar as Kate. We see her feisty side when she lassoes her sister Bianca and drags her around the room, when she throws a flowerpot out of a window onto a mocking crowd below and when she breaks a lute over Hortensio’s head – Lipovetsky plays the part with great comedic timing. We also see Kate’s more vulnerable side, as she sits alone contemplating her spinsterhood and what is, in essence, the bullying she endures from the townsfolk.
Petruchio’s character has been made into a kinder, gentler soul, more palatable to today’s sensibilities, but the nice guy doesn’t always mesh with the mean one Shakespeare wrote. That said, McNee is strong in his portrayal and you cannot help but like him. It helps that the chemistry between the two leads is palpable – their characters are outsiders who have finally found their soul mates and revel in the discovery.
The production values are high for Shrew. Mara Gottler has done a stellar job with the costumes, the colourful frocks worn by the women, the cowboy dusters and the urban togs of the localites. Cory Sincennes’ set is simple, with the opening scene of Padua City’s main street readying for a summer fête easily morphing into the Baptista sitting room or a saloon. Gerald King’s lighting design and Malcolm Dow’s western sound design, replete with sounds of galloping horses in a very funny pony express scene, complete the theme.
This Shrew is certainly worth seeing but it would have been better with the original script, acknowledging the culture of the Elizabethan period regarding the treatment of the “fairer” sex and opening the dialogue about how far women have come in the past 400 years and how much further there is to go. After all, you don’t take the antisemitism out of Merchant of Venice or the elder abuse out of King Lear – and you should not take the misogyny out of The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s works, warts and all, should be looked at through a 16th-century lens, not a modern one.
The Bard in India
All’s Well that Ends Well defies classification into one of Shakespeare’s genres – comedy or tragedy. Bard on the Beach plays it as the former and it pays off, with an audience-pleasing feast of colour, music, bhangra dancing and swordplay.
The setting is 1946 India in a country on the cusp of independence from British rule prior to the partition with Pakistan, which divided the country into Hindu and Muslim nations. The story revolves around Helena (Sarena Parmar), an upper-class Hindu physician’s daughter and ward of the aristocratic British Countess (Lucia Frangione), who falls in love with the Countess’s soldier son, Bertram (Edmund Stapelton). Bertram is dismissive of Helena, considering her beneath his station.
However, Helena is determined to have him. The Viceroy (Bernard Cuffling) is ailing and near death. Helena, remembering her now-deceased father’s various remedies, offers to treat the Viceroy in exchange for the right to marry any man of her choosing. But, while she gets her wish and Bertram is forced to marry her, he abandons her to go to battle. He leaves behind a letter stating that he will not live with Helena as her spouse until she retrieves a ring he is wearing and bears him a child.
In Delhi, Bertram meets virginal but coquettish Diana (Pam Patel) and seduces her (so he thinks) but Helena has previously met with her and made plans to trade places with Diana in the bed chamber. This deception allows her to meet Bertram’s conditions and finally convince him that she is worthy of him – although why she would want such a cad is beyond comprehension.
Helena’s journey of self-discovery is symbolized by her sartorial choices, as she changes from Western garb to a traditional sari by the end of the play, paralleling the Indian journey from colonization and British rule to independence.
It is nice to see the diversity of cast in this production and the use of Hindi dialogue, particularly by Diana’s mother, the widow (Veenesh Dubois). Parmar is lovely as Helena, Cuffling a grouchy but avuncular Viceroy. David Marr as Lafeu, the minister, is hilarious and Jeff Gladstone as Parolles, one of Bertram’s military mates, steals the show with his slapstick antics. Newcomer Patel as Diana is a breath of fresh air. The ensemble dancers under the direction of choreographer Poonam Sandhu and the two Gurkha guards, Munish Sharma and Nadeem Phillip, bring authenticity to the onstage movement.
This show is all about the visuals – the set, the costumes, the dancing and the lighting. Kudos to costume designer Carmen Alatorre for her stylish choices and to set designer Pam Johnson for the stunning terracotta arched set, which transitions from a palatial Delhi home to a Punjabi marketplace brimming with colour and activity. Co- directors Rohit Chokhani and Johnna Wright, with their talented cast and crew, have created a gem. This fusion of East meets West is a winner.
