Bema Productions presents the Canadian première of the comedy O My God at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue in Victoria, Jan. 16-26. In O My God by Israeli playwright Anat Gov, God walks into a therapist’s office suffering from depression. The therapist asks, “How long have you felt this way?” God says, “Two thousand, five hundred years. Give or take.” “You’ve been depressed for 2,000 years and only now you’ve come to therapy? What were you waiting for?” asks the therapist. And God says, “I thought time would heal.”
Gov, who died of cancer at 58, was born in 1953, and was a graduate of Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. She was briefly a student in Tel Aviv University’s theatre department – she dropped out to become a successful playwright and television writer. She also married and was a mother of three and grandmother of two.
The Bema Productions staging of O My God is directed by Zelda Dean and performed by Christine Upright (the therapist), Rosemary Jeffery (God) and Jesse Wilson, who is on the autism spectrum himself, plays the autistic son of the therapist.
Brigitte May plays many characters in The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, which runs Dec. 5-15 at the Jericho Arts Centre. (photo from Literary Larceny Artistic Collective)
“I love the spontaneity of it all. Improv is so magical because it can and will go anywhere,” actor Brigitte May told the Independent. “The agreement that improvisers have to commit to whatever has been established in the scene is such an amazing thing because, if done well, the scene can bear an undeniable truth in complete absurdity.”
May is part of the cast of The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, which opens Dec. 5 at the Jericho Arts Centre. The production uses comedy, improvisation and the words of William Shakespeare to reveal more of the real Macbeth. It has its origins in a show envisaged by David C. Jones and created with the students of Langara College’s Studio 58 in 2014.
“As a professional improviser and actor, I have loved playing with existing stories and finding a way to make them more inventive and funny,” said Jones. “I was one of the original creators of a hit show that was remounted by several theatre companies (including the Arts Club) across Canada entitled A Twisted Christmas Carol. I also created an award-wining street theatre show called A Twisted Cyrano de Bergerac and toured England with a show called Twisted Anne of Green Gables.
“A decade later, I was approached by Kathryn Shaw, the artistic director at Studio 58, the professional theatre training program, to create a theatrical performance piece with the fourth-term students. We decided to do a partially scripted and partially improvised Macbeth. The premise of that one was very different and it was only one hour. It was narrated by the Porter, Hecate and Lady Lennox and they got the suggestions to change the show, and the focus was more of fixing ‘plot holes’ and problems with the original text. Although Shakespeare is brilliant, he does have some hiccups in some of his scripts.”
The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth is being staged by the Literary Larceny Artistic Collective.
“We are a group of professional actors and improvisers who came together specially to make this new expanded version of the show,” said Jones of the collective. “Now under the direction of Shakespearean actor Bernard Cuffling and veteran professional improviser Gary Jones, we have created this new slightly darker version.
“The real Macbeth (Mac Bethad Mac Findlaích) was actually a ruler of Scotland from 1040 to 1057 and was not at all like the man portrayed in Shakespeare’s play,” explained Jones. “He is trapped in the play in our production and he is trying to get free so he doesn’t have to suffer the beheading for the six billionth time. The witches in the play have agreed that, if he can derail the play and survive to the end, then his spirit can be set free. So, it is up to the audience to help him change the play to survive, or not.”
May plays many characters in The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth, but, she said, “the witch Hecate is the most prominent. Hecate is the queen of the witches, the mistress of charms, a very powerful expert of the dark arts, but she gets cut out of most versions of the play. In TCOM, Hecate seeks revenge for constantly being omitted and attempts to foil Macbeth’s plan.”
In improv, how much of the plot and action are laid out ahead of time depends on the show, said May. “In TCOM,” she said, “we have a fairly concrete structure. We are able to manipulate and play with it a little through audience suggestion, but David C. Jones and Brent Hirose (the writers of the play) worked hard to create a fascinating twist on a classic tale.
“Practising improv sounds like a joke, but it’s actually super-important!” she added. “Making sure your brain is warmed up to take whatever is being thrown at it, building trust with your castmates, and practising and learning the format that you’re performing are integral to the success of any improv show.”
In addition to being an improviser and actor – she has performed with Affair of Honour and Blind Tiger theatre companies and is a cast member of Instant Theatre’s Fistful of Kicks improv comedy show – May is a staff writer for the satirical news website, the Beaverton, and works in retail. She graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., with a bachelor of arts (honours) in English with a film minor, but was born here.
“I am a first-generation Vancouverite,” she said. “My father and mother moved here from Ottawa and Manila, respectively, got married and raised my brothers and me on the west side of Vancouver.”
Intentionally or unintentionally, those brothers helped direct her to the stage.
“As a kid, I was always performing. I am the youngest in my family and have three older brothers, so I was always vying for attention and trying to prove myself,” she explained. “I wasn’t too much of a troublemaker (I feel like my brothers had that covered), but I would frequently get into fights if I were told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Still, my parents were supportive of my creative pursuits, they signed me up for dance lessons (at the JCC), music lessons and acting camps. I didn’t really start writing comedy till late in high school and into college, but I had been on my school’s improv team, which heavily influenced my love for comedy.”
