Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak in the Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, which is slated to run through January 2020 in New York City. (photo by Matthew Murphy)
It’s no wonder the current Fiddler on the Roof on stage in New York City has been extended several times since it debuted Off-Broadway last summer. The immense draw isn’t just the splendid choreography, the well-known beloved music, the compelling, stellar cast, the emotional dialogue – it’s the authenticity that strikes a chord. Based on a collection of vignettes by Yiddish literary icon Sholem Aleichem, this production of Fiddler is entirely in Yiddish, the guttural tongue that the people on whom the characters are based would have used in real life.
This is the first time in the United States that Fiddler is being staged in Yiddish. Directed by the venerable actor Joel Grey, it opened at the Lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in July 2018 and transferred to the more commercial Stage 42 near Times Square in February 2019. It’s expected to run through January 2020. It has both English and Russian supertitles.
“When Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish first premièred last summer for a limited eight-week run under Joel’s vision, it was a show that moved people to tears and I knew it had to be seen by as many people as possible,” producer Hal Luftig told the Independent.
Set in 1905 in a Jewish shtetl in the town of Anatevka, on the outskirts of czarist Russia, Fiddler is centred around Tevye (played by Steven Skybell). He’s a poor dairyman with a wife and five daughters. Three of his daughters are of marrying age and the expectations are a matchmaker will find them a husband.
But, despite tradition, the strong-willed girls have their own idea of who they want to marry – and it’s all for love. Their marital choices give Tevye plenty of tsouris (aggravation). Eldest daughter Tsatyl (Rachel Zatcoff) marries a poor tailor in need of a sewing machine. Second daughter Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason) falls in love with a penniless Bolshevik revolutionary who winds up in Siberia. And though Tevye convinces his wife, Golde (Jennifer Babiak), that it’s OK to break from the matchmaker tradition, it is too much even for him when his third daughter, Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy), falls in love with a gentile – he banishes her from the family, declaring her dead.
Meanwhile, the political climate is very antisemitic. There are pogroms, and the czar is expelling Jews from the villages. At the end of the musical, the Jews of Anatevka are notified that they have three days to leave the village or they will be forced out by the government.
The original Broadway production opened in 1964 and, in 1965, won nine Tony Awards including best musical, best score, book, direction and choreography. Zero Mostel was the original Tevye. The music was by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. The original New York stage production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. In 1971, there was a critically acclaimed film adaptation that garnered three Academy Awards, including best music.
The Yiddish translation was originally performed in Israel in 1965. It was crafted by Shraga Friedman, an Israeli actor who was born in Warsaw, escaped the Nazis in 1941 and settled in Tel Aviv.
In the New York production, the set design, credited to Beowulf Boritt, is simple. The word Torah (in Hebrew) is painted across the main banner and is torn apart and sewn back together as a symbol of what the Jewish people have endured.
From the very start, the audience gets drawn in when the cast forms a circle and sings “Traditsye” (“Tradition”). Another familiar tune – “Shadkhnte Shadkhnte” (“Matchmaker Matchmaker”) has the audience moving in their seats. While most of the music and lyrics are basically the same, there are some changes. “If I Were a Rich Man” becomes “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothshild” (“If I Were a Rothschild”).
While most of the cast is Jewish, some are not, and very few of the actors actually knew Yiddish before the show. Jackie Hoffman, who brilliantly plays Yente the Matchmaker, grew up with some Yiddish in her home but was far from fluent in it.
“I didn’t learn the language for my role, I learned my lines,” admitted Hoffman, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., in an Orthodox home and attended a yeshivah for nine years. “It was difficult, but when I’m hungry to learn a role, that helps a lot. We have great coaches who are relentless. I did hear Yiddish in the house growing up, my mom and grandmother conversed, and I’m now grateful for every word I’ve learned.”
Hoffman and the cast were taught the language phonetically. Many had seen Fiddler performed in English in various theatrical productions, as well as the film. “It feels bashert this is the first production of Fiddler that I have ever been in and it is clearly the most meaningful,” said Hoffman, who has been in dozens of television shows and films, including Birdman, Garden State and Legally Blonde 2. “It merges the Jewish part of my life with the career part,” she told the Independent.
It is hard to leave the theatre without thinking of the similarities between Tevye’s Anatevka and many parts of the world today, including the United States. Jewish traditions are often challenged and antisemitism is once again on the rise.
“I don’t think that antisemitism ever went away, but it is a very scary time now,” said Hoffman. “It is mind-blowing how current the piece feels in that way.”
At the end of each performance, it’s clear by the enthusiastic applause and the long standing ovations, that the audience feels they have experienced something great. “They seem blown away by it,” said Hoffman. “They are impressed that we’ve pulled off a three-hour musical in Yiddish and they’re staggered by how pure and emotional an experience it is.”
At Stage 42 on 422 West 42nd St. in Manhattan, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish runs just under three hours with one intermission. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit fiddlernyc.com.
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
Sandra Bernhard performs at the Chutzpah! Festival Oct. 31. (photo by J. Graham)
The Chutzpah! Festival returns during a new late-fall time period – from Oct. 24 to Nov. 24 – with performances at the Rothstein Theatre, Vogue Theatre, Rickshaw Theatre and the WISE Hall. Here are some of this year’s offerings.