Fall for Shakespeare
As director Daryl Clonan – who helmed last year’s hit, As You Like It, Beatlemania-style – said to the opening night crowd of Shakespeare in Love, this play is a love letter to the theatre. Not only that but it is great fun. The costumes, the acting, the set, the ambience, all do honour to its namesake 1998 film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie took the cinematic world by storm, winning seven Oscars, including best picture, and this summer’s stage version is set to wow Vancouver audiences.
The story is set in period, the early 1600s. The Bard (dashing Charlie Gallant) is suffering from writer’s block as he works on a new play, Romeo and Ethel and the Pirate’s Daughter. His inspiration ultimately arrives in the form of muse Viola De Lesseps (Ghazal Azarbad), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who dreams of acting on stage. However, as women were not allowed thespian careers at that time, she has to disguise herself as Thomas Kent in order to audition for Shakespeare’s new play. As Kent, she gets the part of Romeo.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare meets Viola and falls for her – and she for him, although she has been promised to Lord Wessex, a nasty fortune-hunting aristocrat who plans to whisk her away to his family’s Virginia tobacco plantations.
This show has something in it for animal lovers (the dog Spot is a scene stealer), movie buffs and, of course, Shakespeare mavens, who will delight in identifying the various lines from the Bard’s repertoire, the play-within-a-play, mistaken identities, swordplay, a balcony scene, an in flagrante delicto moment and more.
The ensemble cast is terrific and Gallant and Azarbad are sublime in their portrayals of the two lovers, who enjoy some steamy moments behind the bed curtains. Jennifer Lines has a small but memorable role as a regal and stately Queen Elizabeth I. Mention must also be made of newcomer Jason Sakaki, who plays Sam, the young boy who plays Juliet until opening night, when his voice changes, giving Viola a chance to tread the boards without hiding her gender. Kit Marlowe (Austin Eckert), one of Shakespeare’s competitors, has been given an enhanced role in this rendering and he helps Shakespeare muddle his way through Sonnet #18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day….”
Four Jewish community members are involved in this production. Warren Kimmel – last seen at Bard as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – plays Fennyman, a local impressario who takes a share in one of Shakespeare’s plays and, while it is a small role, Kimmel plays it to the comedic max. Anton Lipovetsky makes the unctuous groom Lord Wessex utterly repellent, Mishelle Cuttler provides a potpourri of baroque melodies as sound designer and musical director, and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s work as movement coach adds energy and playfulness, as it does in The Taming of the Shrew.
Set and costume designer Cory Sincennes once again keeps the set simple, a stark sepia-coloured Globe Theatre, but goes all out on a colourful feast of costumes.
This will likely be the hit of the season.
Three of the four Bard productions are up and running; Corialanus opens Aug. 21. For the schedule and tickets visit bardonthebeach.org or call 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Kenton Klassen, left, and John Voth co-star in Pacific Theatre’s production of Cherry Docs. (photo by Dylan Hamm)
I often wonder, as a lawyer and the child of a Holocaust survivor, if I would be able to defend a skinhead charged with a racist crime. Can a person shut off their emotions and take on a case that is at odds with their moral compass?
This is the premise of Cherry Docs, a two-hander playing at the Pacific Theatre until April 28. Playwright David Gow penned the piece in 1998 as a response, in part, to the homophobic attack by a group of skinheads on his university friend and, in part, to his Jewish Belgian family’s Holocaust experiences.
“I wanted to explore and come to terms with my own anger at seeing young people dressed as Nazis and adopting Nazi thinking 50 years after the end of a war that killed so many millions,” Gow told the Jewish Independent. “Now, 70-odd years later, we seem to have more neo-Nazis than ever before. It looks far, far worse today than in 1998, when someone could (and did) say with a straight face, are you sure this is a problem? It was not good in 1998. Now, of course, it is a problem of epic, international proportions.”
Cherry Docs has been produced globally, including a long run in Germany, where, said Gow, “the critical reception … was extremely detailed, extremely well-written, unlike anything we see in North America, even from, say, the New York Times, in terms of depth and breadth of commentary and analysis. The play ran for something like seven years in rep in Berlin. Two distinct productions have been done in Tel Aviv over the years, and maybe two in Jerusalem.”
As well, he added, “productions in Poland ran for 13 years. One Polish production went to Beijing for an international theatre festival and, there, it played with Chinese subtitles, so, an English Canadian play in Polish and Chinese, in China.”