As for the roles played by Judaism, Jewish culture or Jewish community in her life, May said, “The Jewish community has always been a part of my life. I have been a member of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver ever since I was born. I remember swimming in the pool with my bubbie, and watching my dad and zaidie play racquetball. Now that I think about it, a lot of my childhood was spent running around the halls of the JCC.
“It was also where I was first introduced to performing. I had my first ballet lessons there – there’s actually a photo of me in the lobby of the JCC in my first-ever dance recital … we did The Little Mermaid! – then did a couple years in Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! in my teens. I was even a counselor at Camp Shalom for a couple of years. The JCC was where I first was introduced to the arts, so I owe a lot to the community.
“In regards to Judaism and Jewish culture,” she said, “I find myself being drawn to it. Being half-Jewish and half-Chinese comes with a lot of ambiguity, so, when I was younger, I used to grasp at anything that gave me any notion of identity and history. My grandfather was a drummer and artist by trade, so, while my siblings and I might not have been the most educated in the religious aspect of Judaism, we were exposed to a lot of the cultural aspects. We would watch old Saturday Night Lives with Adam Sander, Mel Brooks movies, old(ish?) SNL with Andy Samberg, and were constantly being told jokes by our uncles. I think growing up having those comedians as my role models greatly influenced and shaped who I am today.”
The Tragic Comedy of Macbeth previews Dec. 4. Opening Dec. 5, it runs Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. shows on Sundays, until Dec. 15. For tickets, visit tickets.theatrewire.com.
Left to right, Patrick Bahrich, Sjahari Hollands and Christine Iannetta co-star, along with Rob Monk, in United Players’ production of The Price by Arthur Miller, which is at Jericho Arts Centre until Dec. 1. (photo by Nancy Caldwell)
United Players of Vancouver theatre company has a reputation for tackling challenging, thought-provoking material and, with its current production, The Price, by Arthur Miller, it lives up to that reputation.
Playing at Jericho Arts Centre until Dec. 1, The Price is a densely packed play, covering several themes: sibling rivalry, self-perception, filial and spousal duty, memory, modernity, the Depression, materialism, success, failure, and more. In a play where dialogue is the main action, actors Patrick Bahrich, Sjahari Hollands, Christine Iannetta and Rob Monk do an adept job at keeping the audience engaged.
First to enter the scene – a room full of heavy, dated furniture, piled high and seemingly haphazardly – is Victor Franz (Bahrich), a New York City policeman. He slowly and almost lovingly uncovers some of the many items and puts a record on a Victrola – a laugh track of sorts, apparently a popular type of recording, once upon a time.
Victor’s wife Esther (Iannetta) arrives, amid the laughter, which contrasts to the obvious tension between the two. Victor immediately accuses her of being drunk, and she defensively replies, “I had one!”
The furniture belonged to Victor’s family and is being stored on the upper floor of the building in which they lived. His brother Walter (Monk) is supposed to be coming to help him sell it to an appraiser (Hollands), as the building is soon to be demolished.
The Franzes’ marriage could be summarized by the phrase “unfulfilled expectations.” Director Adam Henderson – who is a member of the Jewish community – has chosen to stage the play as a period piece, so that viewers will ponder how the roles of men and women have changed, and how societal norms have evolved (or not), since 1968, when The Price premièred on Broadway. Miller’s opening direction is, “Today. New York.” However, the today of 2019 is very different from that of 50 years ago, as is evident on several occasions, especially in how the men talk to and about Esther, and how her character is written overall.
Eventually, the appraiser stomps and puffs his way up the stairs to home-cum-storage unit. Eighty-nine-year-old Gregory Solomon was expecting there to be only a few pieces to consider and is overwhelmed by the volume of furniture. He also ends up entangled in the volume of resentment and distrust between the brothers, who haven’t spoken to each other for ages. Walter shows up at the end of Act 1, just as Solomon is paying Victor the agreed-upon price for the lot, $1,100, one $100 bill at a time.
Sweeping in, expensively dressed and broadcasting on more than one level his success and confidence, Walter is the brother who managed to escape their controling father and follow his dreams, while self-effacing Victor dropped out of college to take care of their father, who lost almost everything in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. But, as the conversation and argument proceed, it becomes apparent that neither characterization is accurate. Nor is there a clear verdict on what really happened all those years ago, as they are unable to reconcile their recollections of the past or their beliefs about each other and themselves.
Solomon – who has his own regrets in life – tells Victor, “… the price of used furniture is nothing but a viewpoint and, if you wouldn’t understand the viewpoint, it’s impossible to understand the price.”
We do not understand everything we do in life, let alone everything that other people do. The price that we – and others – pay for our choices is as obscure. And time doesn’t allow us to go back and change things; time is an ever-present weight in The Price.
There is no happy ending here, despite the humour that runs throughout, and the fact that the play both starts and ends with the laughter record. Once the Franzes have all left, the deal done, Solomon puts on the record. He flops into one of the big armchairs and laughs and laughs.