Opening night, Oct. 24: Multi-award-winning, London-based songwriter, broadcaster and musical storyteller Daniel Cainer performs the Canadian première of his internationally acclaimed Gefilte Fish and Chips. Based on personal stories of what it’s like to be Jewish – and British – then and now, it includes travelers’ tales, feuding tailors, a naughty rabbi, family fables, and foibles. All of the human condition is here, lovingly and intelligently depicted in a remarkable collection of stories in song.
Quick Sand, Oct. 31: Sandra Bernhard is always three steps ahead of the crowd. She has to be. She’s “quick sand.” In these fast-paced times, a lady can’t stop moving. You never know what you might encounter next in this fun house world we’re living in. So, performing with a three-piece band, Bernhard takes control, bringing a mélange of musings, music and whimsy – “never boring, j’adoring” is her motto, covering the waterfront of the outrageous, quotidian and glamorous.
The Trombonik Returns to New Chelm, Nov. 1: Taking inspiration from the traditional comic tales of Jewish folklore about Chelm, songwriter Geoff Berner and writer, performer and satirist T.J. Dawe, along with friends Toby Berner, Tallulah Winkelman and Jack Garten, present a klezmer musical set in Depression-era Saskatchewan.
A wandering con artist posing as a rabbi becomes entangled in the Prohibition-era whiskey trade. This production combines the social critique of Berner’s decades of activist songcraft with the comedic zaniness of Mel Brooks. Following this performance is a celebratory full-on drinking, dancing Klezmer Punk performance with Berner and his co-conspirators, along with special guest and renowned clarinetist Michael Winograd, to mark the release of Berner’s new CD, Grand Hotel Cosmopolis.
The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, Nov. 6-9: Everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager hidden away while Nazis hunted down Jews during the Holocaust. One American-Jewish director, Stan Zimmerman, adds a modern-day twist to the production, which will see its Canadian première at Chutzpah! Zimmerman said, “When I learned there are over a dozen Safe Houses in the L.A. area hiding Latinx families from ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], it got me wondering – How do these families survive with so little money and needing to remain in the shadows? How do they not lose hope? What are their lives like on a day-to-day basis? Do they see the parallels to Anne’s story?”
DAI (enough), Nov. 12-13: Iris Bahr is an award-winning writer, actor, director, producer and host of the hit podcast X-RAE and she is bringing her critically acclaimed, award-winning solo show DAI (enough) to Vancouver.
AvevA, Nov. 14: Chutzpah! presents the West Coast première of Ethiopian-Israeli singer and songwriter Aveva Dese. A rising star in the Israeli music scene, AvevA’s music fuses traditional Ethiopian sounds and groove with her soul-pop songs; she sings powerfully in both English and Amharic about society, freedom and love. Opening for AvevA is B.C.-based Leila Neverland with Mountain Sound.
Closing night, Nov. 24: Celebrates a week-long inclusion project of sharing, exploring and creating through art. Internationally renowned disability and mental health advocate and stand-up comedian Pamela Schuller and Brooklyn-based professional dancers and choreographers Troy Ogilvie and Rebecca Margolick will perform stand-up and solo dance work, respectively, in a shared evening of dance and comedy. The show will also present Ogilvie and Margolick’s new movement dance work created, directed and performed with members and guests of the inclusion community of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
In addition to these and many other shows, the Chutzpah! Festival will pay tribute to the JCCGV and celebrate the 25th anniversary of its long-standing and renowned musical theatre summer camp created by Perry Ehrlich – Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!; present a Shticks & Giggles comedy night with local comedians Ivan Decker, John Cullen, Lisa Person, Yisrael Shurack and others; and host multiple workshops as well as creation residencies for artists in dance and theatre in urban and rural B.C. settings.
Artists of Ballet BC in a previous production of Bill. (photo by Cindi Wicklund)
Ballet BC’s 2019/20 season marks its 34th anniversary year, as the company continues to celebrate life as movement. The new season features a North American première, a Ballet BC première and the return of five renowned choreographers.
Reveling in the beauty of our humanity, the season opens with Program 1, Oct. 31-Nov. 2. It features the première of BUSK by Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton and B.R.I.S.A. by Johan Inger. Inspired by the world of busking and set to an atmospheric score, Barton’s BUSK showcases her versatile and poignant choreography. Inger’s B.R.I.S.A., a probing and liberating piece exploring themes of awakening and change, returns to the stage by popular demand.
In Program 2, March 4-7, the company revisits the pleasure, pain and politics of young love with Romeo + Juliet by Medhi Walerski. In response to unprecedented demand and soldout performances for 2018’s world première of Romeo + Juliet in Vancouver, Ballet BC returns to this iconic story set to Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Crafted by Walerski, an original voice in international dance, it is an innovative and contemporary retelling of the full-length classic.
The season closes May 7-9 with the return of two of the most influential artists in international dance today, both of whom are from Israel. Ballet BC will be the first North American company to perform Hora by Ohad Naharin, following the success of the audience favourite Minus 16 in previous seaons. Program 3’s dynamic lineup features the much-anticipated return of Bill by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar.
For the holidays in December, Ballet BC presents Alberta Ballet’s retelling of holiday classic The Nutcracker. With choreography by Edmund Stripe, sets and costumes designed by Emmy Award-winning designer Zack Brown, and Tchaikovsky’s musical score played live by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, this extravagant production is set in turn-of-the-century Imperial Russia. Reflecting an era noted for its opulent grandeur, this show, which runs Dec. 28-30, displays more than a million dollars in sets and costumes.