The success of the play and its international acclaim led Gow to adapt the story for the big screen. Its cinematic debut came in 2006, as Steel Toes. It won several awards on the film festival circuit.
In the two-actor play, which features John Voth as Danny Dunkelman and Kenton Klassen as Mike Downey in the Pacific Theatre production, Danny is a Jewish legal aid lawyer who has been assigned the task of defending Mike Downey, a 20ish, tattooed skinhead, who is charged with murder in the stomping death of a Pakistani fast food worker in a back alley in downtown Toronto. The play’s title represents Mike’s pride and joy, his steel-toed, cherry red Doc Marten combat boots, which he is wearing when he commits his hate-motivated crime. The rationale for Mike’s unprovoked, drunken attack is his perception of the decline and fall of white male supremacy as brought on by what he sees as unchecked immigration, reverse discrimination for employment opportunities and a ZOG (Zionist occupation government) conspiracy of the Jewish elite.
Mike has been indoctrinated into the white racist youth movement and recites antisemitic clichés with ease and conviction. He is a proud foot soldier for the Aryan resistance movement. He goads Danny on by saying, “In an ideal world, I would see you eliminated, but I need you. I know you will do a good job for me, as you are a Jewish liberal thinker, a humanist, who believes in checks and balances in the system.”
Mike insists that he be tried for his crime, which he admits – although he says he did not intend to kill the victim – as an individual. “Try me,” he says, “not the skinhead ideology.”
Danny aggressively challenges high school-dropout Mike to formulate a convincing defence strategy, taking him through “the eye of a needle” in an effort to make him stand up and be accountable for his actions.
The two travel their own paths of discovery through the seven months of legal proceedings. Mike’s journey leads him to a path of redemption, while Danny struggles. Danny must confront not only his violent dislike for his client, but his own racism; in doing so, he explores his Judaism and its tenets of atonement and forgiveness.
The biblical names of the characters Daniel (in the lions’ den) and Michael (the archangel) suggest an allegory, “A battle from above played out here,” said Gow. As the story unfolds, we see the impact that two ideologically opposite humans can have on each other, and that Danny is no saint and Mike no devil.
All of the action takes place in the prison, where Mike is being held in administrative segregation. The style – alternating monologues from the protagonists followed by intense bouts of verbal sparring – and the sparse set (two chairs and a table) are appropriately stark for the subject matter and the intimate theatre space. The costumes also are uncomplicated – Mike’s prison jumpsuit and Danny’s business attire. Subtle lighting and sound cues complete the atmosphere.
Klassen is superb in his portrayal of Mike. At the opening night reception, he shared with the Independent that he had prepared for the role by talking to a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead, which gave him insight into his character. While Voth is solid as the defence attorney, he is not as engaging as Klassen.
Two particular scenes bear mention. In one, the two actors stand at opposite ends of the stage, just breathing and looking at each other with no words spoken – the silence is more powerful than any dialogue. In the second, Mike sits alone on the stage, repeatedly opening and closing a lighter, his face mirrored in the glow of the flame – again, the silence says it all. Kudos to director Richard Wolfe for bringing all the parts of this production together into a riveting whole.
As for another reason why audiences should come to see the play, Gow said, “It is highly entertaining, and that is why it has attracted tens of thousands of audience members. The best-known actor associated with the play has said, ‘It will recalibrate your soul.’ I am not sure about that, but certainly thought-provoking, I believe … not an average play, in any case.”
Cherry Docs is, indeed, a thought-provoking play, whose themes remain timely and relevant. It is difficult to perform and a brave choice for Cave Canem Productions and Pacific Theatre – it is both a visceral and intellectual experience, suitable for older teens and up, as it contains mature subject matter, violence and profanity. For tickets, call 604-731-5518 or visit pacifictheatre.org.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Left to right are Jennifer Lines, Quelemia Sparrow and Marci T. House, who form part of the cast of Lysistrata. (photo by David Cooper)
At Bard on the Beach this summer, there is an eclectic mix of plays. There is Macbeth, set in its proper period, which runs in repertory on the BMO Stage with a Beatlemania version of As You Like It. On the more intimate Howard Family Stage, there is an experimental gender-role reversal take on little-known Timon of Athens and Lysistrata, a somewhat X-rated farcical romp through an ancient Greek tale, with a contemporary twist.