The Price will leave you with much to think and talk about. For tickets, visit unitedplayers.com or purchase them at the door.
Writer and comedian Iris Bahr performs at the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 12 and 13, as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. (photo by Gail Hadini)
Award-winning writer, actor, director and producer Iris Bahr delves into serious issues using humour – and by being someone other than herself. She will bring some of her many characters to the Rothstein Theatre stage Nov. 12 and 13 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival.
Bahr hosts the weekly podcast X-RAE, as alter ego Rae Lynn Caspar White. In her one-woman show DAI (enough), she portrays 11 different characters in a Tel Aviv coffee shop. In her comedy series Svetlana, which ran for a couple of seasons, she starred as the Russian prostitute and political consultant. These are but a few examples of the personas she has created.
“I think I was about 6 years old,” Bahr told the Independent about when she did her first impression. “My family went on a trip to Italy and I began to imitate the tour guide, who kept going on and on in a heavy Italian accent about ‘marble from Carrera’ and so, for years after that, I would always be asked to ‘perform my Italian woman’ when my parents had company over.”
Using the example of the character of Rae Lynn, Bahr explained how an alter ego allows for a better conversation.
“I host my X-RAE podcast in character because I find it puts people at ease and they open up about topics they wouldn’t otherwise,” she said. “Rae Lynn flips from highbrow to lowbrow in a heartbeat and talks openly and outrageously about parenting, marriage and various R-rated topics. During my interview with Lawrence O’Donnell, for example, we veered from Marxism to Penn Gillette’s sex parties in a single breath.”
A magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, in Providence, R.I., Bahr studied neuropsychology, and has done brain research, as well as cancer research.
“I think I gravitated towards neuroscience because the inner workings of the brain fascinate me and I’m equal parts cerebral and highly emotional, and so that translates into all my work,” she explained. “I have a splintered identity, but not in a 50-50 kind of way – I actually feel 100% American and 100% Israeli at all times and that feeling of connection yet constant alienation lends itself to me inhabiting different characters and being able to truly commit to different viewpoints.”
Bahr was born and raised in the Bronx but moved to Israel as a teenager, staying there through military service; she still has family there. Her latest satire, The Olive Tree, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recently had a soldout reading in New York and is set to open in spring of next year. DAI came to the stage in 2006 and audiences have included the United Nations, in 2007.
“I was invited to perform the show for over 100 ambassadors and delegates and the experience was unforgettable,” she said. “They were highly attentive and laughed at all the right moments, which I was not sure was going to happen. I felt like a diplomat for a day.”
Bahr said she wrote DAI “to communicate the intricacy and complexity of life in Israel, the inner conflicts prevalent in Israeli society, and how they are affected by living under constant threat of suicide bombings/sudden death, which, as any Israeli will tell you, instil not a feeling of helplessness but a vibrancy and love for life. On the flip side, is how that very fact is perceived by visiting outsiders and Palestinians affected by the conflict. The characters we meet in the café – from all walks of life, ideological spectrums and backgrounds – have no idea their lives will be ending abruptly [by a suicide bomber] and so their monologues range from outrageously humourous, vengeful, disillusioned and more.”
She first performed DAI at Baruch College in New York City, “as part of a festival sponsored by the Culture Project,” she said. “I had no idea it would get picked up immediately for a commercial run, and so that was a phenomenal development.
“A lot has changed since I first wrote DAI, in terms of how the conflict is manifesting itself on both sides, and yet the situation has sadly stayed the same. Thankfully, suicide bombings seem to be a thing of the past, but my dear childhood friend and father of four was stabbed to death only last year while out shopping, the Palestinian plight has not improved and the political climate is worse than ever. Nevertheless, the characters in DAI have sustained their relevancy; my German character talks about rising antisemitism in modern-day Germany, for example; my Israeli former military man talks of his son who doesn’t want to serve in the military; and the snooty ex-pat woman who lives in New York City, well, those types of women only seem to multiply by the minute.”
She stressed, “The play is not a polemic – it is a collection of social observations that speak from many different viewpoints. The piece aims to entertain, offer a visceral theatrical experience and, hopefully, also illuminate and enlighten. Thankfully, it has been warmly received amongst extremely ‘pro-Israel’ audiences and also ‘pro-Palestinian’-leaning crowds both in Europe and here in America. Of course, certain right-wingers think it’s too leftist and left-wingers think it’s too right, which is all I could really hope for as a piece about humanity.”
For tickets to see Bahr perform at Chutzpah!, and for more festival offerings, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Amber Funk Barton presents VAST at the Dance Centre Nov. 22, as part of Dance in Vancouver. (photo by Chris Barton)
From Nov. 20 to 24, the Dance Centre presents the 12th biennial Dance in Vancouver. This year’s event was programmed by Dieter Jaenicke, director of the internationale tanzmesse nrw in Dusseldorf, Germany, and features the work of at least two Jewish community members, Amber Funk Barton and Noam Gagnon.