“In 2019/20, we are excited to continue a dialogue about dance and its power to transform and connect us in ways that echo across time, place and culture. Today, more than ever, we need channels of expression that examine society and our place in it,” said Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar. “Dance can move people to feel and interpret life in new and meaningful ways. This season we are eager to delve deeper into a dance with each of you.”
All performances are at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Tickets and more information can be found at balletbc.com.
Bangarra Dance Theatre (photo by Edward Mulvihill)
DanceHouse’s new season, October 2019 through May 2020, showcases the work of four new companies to DanceHouse audiences and two returning favourites. This season’s offerings highlight a diverse range of artists who are transforming traditional dance styles with fusions of genres and cultures.
“Dance is a vibrant art form that is constantly evolving. We are delighted to share a curated lineup of world-class dance companies at the vanguard of their respective fields in our 2019/20 season,” said Jim Smith, artistic and executive director of DanceHouse. “We strive to present works with a unique and compelling perspective that simultaneously entertain and challenge our preconceptions. Vancouver audiences will be inspired by the artists’ athleticism, artistry, diversity of styles and dedication to inclusiveness.”
This season, new additions to the DanceHouse family include Bangarra Dance Theatre, one of Australia’s leading aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance companies performing Spirit, a collection of dance stories selected from their 30-year repertoire (Oct. 25-26); Montreal-based arts collective The 7 Fingers in collaboration with Artcirq of Igloolik and Taqqut Productions of Iqaluit with Unikkaaqtuat, a work that melds ancestral Inuit practices with circus arts (Jan. 22-25); Montreal’s RUBBERBANDance Group showcasing their dynamic blend of breakdancing, ballet and dance theatre in Ever So Slightly (March 20-21); and Spain’s Compañía Rocío Molina’s reinvention of flamenco dance in Fallen from Heaven (Caída del Cielo) (April 1-4).
DanceHouse welcomes back audience favourite and internationally acclaimed Brazilian company Grupo Corpo Feb. 28-29 in a mixed program featuring Gira, an homage to dance as a conduit to the divine. Finally, following their crowd-pleasing appearance in Vancouver in 2018, the New York-based tap dance company Dorrance Dance will return May 15-16 with ETM: Double Down, a celebration of the percussive potential of the human body.
All performances take place at the Vancouver Playhouse, except for Fallen from Heaven, which will be at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. DanceHouse subscribers get up to 30% off tickets to all six performances and single tickets will be on sale as of Sept. 9. For tickets and more information, visit dancehouse.ca or call 604-801-6225.
Janoah Bailin in SpinS. (photo from Janoah Bailin)
In anticipation of this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs Sept. 5-15 at various locations throughout the city, the Jewish Independent interviewed some of the Jewish community members participating in the festival – Janoah Bailin, Erika Babins, Jed Weiss, Zach Wolfman, Melanie Gall, Susan Freedman and Shane Adamczak. They hail from as far away as Australia and their shows are vastly different, but they all have the same goal: to draw you into their world, perhaps allowing you new insights into yours.
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SpinsS, at the Nest:“A wildly dizzying whirl of juggling, giggling, magic and movement, puppetry, PJs, circus and socks, totally tangled together! A unicyclist careens on stage, unpacking a quirky world of clothespin towers, erratic toothbrushes and gargantuan grins. Objects swirl into chaotic creation as Janoah constructs a performing-partner puppet from piles of props!”
Clothespins are “a recurring object in the performance,” Janoah Bailin told the JI. And so are, from the looks of it, some dangerous manoeuvres. But looks are intentionally deceiving, in order to entertain.
“I’ve actually never been seriously injured doing my work!” said Bailin. “Some stubbed toes and scraped elbows, sore wrists from catching myself, but nothing major. The worst is taking a pedal to your shin. When you learn unicycle, you learn falling. It just happens, you develop an innate sense of what you can and can’t comfortably do. I know how to fall and it happens all the time and I get up, shake it off, try again.
“This show plays with limits and bringing the skills to their limits – I expand or contract juggling patterns until I physically can’t hold them anymore and there’s a spin I do on the unicycle that spirals in on itself until I fall. So, falling is inherent in the show and I need to know how to do it well.
“I think I forget that audiences don’t know this,” he said about his being safe during his act. “So they are a lot more scared for me than I am, which is part of the magic of circus: faking instability, making something seem more chaotic than it is. The most dangerous stuff is long-term: keeping your body healthy through the strain of performing every day, the bipolar energy of performance – being totally on for an hour, all your energy focused on that one thing. The solutions to this are getting really good at physical self-care: know how and when to rest and stretch. The hardest work is taking care of my body in the long run.”
Bailin understands the use of the word “escapism” to describe his show, but said his goal is to bring audiences into his world for an hour, and “that seems like incredible presence, not escaping.”
Playful is another common description of SpinS.
“One of the aspects of my show that I’m incredibly proud of is that even fellow performers find the show playful,” said Bailin. “A lot of circus can start to look similar in the tricks and how they’re presented and, in certain ways, I aim to break those forms and I think I’m successful.