For Lysistrata, University of Victoria professor Jennifer Wise (Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition winner) collaborated with director Lois Anderson to adapt Aristophanes’ 411 BCE comedic protest play about a group of Athenian and Spartan women who, tired of their husbands’ endless war-mongering, reluctantly decide to withhold sex until the men vow to give up fighting and stay at home with their families. You can probably guess what ultimately happens. But, to get there, the audience is led through a Monty Python meets Saturday Night Live series of misadventures replete with double entendres, an interesting use of plastic pool noodles and plenty of rollicking action.
The play’s backstory is Bard’s scheduled production of an all-female Hamlet that morphs into a dramatis interruptus as the company decides, at the last minute and with profuse apologies to the audience and artistic director Christopher Gaze, to stage Lysistrata this one night only to protest the pending rezoning of Vanier Park to make way for a shipping terminal. This leads to a lot of backing-and-forthing through ancient Greece and modern-day Vancouver interspersed with the ever-sublime Colleen Wheeler, as Hamlet, trying to get her “to be or not to be” soliloquy in, despite the change in plans, as she hauls “poor Yorick’s skull” around the set.
This is truly an ensemble cast and every member shines, but special mention must be made of Luisa Jojic’s role as the eponymous ring leader, Jennifer Lines as Mother Earth and Quelemia Sparrow’s poignant performance as an indigenous actor.
Mention must also be made of the two male artists (Sebastien Archibald and Joel D. Montgrand) who, as uniformed police officers, “stop” the performance to arrest one of the actors – who has defaced the rezoning signs and plastered graffiti all over the crab sculpture in front of the Planetarium – for public mischief. It all seems very real and is very funny, especially since one of the cops plays Wheeler’s husband, Ross.
In addition to Wise, other Jewish community members play prominent roles in the production. Mishelle Cutler makes her Bard debut as music director and one-woman orchestra. She uses 1930s Weimar cabaret-style music for the contemporary scenes, and opera and choral works for the more classic Greek theatre bits. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg takes that music and provides novel dance moves, especially for the quirky geriatric men versus women Athenian reel.
In keeping with the environmental theme of the night, the costumes and accessories are simple, to give credence to the improvised nature of the show. Head gear is made of hand bags, recycled water bottles and paper toilet rolls, a Starbucks cup does double duty as a wine chalice, costumes made from curtain rods and drapes (à la Carol Burnett’s iconic Gone With the Wind outfit) mix in with the actors’ own street clothes.
Ultimately, this mélange of Shakespeare, Greek theatre and contemporary activism should resonate with all of us, as we grapple with the reality of development in this city and its impact on our heritage and our way of life. While this show is a lot of fun, it may not be suitable for children under the age of 13.
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Sometimes, you have to take risks with Shakespeare and director Meg Roe certainly does so with this adaptation of Timon of Athens. She admits in her notes that it is a “difficult play” and that it may not have been written solely by the Bard. It is the tale of a wealthy Athenian who wines and dines his friends and showers them with expensive gifts until he gets into financial difficulty. When he approaches those friends for help, they refuse. This sends him into a rage and, ultimately, to his death.
In the original version, the cast is predominantly male. In this adaptation, it is 2018, the set is a high-end condo in Vancouver and the cast is reminiscent of the Real Housewives women – uber wealthy, stiletto-heeled and shallow, constantly on their pinging/chirping phones.
Wheeler is sublime in her role as Timon and her manic meltdown into madness alone is worth the price of a ticket. She literally destroys the set. You have to give kudos to the stage crew, who have to rebuild the set for every performance, and to the costumers, who have to replace her white pantsuit every show. The set is stylish and sleek and the couture frocks divine. But, in the end, the basic takeaway is that money can’t buy you friends.
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This summer’s Macbeth is the way Shakespeare intended it to be – in its proper Elizabethan period, with a stark set and eerie smoke and lighting effects. Perfect for a tale of greed, lust for power and revenge.
Early in the play, Macbeth (Ben Carlson) encounters three witches (the ones with the famous brew that includes the “liver of a blaspheming Jew”) who predict that he will be king of Scotland. Once Lady Macbeth (Moya O’Connell) hears of this, she sets out to convince her husband to murder King Duncan when the king visits their castle so that he, Macbeth, can reign. And so begins their downward spiral towards murder, death, destruction and madness.
Carlson and O’Connell are the crème de la crème of Canadian acting and exude an intense chemistry as the plotting Scots. Special mention must be made of Andrew Wheeler as a gruff Macduff and Craig Erickson as a ghostly Banquo.