“What I find most impressive about dance in Vancouver is the fact that there are so many different identities of contemporary dance, connected to certain studios, companies, artists,” Jaenicke told the Independent. “It feels like the dance is spread out in the entire city, in very different and distant neighbourhoods, with the Dance Centre in the centre…. Trying to get familiar with dance in Vancouver, I felt like a collector of stories, stories about dance, stories about human beings…. That is why I chose the sentence of the Vancouver dancer and choreographer Amber Funk Barton as a kind of motto for this edition of Dance in Vancouver: ‘There are global stories in everything.’”
Barton, an award-winning choreographer, formed her company response. in 2008, but she will be performing the solo piece VAST, “an ode to the explorer that resides in all of us, the traveler and the dreamer who wonders what resides beyond the edge,” at DIV on Nov. 22. Noam Gagnon’s company, Vision Impure, will be presenting Pathways, which “explores the intricate push and pull of relationships impacted by urban living,” on Nov. 21. During DIV, there will also be performances by Raven Spirit Dance, Joshua Beamish/MOVETHECOMPANY and OURO Collective, with installations by Company 605 and Lee Su-Feh/battery opera, as well as discussions and other free events.
About how he chose the program, Jaenicke said, “First, I tried to get an overview of what is happening in dance in Vancouver – I visited companies, studios; saw rehearsals, performances; talked to many artists from the dance field. I was impressed by the diversity, the different backgrounds, cultures, approaches to dance and about the high quality of dancers and choreographic creativity.
“The selection was very difficult due to the amount of very interesting and convincing proposals,” he said. “With the choices I had to make, I tried to follow the diversity which I found so impressive, to include established and emerging artists, include the different cultural and artistic backgrounds of the choreographers, include indigenous works, different styles and genres of contemporary dance. But, the most important criteria was, of course, the artistic quality. Although it is difficult to describe what is artistic quality, I believe it is something objective to be seen, to be discovered, to be chosen.”
Both VAST and Pathways saw their premières at the Vancouver International Dance Festival.
“I am so pleased and honoured to perform VAST as it originally premièred in 2018 – and in the same theatre – for Dance in Vancouver,” Barton told the Independent.
The creation of the work started in 2015. Surfing the internet, Barton came across the quote from Carl Sagan that is included in the description of VAST: “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”
“I was so struck by the poetic nature of the quote and found it so beautiful and comforting,” said Barton. “It made me start to think a lot about life, my life, and how everything and all of us in the universe are connected.
“That also got my imagination going and soon I realized I had an idea for my next work. I knew quite early on that this was supposed to be a solo and that I needed to perform it. I knew, as a choreographer and dance artist, that all the feelings and emotions and images I wanted to explore and express would have to come from my body and personal expression.
“I also knew, but was unclear at the start of the project, how to transform the performance space so that the audience could suspend belief and be transported with me into an otherworldly arena. My instincts told me I needed to work with a scenographer or set designer.”
Barton approached Andreas Kahre and they “started to have many discussions about universal space and The Little Prince.” She also brought her long-term collaborator and light designer, Mike Inwood, into the process.
“Together, our research began in the theatre, playing with objects and materials to create the surface of the moon and other environments relating to space and scale,” she said.
After that, “I knew it was time to go back and figure out how to create a journey through dance and movement, which then seemed like such a daunting task.
“By this time, I brought in another dear long-term collaborator of mine, music and sound designer Marc Stewart. He had the opportunity to have a glimpse and visit us while we were building environments in the theatre and, from there, he created a couple of 20-minute series of sound samples. Upon hearing one, I knew it was the direction I wanted to go and it helped me immensely to start creating a movement journey.
“Because the music at that point was a series of samples, the sound was constantly changing, which I thought was perfect,” said Barton. “As far as the loose narrative of the solo goes, I wanted to create the sense of waking up in a dream, being lost and, as in a dream, constantly dealing with new environments and surroundings out of my control.”
Along the way, the creative team engaged more support to both flesh out and edit down their ideas. They also had a two-week residency supported by Dance Victoria, which, said Barton, “was instrumental in finalizing the set and visual aesthetic of the production.” About a year later, they had a week residency at the Massey Theatre, which led to the première, in March 2018, at the Dance Centre, as a co-production with the Vancouver International Dance Festival.
On the response. website, VAST is described as “a singular expression of an individual’s choice to be by oneself, a meditation on our limitations as human beings and how, despite these limitations, we still desire to propel ourselves forward into unknown territory.”
“As human beings, there are times we assert our agency and choose to be ‘by oneself’; that night you wanted to stay in, the decision to leave a relationship, the choice to travel and/or explore alone. For me,” said Barton, “‘being alone’ can be similar, such as being alone with your thoughts and/or feelings, but then ‘being alone’ is that liminal space I think we’ve all experienced: feeling so small, as if you couldn’t possibly make a difference in the world. Feeling overwhelmed by how we want to, or should, live our life. Feeling lost as to what our purpose on this planet is. And then, hopefully, to choose to face our fears by ‘being alone’ and to overcome and/or embrace them.”