“Play is so important, and I mean play in the sense of creating space, pushing boundaries, trying things out. In my opinion, getting locked in routines is quite dangerous and play is a solution to this. Circus can seem quite playful, but it’s incredibly repetitive, the tricks are so hard they take an incredible amount of practice, so, by learning them, we make ourselves routine. I try to counterbalance this by choreographing at the edge of my ability – I can’t comfortably do all the things I do on stage, so they remain alive because I need to concentrate and there’s a very real danger that they won’t work and then I need to find a different solution – and also by choreographing through games, playing games on stage – how can I unpack a suitcase without getting off the unicycle?”
Bailin started juggling when he was 10, so he’s been at this for some 20 years now.
“I’m at the point in juggling and unicycling where I’ve mastered the basics and get to develop my own style,” he said. “So, I’m watching and feeling myself do the skills and how I can integrate my personality into them…. Also, I am continually excited about the challenge of piecing together shows, taking all the bits and fitting them together into something cohesive through all the disciplines I work with: circus, dance, puppetry, storytelling, magic.”
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Lift, at Firehall Arts Centre:“Lift is a contemporary musical set in London’s Covent Garden Tube Station. The elevator ride takes one minute, but the journey inside takes us through eight lifetimes, allowing the characters to see and say things that might not otherwise … come up.”
“As a company, Awkward Stage is always looking to tell stories that haven’t been heard yet and, like many of our productions, Lift will have its Canadian première with us at the Fringe,” choreographer and Awkward Stage Productions artistic associate Erika Babins told the JI.
“I think what drew us all into this story was the way that it was told. It intrigued us, the way the play bends reality and imagination. Our setting never changes but changes constantly, the characters are all rich relationships yet are strangers. We are constantly playing with those dichotomies in rehearsal.
“The script leaves a lot of room for interpretation and we’re so lucky to be working with a cast of brave and intelligent actors who are making discoveries with us as we build this show. Plus, the music is beautiful; it’s been stuck in my head for months.”
Choreography is integral to the show. It helps delineate the imagined settings to which the elevator riders take us. “The jostling of a train, warming up at a ballet studio, being at a strip club. It also helps to blend the lines between reality and the imaginings in the Busker’s mind,” said Babins. “The choreography in this show is quite integrated into the storytelling – there aren’t any ‘dance sequences’ per se, the movement weaves itself into the text and music.”
Jed Weiss plays the Busker, who he describes as “the quintessential introspective artist.”
“This leaves him both capable of deep insight as well as myopic self-centredness,” explained Weiss. “His arc is largely around learning and accepting that he has to be more considerate of the needs and lives of the people around him, leading him to a profound personal growth that his self-centred introspection could not achieve. This connects with the theme of the piece as a whole, highlighting the need to be brave in the face of vulnerable social interaction, to make meaningful connections with those that are important to you.”
The character, he added, “shines light on the shortcomings of the artistic male archetype we so often see in rom-coms and other media. Instead of following the stereotypical path of a tortured artist pining after a muse until she falls for him, it shows that real growth comes instead from practising sympathy towards the needs of others, not a commitment to romantic obsession.”
“I am playing Tall Dark and Handsome (TDH), a psychiatrist, and an American tourist,” said Zach Wolfman. “TDH is the dating avatar for Bright Young Thing (BYT) and represents BYT’s online persona. The American tourist is lost and looking for directions in London, hoping to bump into the Queen and visit Buckingham Palace.”
For Wolfman, the character he plays allows him “to explore the dissonance between the face we show online versus how we act in real life. Getting to embody that daily interaction we all engage in online is fun for me.
“The play as a whole is very dynamic,” he said, “and I really enjoy the fast pace and shifts we make between different settings. One minute, we’re in a lift; the next, we’re in a club or a chat room. Lift definitely highlights the different masks we wear at work, online and in our relationships. How vulnerable are we and how willing are we to open ourselves up to those who are close to us, or simply strangers in a lift?”
“I hope the audience leaves the theatre with a little wonder,” said Babins. “I hope they wonder about what happens to the characters after the moments we meet them in, but I also hope they wonder about themselves, and the connections and disconnections they have every day.”
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Ingenue: Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland and the Golden Age of Hollywood, at Firehall Arts Centre: “Judy is an icon – loved as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. But, in the 1930s, Deanna Durbin was a far bigger star. A favourite of Roosevelt, Churchill, even Mussolini, her first kiss was front-page news. At 27, she disappeared to a life of obscurity in France. The true tale of the lifelong friendship and rivalry of two great stars of Old Hollywood.”
“I’ve always loved Deanna’s music and her movies. We have similar voices and look vaguely the same. Also, Deanna is a Canadian movie star who has almost completely been forgotten,” said Melanie Gall. “Her legacy is one well worth saving, and I hope that my show will help preserve her memory for old fans, and will introduce her and her music to a new generation.”
Always fascinated with history and with historic music, Gall has written and performed shows about Vera Lynn, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, George Gershwin, and First and Second World War knitting songs. In creating a new work, she said, “First off, I think about the music. What are the songs I’d like to sing, and which songs will stay interesting and relevant to me after over a year of touring?
“I then look at marketability and if a topic I’m considering will have commercial appeal. I then ensure that it has not been done before, or that it has not been done in a similar way to how I plan to present the topic.