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Bard’s As You Like It is the must-see show of the summer. It is definitely a crowd-pleaser. And you will want to see it over and over again. Director Daryl Cloran has taken out half the Shakespearean text and inserted 25 of the Beatles’ top hits where appropriate in this tale of four pairs of young lovers (and the obstacles in their paths) so that, when one of the pairs, Rosalind (Lindsey Angell) and Orlando (Nadeem Phillip), locks eyes the for the first time, he breaks out in, “She loves you, ya, ya, ya.” Every situation easily morphs into a Beatles’ moment through songs like “Help,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Eight Days a Week” and so forth. The 1960s setting is split between urban Vancouver and the Okanagan, where various characters are exiled by the new duke on the block. There, in the wilderness, the four love stories unfold.
In addition, there is a pre-show display of Wildcat Wrestling, a psychedelic VW van parked on stage, a terrific four-piece band led by musical director Ben Elliott who does double duty as love-struck Silvius and is one half of a memorable and raunchy pas de deux with Jojic as Phoebe the shepherdess. That girl can belt out a song.
The standouts are the protagonists Angell and Phillip – they both sing and dance up a storm – Kayvon Khoshkam, who is simply terrific as the wrestling master of ceremonies and then later as the court fool, Touchstone, and Ben Carlson who, as the stereotypical beatnik, intellectual elitist, gives the audience a new take on the “all the world’s a stage” speech.
This is a fast-paced, fun night of music, song and dance that will have you humming these tunes all the way back home. Even old Will himself is probably rocking in his grave over Stratford-upon-Avon way.
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Bard on the Beach runs to Sept. 22. For tickets to any of the shows and more information, go to bardonthebeach.org or call the box office at 604-739-0559.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
Morgan Hayley Smith as Anne and Gabriele Metcalfe as Peter in Fighting Chance Productions’ The Diary of Anne Frank. (photo from FCP)
“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” This iconic quote from Anne Frank’s diary is known the world over. Can you imagine having this outlook after hiding from the Gestapo for two years in an Amsterdam building annex with seven other people, never being able to go outside and living in constant fear of discovery? These words exemplify Anne’s character – innocent yet resilient, courageous and optimistic. But she also personifies the tragedy of the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews – their only crime: being Jews.
Anne’s legacy is her diary, vignettes of daily wartime life in hiding, as seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. The diary has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into 60 languages. In 1955, husband-and-wife writing team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted it for the Broadway stage. The result was a Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony for best production. However, the script omitted most references to Judaism (to make the show more “universal”) as well as any thoughts Anne had about sex, the latter at the request of her father, Otto, the sole survivor of the annex. Now, a local theatre company, Fighting Chance Productions (FCP), is staging the 1997 Wendy Kessleman adaptation that puts the Judaism and Anne’s budding sexuality back into the script to present a more authentic portrait of what happened in that annex at 263 Prinsengracht.
FCP presents the piece in the round at the intimate 50-seat Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive on a minimalist set – eight chairs on the bare floor. The first row of seats is also on the floor, so most of the audience is on the same level as the actors, or only a step up, making us part of the narrative.
Anne (Morgan Hayley Smith) and her family – father Otto (Cale Walde), mother Edith (Gina Leon) and sister Margot (Diana Beairsto) – are hidden in a secret annex behind a bookcase in Otto’s office building. Their protectors are friends and neighbours Mr. Kraler (Drew Hart) and Miep (Tori Fritz), who are the provisioners and news-bearers during the family’s sojourn in hiding and their only contact with the outside world. The Franks are soon joined by the van Daan family – father (Bruce Hill), mother (Leanne Kuzminski), 16-year-old Peter (Gabriele Metcalfe) and Mouschi, Peter’s black cat. Months later, they are asked to take in neurotic dentist Mr. Dussel (Thomas King). Within the confines of the annex, these very different people have to learn to live and let live as they try to bring a sense of normalcy into their daily routines. And they manage to do so – until Aug. 4, 1944, when they are betrayed and taken to concentration camps.
On opening night at the Havana, you could have heard a pin drop as the audience experienced this compelling story in the small theatre, which was both cozy and claustrophobic. Some audience members could have reached out and touched the actors as they moved about the shadowy set.