The story of the protagonist of VAST “starts with waking up in an environment and quickly realizing she has no control of the world around her,” said Barton. “At times, this is playful and full of wonder but, for the most part, it is terrifying. When I perform the work, I always imagine myself being trapped in a dream and being unable to wake up. And, of course, it is terrifying being in unknown territory alone.
“Being alone, traveling by yourself, exploring on your own – I believe these are the biggest gifts we can give ourselves because they ultimately bring us closer to meeting our true selves. There is a point, where we learn to stop fighting the rhythm of life and accept it, embrace it, realize that there is a force greater than us that is allowing our heart to beat and the conjunction of the planets. There are simply things we will never be able to understand and/or explain or have the answers to.”
Towards the end of Barton’s solo, when she is “exhausted and feeling completely alone, there is a faint sound in the distance,” she said. “A message. A song. Something that connects with our molecules and convinces us to keep going. I think we have to be very quiet to get our ‘messages.’ For me, in the dance, when I receive my message, it is also completely submitting to the universe, accepting my fate, accepting my weaknesses and limitations, realizing I am no better or worse than anyone else…. My absolute final movement is inspired by the whirling dervishes of Turkey, who spin with one open palm towards the sky, the other palm facing downwards towards the ground in recognition of the soul’s connection to both heaven and earth. I can’t think of a more appropriate image for VAST to end with.”
VAST does not provide any answers to life’s questions, but, rather, said Barton, “I think of VAST as a moving meditation and I feel it is quite interactive for the audience with regards to how they interpret the journey of the protagonist.”
Of venturing into the unknown herself as a creative person, Barton said, “We all have the capacity to investigate change. But, of course, it is not easy and certainly not encouraged in our society. It’s scary so, sometimes, we need people to remind us to take that leap. I think artists play a very important part in our society, of not only inspiring their communities but also reminding them that we are not alone in our thoughts and feelings. I believe art is a confirmation of our humanity and, a lot of the time, it is art that encourages people to take that next step or to pursue their dreams.”
“Speaking as a creator,” Gagnon told the Independent, “the act of creating a new work is an act of courage. There is no guarantee that the images I initially picture in my mind and what I intend to evoke will reach the audience with the right attention to tension. What is required of me is the deepest awareness and careful attention to each and every aspect I can think of in order to find the perfect physicality, musicality and intention in the talented dance artists with whom I am working. That awareness of and attention to every aspect is what I was referring to when I described Pathways as being my ‘heart, soul and brain.’”
The Independent interviewed Gagnon prior to the première performances of Pathways at the Vancouver International Dance Festival this past March. (See jewishindependent.ca/dance-explores-our-relationships.) The JI asked him whether any elements of the work had changed since then.
“When the 10 incredibly generous and talented dance artists of Vision Impure return to rehearse one week before the Dance in Vancouver biennial begins, I will likely be making the few changes that I feel are most needed,” said Gagnon. “My first priority for the upcoming process is keeping my dance artists safe and ready to blow the roof off the theatre the night they perform Pathways. The work is mentally, physically and emotionally demanding and requires the same focus from the dance artists that I required of myself during creation. We have a tough job ahead of us because, with this kind of intense work, nothing can be taken for granted.”
Pathways has not been performed since the dance festival in March, but Gagnon would like more audiences to see it.
“Speaking for this generous cast of dance artists, they can hardly wait to be performing this beast of a work,” he said. “Like me, they are deeply aware that the effort and demands required to perform this work may seem impossible at times, but the result is this incredibly empowering, life-changing reward. We are all keeping our fingers crossed that the Dance in Vancouver biennial presentation will be productive.”
For tickets ($34/$25) to DIV, visit ticketstonight.ca or call 604-684-2787. For more information, visit thedancecentre.ca or call 604-606-6400.
Tamar Cohen and her husband, Michael Gal. (photo from Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society)
After 43 years of teaching with the Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society (VIFS), Tamar Cohen is retiring. One of the early leaders of the VIFS and co-founder, with Rivka Cohen, in 1981, of the Shalom Dancers, an Israeli dance performance group, Tamar Cohen has inspired generations of dancers.
Cohen’s passion for dance began in Israel, in her teens, when she was introduced to Israeli dancing in school, in Kiryat Haim, a suburb of Haifa. At that time, in the late 1940s, in the formative years of the state of Israel, there was an avid interest among the youth in Israeli cultural activities, including folk dance. She joined a performance group in high school and then trained as a teacher, both as a profession and as a dance instructor.
“We did couple and circle dances, no line dancing, and there really weren’t that many dances, not like today,” she explained.
Cohen also trained as a school teacher, and taught Judaic studies for more than 40 years in Israel, the United States and Canada, including at Vancouver Talmud Torah.
It was in 1960 that Cohen brought her dance talents to Canada, teaching and starting a performing dance group in Winnipeg, where she met her husband, Michael Gal. In 1975, moving to Vancouver, she was part of the formation of the Vancouver Israeli Folk Dance Society, where she has taught continuously since 1976.