“I also try to find a topic I feel passionate about and that I’d like to share through a theatrical piece.
“Finally, I try to judge if I’m the best person to present the topic. Do I sing in the correct style? Can I do the topic justice?”
For Ingenue, said Gall, “I was performing another show of mine, Opera Mouse, Off-Broadway in New York. After performing each day, I went to the New York Performing Arts Library and dug through historic clippings, notes and scrapbooks. I spent days combing through crumbling articles and building a comprehensive biography of Deanna Durbin. Researching Deanna’s mannerisms and speech involved tracking down and watching all of her movies, most of which are actually very hard to find.
“Researching the music involved listening to and playing through dozens of songs to choose the tunes for the show. Then, with the help of pianist and recording engineer Bennett Paster, I arranged and recorded the backtracks, maintaining historic integrity, while creating original arrangements. Much of the script is taken directly from interviews and articles about her life, and several sentences are accurate historic quotes. So, it’s a lot of work, but it’s work I love doing.”
Preserving history is a passion. “So much wonderful music and stories are in danger of being lost or forgotten, and I have devoted my life to preserving them. Although Deanna Durbin wasn’t Jewish, the producer and director who made her a star, Joe Pasternak and Henry Koster, were Jewish – they arrived in Hollywood after years of working in the Berlin Universal studio, fleeing in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Also, the composers of most of Deanna Durbin’s songs were Jewish. So, there is a strong connection.”
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Old-ish, at the Havana Theatre:“It’s about aging and death only WAY funnier! Susan’s fifth one-woman comedy travels the hilarious, rocky road from denial to grudging acceptance of getting older.”
“I guess I’ve been ‘collecting data’ for this show for a long time,” said Susan Freedman, 77. “For about the last five years, whenever I hear news about my contemporaries, it is mostly not happy! The realization finally dawned that people do get really sick at my age and, yup, they die at my age too. I always write about issues and events that are important in my life and I always hope that my stories will resonate with audiences who may be experiencing similar events and feelings.”
The show is structured around events in Freedman’s life that lead into one another thematically and more or less chronologically.
“I have had so much fun working with my son (Alan Silverman) on this show,” she said. “This is the first time he has directed me, though he is an experienced film director. He is smart, he’s a great writer and he has a terrific sense of humour. Do I sound like I’m his mother?
“I have worked with my husband (Bill Galloway) on all five of my shows. He is stage manager – calling the lights and music – on this show and he has been stage manager or slide projectionist on the others. He’s a huge help and support for me and, as I travel across the country with my shows, I get to have him as a roommate on the road! We have a great time traveling together.”
This Fringe marks Freedman’s 20th year of writing, producing and performing solo Fringe shows. When she did her first show, in 1999, she said, “my mother was still alive and I was sure she would live forever, so I certainly didn’t think of myself as old. I am frankly shocked that I’m the age I am. Like most of my friends, I have no idea how the years could have raced by so fast! There are lots of changes as we age, but there are still so many things we can do and enjoy and so much that makes life worthwhile. I am enjoying the good luck of being healthy, although I’m aware that can change on a dime.”
Admitting that she was nervous “about doing a show on aging and death,” she said, “but we are all aging and, if we’re lucky, we will get old. Critics are saying the show is uplifting. So, even though getting old can certainly present us with plenty of problems, it’s always good to laugh – right?”
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Zack Adams: Love Songs for Future Girl, at Revue Stage:“… love, loss, heartbreak, growing bad ginger beards and everything in between. Think of it as a cross between a rock concert and group therapy.”
Shane Adamczak actually has two shows in this year’s Fringe. “Zack Adams got through because I won the lottery and The Ballad of Frank Allen is a one-off performance that the Fringe asked us to do as part of their Pick Plus season, where they bring back popular shows from previous years,” he explained.
The Ballad of Frank Allen, which is on one night only, at Performance Works, is “about a janitor named Frank who is accidentally shrunk in a science lab and ends up living in another man’s beard,” said Adamczak. “Yes, that is really what it’s about. It’s an exploration of masculinity in these modern times and what it means to be a ‘good man.’”
Adamczak uses music to tell his stories.
“I find it is such an accessible medium for people,” he said of that choice. “You’re so hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t love some music at least. It’s also a way for me to live a rock star wannabe fantasy out on stage but using music as a theatrical device to tell stories.”
Both of these shows, he said, “are labours of love and very close to my heart for different reasons. If you love music, good storytelling and to laugh your ass off, please do come along.”
For eight days, Aug. 2-9, the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture will be transformed into a hub of Latin American culture as it hosts Festival Judío, a multifaceted celebration showcasing Jewish artistic work from Argentina to Mexico. The festival, revived after its original 2004-2006 run, is expected to be the largest of its kind in terms of scope anywhere in the world.
“There is so much material to choose from that there could easily be separate festivals for Latin American Jewish visual art, books, films and music,” said organizer David Skulski, who also spearheaded the previous festivals.
Among the highlights of this year’s event is a show featuring Mauro Perelmann, who fuses various Brazilian styles with Israeli and klezmer music.
“My aim is to stir emotions through my music. I want to be evocative and create an atmosphere. It is more important for me to get a reaction from people than to play what is written,” he told the Jewish Independent from his home in Rio de Janeiro.