All of the acting is strong in this production, but Smith is the stand out, seemingly born to play the role of Anne. She is lovely and has the right mix of emotions as she faces the usual teenage girl issues – first kiss, mother problems, sister rivalry. She is coy when she has to be, outspoken on all subjects and feisty when verbally sparring with her fellow annex occupants (Hill, Kuzminski and King are stellar in these moments). Metcalfe presents a believable, shy and awkward Peter, just learning how to navigate his way around girls, and he and Smith have real chemistry on stage – what a tender moment when they first brush lips. Walde is strong as the reliable father figure while Leon and Beairsto lend quiet dignity to their roles. During intermission, the cast stays in character and on set, a reminder that, while we, the audience, have the freedom to move about, Anne and the others cannot escape their prison – a brilliant directorial artistic choice.
There is a last poignant moment just before the group is captured. Peter says that, when he gets out, he is going to make sure that no one knows that he is Jewish, as life would be a lot easier as a Christian. Anne quickly responds, “I’d never turn away from who I am. I couldn’t. Don’t you know, you’ll always be Jewish … in your soul.”
This production, in its simplicity, succeeds on so many levels – the set, the sound design, the muted tones of the costumes, the lighting and, notably, those all-important moments of silence, which often have more impact than the dialogue itself. The Diary of Anne Frank is a rich, powerful drama.
A great responsibility comes with staging this type of play. Kudos to this company and co-directors Ryan Mooney and Allyson Fournier, who have met the challenge – it is essential for Anne’s story to continue to be told.
The JI interviewed Smith (MHS) and Mooney (RM) by email during the rehearsal period.
JI: What made you want to do this show?
RM: I have always been a fan of the Anne Frank story. I remember being drawn to her book when I was in elementary school and seeing the classic movie in high school. I have seen several productions in the past and always wanted an opportunity to direct it myself. The story is timeless and hopeful and I like playing with the dark and light of humanity.
MHS: I played Anne in a drama festival production in junior high. I felt a connection because of this and also because I dreamed of being a writer when I was a teenager. The story moved me even back then and I have always been amazed at how this young girl viewed what was happening in her country.
JI: What was the audition process like?
RM: It was trickier than usual for this show. We saw a lot of people but wanted to take the time and care to ensure we had a perfect cast. I am very happy with how we ended up.
JI: How did you feel about getting the role of Anne?
MHS: I felt surprised and very lucky to be selected, as I actually went in to audition for Margot, her sister. I am an older sister myself and felt I could relate to Margot. It was a nice surprise to be asked instead to call up my bright-eyed inner child and set aside the responsible sister side. It was even better to find that inner child still there as lively as ever.
JI: Has the play impacted your life in any way?
RM: I think seeing how the cast has really come to the table for this one has been touching to me. The way the cast has been affected by the characters has surprised me. It should not though, because they are compassionate and empathetic actors and people.
MHS: I definitely feel an impact. I find myself so thankful that I have the smallest freedoms, like going outside and walking in the fresh air, and that I have been able to grow up and get answers to questions about myself, questions that Anne never got to answer. What might surprise people about this show – and Anne’s diary itself – is how joyful and full of life it is. I have been feeling inspired to take in beauty from the day-to-day and really appreciate things that are taken for granted.
JI: Is the play appropriate for all audiences?
MHS: I highly encourage audiences of all ages to see this play. I think it is very easy to lose a degree of connection when a story is as widely known as this one is. This play shows these characters and their circumstances not as grand ideas, but as everyday people, people with clashing personalities, people who have vices, prized possessions, teenage crushes and lingering questions. Despite the tragedy, at its core it’s a story about people and about the universal experience of growing up.
JI: What would you like audiences to take away from this production?
RM: I hope they walk away with a remembrance of this tragic time and its focus on the individual. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the six million-plus deaths during the Holocaust but it is appropriate to sit and see the effect on one individual, the humanizing factor.
MHS: Above anything else, I hope audiences take away from this play what I did: a renewed human connection for the people these events touched, and an appreciation for the privilege it is to be able to grow up.
Tova Kornfeldis a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.
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• Last month, researchers using digital technology uncovered two new pages of Anne Frank’s diary, which contained “naughty jokes” and discussions about sex and prostitution.
• A biography about Dutch resistance activist Elisabeth “Bep” Voskuijl, who was of one of Otto Frank’s employees, suggests the possibility that it was Voskuijl’s sister who outed the annex residents to the Nazis.