“In those days, we used records, and then tapes,” she said. “My son would help me shlep all these big cartons with records on Sundays and Wednesdays.” Now, of course, everything is on computers.
Cohen taught at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture and at Congregation Beth Tikvah. Many dancers who still gather at the JCC on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, including Lorna Donner and Marilyn Weinstein, both on the current VIFS executive, were introduced to Israeli dancing during the nine years Cohen taught at Beth Tikvah.
“In 1992, in the Beth Tikvah social hall, Marilyn and I started dancing by following our teacher, Tamar, around the circle,” said Donner. “Here we are, decades later, still sharing our love and enthusiasm for Israeli dance. Thank you, Tamar!”
Cohen became a VIFS board member when it first became a society, and served as president from 1985 to 1987. She remains on the VIFS executive and is a valued part of its community of dancers – approximately 80 active members – who come from a range of ages and walks of life: teenagers to dancers in their 80s; students, artists and professionals; beginners to those, like Cohen, who have danced all their lives.
“I’ve known and shared the dance floor with Tamar since the early ’80s, when I first began to attend Israeli dance sessions at the JCC,” said Nona Malki, VIFS executive director. “Tamar’s dedication and commitment to the local dance community, to the Israeli dance movement and to the Vancouver Israeli Dance Society, as one of its founders, was both profound and inspirational. Tamar took it upon herself to mentor me and, due to her guidance and encouragement, my passion for Israeli dance was sparked.”
Reflecting on the changes in Israeli folk dance over the years, Cohen said, “To me, folk dancing is for the folks, not for the professional or the advanced. I’m a little bit nostalgic in that regard. The dances used to be much shorter and quite symmetric. It came so naturally. I find that, nowadays, the dances are longer and more complicated. The old dances were easier to remember. I might belong to a different generation,” she said, chuckling.
Speaking about the future of Israeli dancing, Cohen said, “Israeli dancing is very popular.” There are scores of choreographers from Israel and around the world, she said, and countless new and challenging dances.
Certainly, it was the joy of dancing that hooked Cohen decades ago. However, she said, “I also see Israeli dancing as an ambassador for Israel. By presenting the folklore, the culture, the music and songs, it brings people, Jews and non-Jews, closer to Israel. Israeli dancing is beautiful. I think it’s very important that it continues.”
Ilana Zackon and Ariel Martz-Oberlander played current-day partisans in the immersive theatre piece Time Machine. (photo from Radix Theatre)
Two Jewish theatre artist-creators, Ariel Martz-Oberlander and Ilana Zackon, teamed up this summer to create an immersive piece based on the Jewish partisan movement, as part of Radix Theatre’s futuristic play Time Machine, set on a boat, the Pride of Vancouver.
The show took place on the yacht over a five-hour journey up Indian Arm (traditionally known as səl̓ilw̓ət) and featured both local emerging and established artists presenting new work of various genres, such as theatre, spoken word poetry, sound installation and more. The artists were asked to create a piece inspired by what Vancouver will look like in the year 2050. Some darker, others playful, the works were all grounded in a strong sense of the artists’ identities.
Martz-Oberlander and Zackon wanted to bring their ancestral roots into their piece. The pair created an immersive show in which they played two rebels helping smuggle climate refugees to safety. The 10-minute piece, which ran on a loop for an hour-and-a-half of the boat ride, took place in the boat’s basement bathroom, which acted as a safehouse. Five to seven audience members at a time were summoned by Zackon, dressed as a soldier, down into the dimly lit bathroom, where they were greeted by a similarly dressed Martz-Oberlander; “Zog Nit Keynmol” (“The Partisan Song”) played in the background.
The invited audience soon discovers they are now refugees who have just escaped fires in California. The soldiers, members of a new wave of partisans called PAP, explain that the refugees are being brought to another safehouse and prepared to enter the new world. The soldiers explain that their resistance cohort has based their movement on the survival lessons of their ancestors, partisan fighters in the forests of occupied Europe. The audience members are given new names, briefed on the types of skills, such as hunting moose, that they will need to survive in their new lives and, eventually, led into a discussion on identity.
“What’s better: start over or remember where you’re coming from?” Martz-Oberlander’s character asks. The two soldiers bicker over their differing views and invite the audience to contribute. After the group has spoken, the soldiers receive word that it is safe to move the refugees. Before leaving, audience members are given the option of writing down “one thing about their identity they don’t want to lose in the new world” on a sticky note. The notes lined the stairwell and, as the loop continued, more and more words were added, creating a tapestry of human identity. The notes lined the bathroom walls for the remainder of the boat ride, and included such items as “curiosity and kindness,” “time to think,” “my favourite berry picking spot,” “my knowledge of languages” and “the giggles of my daughter,” among many others.
A number of the boat passengers who attended the piece were Jewish and shared how they connected with their ancestors through remembering their stories. Many non-Jews had never heard of the partisan movement and the two artists felt the work they did helped educate people on an important part of history.