The samba was invented in the same Rio neighbourhood that later became a Jewish enclave, and there have always been links between Jews and Brazilian music in the city, he said. “With some modification of the scales,” he added, “I am able to turn familiar Brazilian tunes into sounds that resemble klezmer.”
A known composer and choir conductor in Brazil, Perelmann is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, having performed here in 2015 and 2016. His Festival Judío appearance on Aug. 8, as part of a nine-piece musical ensemble, will be preceded by a samba dance lesson.
Buenos Aires-based bandoneonist Amijai Shalev will present the lecture Tango: The Jewish Connection. “Jewish musicians and songwriters were very involved in the creative process of tango,” he explained. “The style of the violín tanguero is that of a Jewish violin arriving in Rio de la Plata (Argentina and Uruguay).” His Aug. 5 discussion of the parallels between tango and klezmer will examine the habanera rhythm (heard in George Bizet’s opera Carmen) that is present in both tango and klezmer. He will also trace the Eastern European origins of the bandoneon, a concertina that is a fixture in tango music.
On Aug. 3, Argentine-Canadian mezzo-soprano Andrea Fabiana Katz’s performance will cover several works by Jewish composers. “People associate tango with earthiness, passion and emotion…. The texts are very, very rich and full of metaphor and deep emotions, mostly about love, especially old familiar love. The poetry is always wonderful,” said Katz, who lives in Metro Vancouver.
The evening will be a milonga, which can be taken to mean both a musical genre and a tango party. Prior to the concert will be a tango dance lesson, and Jewish foods from Latin America will be available.
Among the festival’s offerings are five films. An Unknown Country employs firsthand accounts in following the lives of Jews who escaped from Nazi Germany to Ecuador, and shows their contributions to the economic, artistic, scientific and social life of their adopted country. Director Eva Zelig will be on hand after the film, on Aug. 7, for a question-and-answer period.
Other films at the festival include Los Gauchos Judíos, based on an Alberto Gerchunoff novel portraying the thousands of Russian Jews who came as farmers to Argentina in the late 1880s and 1890s; and The Fire Within, a documentary chronicling the integration of Moroccan Jewish settlers with the indigenous women of rural Peru in the late 19th century.
Two dramas, the bittersweet comedy Nora’s Will (Mexico) and the slow-burning thriller The German Doctor (Argentina), complete the cinematic line-up.
Lectures and artists
The Song of Lilith, an Aug. 6 talk by visual artist, filmmaker and Jungian therapist Liliana Kleiner, explores the ancient myth of Lilith found in the Talmud and in kabbalah, its incarnations through the ages, and how this legend relates to the present day.
Additional events include a writers workshop led by young-adult author Silvana Goldemberg and a presentation about the reality of the situation in Venezuela, led by Jack Goihman, who was an agriculture engineer when he left his home country of Venezuela because of its political instability. Arriving in Vancouver in 2014, Goihman completed a master’s in business administration and now works as a project manager.
A visual art show and sale will exhibit works by local and internationally shown and collected artists, including Miriam Aroeste and Kleiner, as well as a mural by the late Arnold Belkin.
A book sale, primarily of selections from the University of New Mexico Press, includes Oy, Caramba! An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America, edited by Ilan Stavans, and Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, compiled by Alan Astro, with a introduction by Stavens.
“Festival Judío is a double celebration of Jewish culture and Latin American culture,” observed Shalev. “Both are expressions of the richness and diversity of humanity.”
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.
Michael Germant, left, Sarah Boes and Drew Henderson co-star in Island Production’s The Understudy, Aug. 1-10 at PAL Studio Theatre. (photo by Jayme Cowley)
Oftentimes, in cultural endeavours, there is a tension between artistic vision and profit margins; that is, if there is any money to be made. This is one of the themes of The Understudy by Theresa Rebeck, which is being presented by Island Productions next month at PAL Studio Theatre.
The show co-stars Sarah Boes as Roxanne, the stage manager, who also is a frustrated actor; Drew Henderson as Jake, the good-looking action-hero star trying to be taken seriously as an actor; and Jewish community member Michael Germant as Harry, the understudy, who happens to be Roxanne’s ex-fiancé. Despite the personal drama, “a stoned lightboard operator, an omnipresent intercom system [and] the producers threatening to shutter the show,” Roxanne must try to run the understudy rehearsal for the Broadway première of a recently discovered Franz Kafka masterpiece.
Existentialism, explains director Mel Tuck in his online notes for the production, “denotes the inexplicable nature of human existence and emphasizes man’s freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of his acts.”
“What I like about The Understudy and what I think is funny,” Germant told the Independent, “is that, just when you think the characters have got things under control, everything falls apart. I also love how Rebeck makes the events of the play intertwine with the events of Kafka’s ‘undiscovered’ play-within-the-play thematically.”
Echoing Tuck’s comments, Germant added, “The existential aspects in Kafka’s play lead to the final choice that our three protagonists make at the end, both within and ‘without’ Kafka’s play.”
About those protagonists and what they symbolize, Tuck writes, “There are actors that have substantial careers because they are attractive, and then there are actors who have chameleon-like skill at hiding themselves within the role they are playing. Both have their place and purpose. The battle between art and business is forever being played out before our very eyes. There are many arguments for art as opposed to business. We artists believe in the value of entertainment and intelligent growth for ourselves and our public. We are exploring polarities and the implications of internal versus external thoughts; how we are affected by our conditioning and how that manifests in our social lives and activities. In the theatre, as in movies and TV, one prime issue has taken precedence: money. Money is a defining and deciding factor in avenues of artistic endeavour. What is the best possible way to make a play, movie or TV show successful? The sad reality is usually money takes precedence. And often funny means money. This is a very funny play.”