Richard Newman and Gina Chiarelli in Bar Mitzvah Boy, at Pacific Theatre until April 14. (photo by Damon Calderwood)
The number 13 means different things to different people. To a baker, it’s that extra pastry that he adds to a dozen; to the superstitious, it’s considered bad luck to the extent that some buildings do not have a 13th floor. To a Jewish boy, it means his right of passage into manhood, a journey fraught with both angst and joy.
But what if you missed that momentous occasion, for whatever reason, and now, as a grandfather, as your grandson’s bar mitzvah approaches, you have an urgent need to have a bar mitzvah ceremony? This premise forms the basis of local playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, a two-hander being staged at the intimate Pacific Theatre in Vancouver until April 14. It won the American Jewish Play Project’s prize for best new Jewish play last year, with successful staged readings in New York, Boston and Charlotte, N.C.
Joey Brandt (Richard Newman) is a successful Vancouver divorce lawyer who wants to study privately with Rabbi Michael (Gina Chiarelli) in order to have his bar mitzvah before his grandson’s big day. He is surprised to learn that she is female, and even more surprised when she refuses him as a student, suggesting that he join Cantor Rubin’s bar mitzvah class instead. Joey is obviously a man used to getting his way and, not surprisingly, his stint in Rubin’s class turns into a fiasco, as Joey disrupts the class and takes all the boys out for Hawaiian pizza (you know, the kind that has ham on it). The rabbi eventually relents, in light of both Joey’s advocacy skills and a big donation to the synagogue’s renovation fund.
The chemistry between the two actors is palpable. The audience is led through a witty pas de deux, and both teacher and student experience personal metamorphoses through their weekly interactions. Joey – who has not been to shul for 52 years – learns to put on tefillin, as well as studying the liturgy and history of his people, in a crash course in Judaism. Meanwhile, the somewhat bohemian rabbi (she jogs and smokes marijuana – for “medicinal purposes” only) works through her own demons, which include an almost-12-year-old daughter with cancer and a husband who cannot cope with the illness. In an engaging twist, the professional roles reverse as the players grapple with the existential question of whether G-d is a metaphor or a real entity on which to base our faith.
Newman, who says that he is “Jewish on both sides” is stellar in his role as Joey (and his Hebrew is not too bad, either) but it is Chiarelli who steals the show with her sublime portrayal of a working mom having to deal with a sick child and an unsupportive husband. Kudos to Chiarelli, who is not Jewish, but who has mastered the dialogue and rituals of the script.
The set design is sparse but effective. One side is a backlit bimah with a lectern and a dove-shaped eternal flame hanging above. The other side does double duty as the rabbi’s study (replete with a library that includes Kosher Sex by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and the Kama Sutra) and Joey’s office. The costumes are simple and the music – klezmer, what else.
Leiren-Young peppers the play with local references that will resonate with some of the community audience – names like Cantor Rubin, Rabbi Solomon, Schara Tzedeck, the astronomical prices of the real estate – some contemporary quips about the Broadway musical hit Hamilton and singer Kenny Rogers, and a multitude of Jewish clichés. He is the master of witty repartee, as anyone will know who has seen his play Shylock, which was, most recently, at Bard on the Beach last year.
“I had a truly crazy bar mitzvah at the Beth Israel,” said Leiren-Young when asked in an email interview by the JI about his own bar mitzvah experience. “There was a snowstorm and my mom’s car was hit en route to the shul for Friday night services. After that, standing at the bimah
and singing was easy! I drew a lot of inspiration for this play from real experiences – a mix of my own and stories from friends – but I just realized I left out the snowstorm. Maybe that’ll go in the movie.”
As to whether or not you have to be Jewish to get the play, he said, “No more than you have to be Catholic to ‘get’ Doubt or Mass Appeal or Sister Mary Ignatius (three ‘Catholic’ plays I love). But there are definitely moments that will hit harder for a Jewish audience and, I suspect, there will be jokes only Jewish audience members will laugh at.”
It is somewhat ironic that the world première of this play is being held in the basement of an Anglican Church, but that is part of its cachet.
The audience take-away from any play is deeply personal but, as Joey says in his bar mitzvah speech at the end of this journey into his faith: today, I am a man here to honour my family and ancestors, to celebrate being a Jew and becoming a member of a community with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with that membership. And, to that, we say, amen.