Zackon and Martz-Oberlander also received, from the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, transcripts of interviews with Jewish refugees coming to Canada during the 1930s and 1940s. These testimonials were hidden around the safehouse and incorporated into the performance. The two artists hope to receive the opportunity to continue developing and expanding this work and to incorporate more of their own personal family stories about immigration to Canada.
Laura Reynolds and David Volpov in The Wars, which opens Nov. 7. (photo by Javier R. Sotres)
Timothy Findley’s award-winning novel The Wars, adapted by Dennis Garnhum for the stage, comes to University of British Columbia’s Frederic Wood Theatre Nov. 7-23. Directed by Lois Anderson, it will be performed by UBC Theatre and Film’s graduate class of 2020, among whom is Jewish community member David Volpov.
Volpov takes on the leading role of Robert Ross, who is described as “a tender-hearted idealist who shares a strong bond with his wheelchair-bound sister” and “trades his comfortable Canadian life for the harsh world of trench warfare in World War I.”
“What I find challenging about playing Robert is imagining the play as a series of events, with each event slowly transforming him into a new person,” Volpov told the Independent. “At first, he’s a shy city boy who comes from a wealthy family. Over the course of the play, he becomes a confident lieutenant, who’s gained a lot more life experience. It’s not until he escapes his domestic life and goes to war that he truly discovers who he is. He discovers more about his sexuality, his morality around war and his will to live.
“As well as being a war story, the play is also a coming-of-age story. Finding those moments of change has been a rewarding experience because Robert is such a complicated character to crack. Even though he’s so young, he has so much trauma and weight that he carries with him to France. It feels like a big step for Robert every time he grows or learns something, or pushes past his comfort levels.”
Volpov is in his final year of the bachelor of fine arts acting program at UBC. As a writer, his plays include The Minimum-Wage Dame and Ten Years Later. His acting credits include Promethean Theatre Company’s productions of Of Mice and Men and Saint Joan.
“I love working with Promethean because we’re a small group of friends who are passionate about theatre,” he said. “We come together and discuss what stories we want to tell, what stories we think are important to tell. Then we go ahead and tell them. There’s nothing high-brow about it.”
Volpov’s appreciation for storytelling comes in part from his parents.
“My parents were Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union – my mom from Latvia and my dad from Belarus. Having grown up persecuted for being Jewish, they found it important to pass on their life stories to me, and that I understood what it meant to be Jewish,” he explained.
Growing up in Richmond as a secular Jew, he said, “It wasn’t until I was a teenager and spent one summer at Camp Tel Yehudah in Upstate New York that I felt connected to my heritage. The camp was oriented on teen leadership, so each camper chose a global issue which they were passionate about, researched it and created an activism action plan.
“The issue I chose to dive into was gun safety,” he said. “My group and I created a policy plan that we got the chance to take to Washington, D.C. We met with senators’ aides and representatives of the NRA [National Rifle Association] and the Brady Campaign. It was very important to be able to speak with people on both sides of the issue and still be able to have a healthy discussion. The experience impacted me a lot because it was the first time that I felt like I had a voice about something I was passionate about, something that felt so personal to me. That’s one thing that really helped in my acting from then on. Before that, I knew how to read and play someone else’s script, but that was when I learned how to make someone else’s text feel like it was my own.”
Considering the text of The Wars, Volpov said that one of the reasons Findley wrote about the First World War “is because that was the war that changed everything. It marked the first use of chemical weapons in war and the first time that the senselessness of war was widely reported. World War I marked a point where the world shifted to a much more cynical outlook, where the chaos of the world was realized.
“Presently,” he said, “we’re living in a similarly cynical time, in a new age of increasing isolationism – of Brexit and [Donald] Trump, and the climate crisis, too. The message that the play applies to the First World War can also apply to today: even when we’ve lowered our faith in our leaders and in humanity, we can always hold onto hope and lean on meaningful connections to others to get by.”
He added that “these connections take precedence over mere survival. The play is so life-affirming because it’s all about finding hope and joy even during the hardest times.”
Tamara Micner performs her one-woman play Holocaust Brunch this weekend at Chutzpah! (photo by Sophie le Roux)
“In recent years,” playwright Tamara Micner told the Independent, “I feel there’s been increasing discussion about inherited trauma in indigenous communities and in other minority communities, such as Japanese- and Chinese-Canadian communities. For me, it’s been valuable to remember that, sadly, we as Jews are not alone in inheriting collective trauma. In fact, I also know white, Christian Canadians who have it, too. The tsures we carry is unique in some ways, but we’re definitely in good company.”
Micner, who now lives in London, England, will be returning home to Vancouver for a couple of weeks to perform her new one-woman show, Holocaust Brunch, at the Chutzpah! Festival. It is one of two theatre works that will see their Canadian première at this year’s festival; the other is The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, directed by Stan Zimmerman, who is based in Los Angeles.
While The Diary of Anne Frank was mounted by Fighting Chance Productions last year (jewishindependent.ca/glimpse-of-life-in-the-annex), Zimmerman’s production features only Latinx actors. This is what makes this version of the play – written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett Based and adapted by Wendy Kesselman – unique.