The Independent has interviewed Germant a few times, all for serious dramas, but he has done comedy before.
“Good dramas have humour written into them,” he said. “It’s the spoonful of comedy that makes the drama go down. And vice versa – good comedies like The Understudy have drama at their core.
“We’ve actually done another comedy, called Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck…. A drama we did – John Patrick Shanley’s The Dreamer Examines his Pillow – has a lot of humour, and a comedic ending. Both of those plays were also at the PAL Studio Theatre and both in 2014,” said the actor, for whom this play marks his seventh for Island Productions.
“On screen,” he added, “I was in a pilot called High Moon, where my character was the comic relief, and I did a short dark comedy, which was really well-received at film festivals this year called Caught in the Spokes.”
About the ways in which comedic and dramatic roles differ, Germant said, “Comedy is heightened pace and energy. In drama, you can set your own pace – you can pause or take a break or a breath wherever you want. But comedy is structured very specifically and timing is the golden rule. In that way, it’s more disciplined and difficult than drama.”
Michael Scholar Jr. co-directs the political comedy Born Yesterday, which opens July 13 at the Jericho Arts Centre. (photo from ETC)
Garson Kanin’s comedy Born Yesterday opened on Broadway on Feb. 4, 1946, and was a hit. It has been made into a film (1950), returned to Broadway twice (1989 and 2011) and seen countless productions. About political corruption, it has a timeless quality.
“This play seems to have been written for this exact moment, when populism, corruption and bullying are an omnipresent part of our political and personal lives,” co-director Michael Scholar Jr. told the Independent.
Scholar co-directs the Ensemble Theatre Company (ETC) production with Shelby Bushell. Part of the company’s Annual Summer Repertory Festival, Born Yesterday opens July 13 at the Jericho Arts Centre.
“Kanin wrote the piece while in Europe,” said Scholar. “While he was serving in the army to defeat fascism abroad, he seemed more concerned about those same tendencies within our own democracy back home. This play and one of its central figures, Harry Brock, the bullying millionaire who tries to buy his way into power, are sadly all too familiar 80 years on.”
In Born Yesterday, junkman Harry has come to Washington, D.C., to use his money to influence legislation. Despite his own uncouthness, Harry is concerned that his girlfriend, Billie, a former showgirl, will make him look bad, so he hires a reporter, Paul, to educate her. As her newly released intelligence begins to surface, she could prove Harry’s undoing.
The Independent last spoke with Jewish community member Scholar about The Enemy, another political play, which was at the Firehall Arts Centre late last year.
“Since The Enemy, a lot has changed for me,” he said. “I spent a semester teaching acting and directing at Arizona State University in Phoenix. And now, on my summer break, I’m co-directing Born Yesterday for ETC and, a day after opening, I fly to New York to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Colonial Theatre of Rhode Island, which I get to work on with my 6-year-old daughter, Alice.”
About how he came to co-direct Born Yesterday, Scholar said, “I was talking with artistic director Tariq Leslie while on a movie set here in Vancouver, and we got to talking about how ETC was hitting above its weight class and doing some powerful work in town. He had seen my production of As You Like It at Studio 58 and enjoyed my work. And so a match was made.”
Scholar described having a co-director as “a real blessing.”
“It means that we can tag team on rehearsals, and I actually get to have a day with my family each week,” he said of working with Bushell. “Also, having her perspective in the room has meant that we are covering more ground and that, together, we have fewer blind spots. This play is about a woman who is perceived to be a ditz, but whose sense of civic duty is awoken through education and intellectual stimulation. This play, written in the ’40s by Garson Kanin, is surprisingly relevant to our current political climate, but it also has some potentially problematic elements [so it is] worth having two sets of eyes looking at this material.”
One of those elements is the depiction of women.
“Brock is a bully and, without giving away too much of the plot, he is a violent character towards both men and women in his entourage,” explained Scholar. “The play deals with toxic masculinity, misogyny and stereotypes, but, in its time, it was working to subvert those ideas. So, we’ve reworked parts of the piece to highlight this intention and to not reinforce gender stereotypes, which has been another great reason to have Shelby as a collaborator on this project.”
Ensemble Theatre’s website highlights a quote from the play: “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” It notes, “By turns uproarious and sobering, and packed with a cast of vibrant characters throughout, Kanin’s play reminds us that a healthy democracy depends on its inhabitants to stay healthy, and that abuse of power cannot be stemmed without an informed and engaged citizenry.”
Scholar stressed that, despite the weighty issues tackled, the play is primarily a comedy. “It has a fast-pace banter and physical precision that is almost farcical,” he said. “It uses comedy as a way of dealing with challenging ideas, disarming us with laughter so that we can reflect on our situation with not just our heads, but our hearts, too. I’m sure audiences will have much to discuss afterwards, but they will also be entertained while on this poignant journey.”
ETC’s summer festival runs to Aug. 16. In addition to Born Yesterday, it features Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, which opened July 12, and Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts, which opens July 19. For tickets, visit ensembletheatrecompany.ca.
Zayd Dohrn’s Reborning returns to the New York stage this summer. (photo from Zayd Dohrn)
The play Reborning, written by Zayd Dohrn, is being performed Off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse in New York City from July 5 through Aug. 3, thanks to Vancouver’s Reality Curve Theatre.
A Canadian nonprofit professional theatre company founded in 2011, Reality Curve reached out to Dohrn to bring this play, which ran in Vancouver last year, to the New York stage. The production is produced by artistic director Paul Piaskowski, Darren Lee Cole and Rebecca McNeil, and is presented by Playbook Hub with support from the Vancouver Film School, the Canada Council for the Arts and Shimon Photo.
Reborning is a dark comedy-drama with elements of horror. In it, people are able to buy life-like infant dolls that look like loved ones who have died. The play centres around Kelly, a woman who lives with her boyfriend in Queens, N.Y., and creates “reborn” baby dolls. She has a client who commissions her to make a replica of her dead baby girl and, as Kelly constructs this doll, it stirs up memories from her own life.
“It’s a relationship between a younger and older woman – a customer and an artist – who are both looking for something and it becomes dangerous,” said Dohrn, who lives in Chicago and is an associate professor at Northwestern University. “There is a whole subculture with these dolls. I wrote the play right after the birth of our first child. My wife was shopping online for baby toys and clothes and she found these life-like dolls. The photos of them are incredible, realistic, detailed and medically accurate. Some even have hospital bracelets. There is something beautiful about them, yet very disturbing.”
Dohrn talked to customers and heard their testimonials. “Many of these people can’t get over the loss of their baby and use the dolls therapeutically.”
The play stars Emily Bett Rickards (CW’s Arrow), Piaskowski (Unspeakable, The Twilight Zone) and Lori Triolo (Riverdale), who is also the director.
The first production of Reborning, which starred Ally Sheedy, was 10 years ago at the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theatre in New York City, when Dohrn was at the Julliard School. It has had more than 20 productions nationally and internationally over the last decade, including in Los Angeles, Brazil, Panama, Florida, San Francisco and, in 2018, Vancouver, where he connected to Reality Curve.
Dohrn’s life and road to literary success could be a fascinating play in itself. His parents, Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn, were leaders in the radical group the Weather Underground (also known as the Weathermen) back in the 1960s and 1970s. There was an accidental explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse where Weathermen lost their lives, and the couple went underground, using assumed names. Dohrn, who is now 41, spent his early childhood on the run.
“It didn’t seem strange to me to grow up being fugitives, that was just our life,” he said. “We lived in New York City in Harlem, traveled a lot, moved around a lot and lived in communes. Then my parents turned themselves in and we settled in New York. My mom went to jail for almost two years when I was 5, and I have vivid memories of visiting her there. My dad took care of me while she was gone.”
When his mom was released from prison, she became a lawyer. “My dad became a professor and I was raised in a middle-class house, although they still had their notoriety and they were committed to their politics and their cause,” said Dohrn. “Growing up, we would go to a lot of demonstrations and meetings with other activists.”
Dohrn went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Brown University, a master’s in fine arts from New York University, a master of arts from Boston University and a playwriting fellowship from Julliard. He also spent a lot of time in China. Fourteen years ago, he married Rachel DeWoskin, and they have two daughters. DeWoskin, who is from Ann Arbor, Mich., is an author, teaches at the University of Chicago and also spent many years living in China before she and Dohrn met.
Many of Dohrn’s plays draw from his childhood and life experiences. In one of his earlier plays, Haymarket, set in 1886, a bomb explodes in the middle of a peaceful rally of demonstrators in Chicago – at least one of the radicals goes into hiding. His play Sick, about a Manhattan couple who go to extreme measures to protect themselves from pollution, was reminiscent of living in Beijing and witnessing the fear during the SARS epidemic.
When asked about his religion, Dohrn said he considers himself a cultural Jew. “My mom was half-Jewish and my parents were atheists, but, culturally, my mom considers herself Jewish and we were raised as cultural Jews and celebrated Passover and Chanukah,” he explained. “We celebrated in a radical way – we did Passovers in a women’s prison in upstate New York, celebrating the Exodus as a story of freedom and celebrating with female inmates in prison.”
Dohrn noted that he, his wife and kids have traveled a lot, visiting Jewish sites. “My wife considers herself Jewish and we are raising our girls with a lot of Jewish cultural influences,” he said.
Dohrn and DeWoskin spend time each year in China. “Rachel kept her apartment in Beijing for at least 10 years and we would go for a few months every year,” he said. “When our kids started to grow up, we wanted a place where they could be more independent so we got an apartment in Shanghai. We spend three-quarters of the year in Chicago and one-quarter of the year in Shanghai. We both have academic schedules so we are able to spend the summers and winters there. There are still historical monuments and artifacts from the Jewish community in Shanghai and the synagogue is now a museum. Our apartment there is in the building that was the Jewish processing centre for the refugees during World War II.”
Currently, Dohrn is developing a series about radical political movements like the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers for Showtime and a feature film for Netflix. He’s looking forward to Reborning being back on the New York stage. “For me,” he said, “it’s a bookend, to have it back in New York again after all these years.”
Alice Burdick Schweigeris a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.