“I chose to use Latinx actors for the characters in the attic,” Zimmerman told the Independent, “after seeing a CNN report about a Jewish woman in L.A. who arranged to hide a Latina mom and her daughters after her husband was suddenly deported by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement].
“Contrary to initial media reports – that went worldwide – we are not replacing the Nazis with ICE agents [in the play]. We are performing a word-for-word production of the script that Natalie Portman starred in on Broadway in 1997. I’m not saying the situation is exactly the same as the Second World War, but there are parallels – parallels that we can hopefully learn from. Only then can we live by Elie Wiesel’s famous phrase, ‘Never again.’”
Some Jewish community members were concerned about Zimmerman’s casting choice.
“Initially,” he said, “I had a few Jewish friends question my decision to cast Latinx actors in the play. For them, it was more about not wanting to tarnish the legacy of Anne Frank. But, when they saw that we were honouring her memory, they understood the power of this production. I took to heart the insightful words of a young Anne Frank from her diary – ‘Our lives are all different, and yet the same.’”
The concept of “different yet the same” is one of the reasons that Micner was interested in telling the stories of Bluma and Isaac Tischler, who have both passed away. Born in Poland, they “met in medical school in Tajikistan during the war, and went on to become renowned Vancouver doctors.”
“I have known the Tischler family since 1987, when their daughter Yael and I did What Do I Do When I’m Two? together at the JCC,” said Micner, referring to a program at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. “Our parents and grandparents have also known each other for many years.”
That said, Micner explored some of her gaps in understanding, through creating Holocaust Brunch.
“Growing up,” she said, “I felt there was a disconnect between ‘the Holocaust story’ I was taught, which focused on Western Europe and camps, and my own family’s story, which was about living in Eastern Europe (Poland) and surviving the war in the Soviet Union. The Tischlers’ story has those parallels as well, and it feels important to me to talk about a kind of Holocaust story that I haven’t seen told in wider culture, and that some non-Jews I know have never even heard.”
Micner is no stranger to writing plays based on people she knows.
“I have created shows in the past that are inspired by my own family,” she said. “Holocaust Brunch is partly about another family’s story, and started with the Tischlers offering me part of their family’s story to tell in a piece of theatre. I take that offer very seriously as an act of trust and a responsibility, as the creator and performer of the piece. We’ve had several conversations along the way about the central questions and themes of the piece as it has taken shape, and they have seen the show as it has evolved.”
One of the central aspects of the work is looking at trauma from a third-generation perspective.
“I am indeed part of the ‘third generation,’ and Holocaust Brunch explores what it’s like living as a descendant of Holocaust survivors, two generations removed from that history and trauma,” said Micner. “It’s certainly based on some of my experiences and, inevitably, incorporates aspects of other people’s experiences based on conversations I’ve been part of, books and articles I’ve read, and so on. There are many of us who are thinking and talking about these issues.”
In contrast, Zimmerman witnessed a lack of discussion and knowledge about the Holocaust and, specifically, The Diary of Anne Frank.
“I was quite shocked,” he said, “when the 15-year-old actor playing Anne told us that she did not know who Anne Frank was before auditioning for our production. As a Jew, I grew mad to learn that Anne’s diary is no longer required reading in the California school system. I decided then that it was vital to get as many student groups as possible to see this play, with this cast.”
And it hasn’t been only the cast and audiences who have learned something from the play.
“Although I was a good student at my temple’s Sunday school,” said Zimmerman, “being involved in this play opened my eyes to so many stories about the Holocaust that I never knew before. These important lessons were gained by visits to several museums and meeting many survivors and hearing their stories firsthand.”
He added, “As many of our survivors pass, it is important for us as artists to find creative ways to keep Anne’s story alive.”
One of the ways in which Micner creatively tells her story is with humour. Describing Holocaust Brunch as a “dark comedy,” Micner explained, “I think there’s a history of Ashkenazi Jews using comedy to look at hard things – the oppression we’ve suffered, displacement, antisemitism, poverty and so on. Holocaust Brunch is certainly engaging with that tradition,” she said. “I think there’s also a history of Ashkenazi humour being self-deprecating – as in, making fun of ourselves – and, one of the things I’ve been interested in, is looking at where that comes from and what it would mean for us not to be the butt of our own jokes. Holocaust Brunch is using comedy to look at communal trauma, and how we might be able to heal from that. The show also uses humour to explore stereotypes and assumptions that some non-Jews have about Jews. I think laughter helps us open up and look at hard places.”
For his part, Zimmerman would like audiences who come to see The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX “to feel like they literally stepped into the shoes of these characters – just like the actors have. Then we can all have this highly emotional and very visceral experience that can only be achieved communally with live theatre.”
Holocaust Brunch runs this weekend in the JCCGV’s Wosk Auditorium, Oct. 27, 1 p.m., and Oct. 28, 7 p.m. The Diary of Anne Frank LatinX, co-presented with Howard Blank of Point Blank Productions, is at the Rothstein Theatre Nov. 6, 8 p.m.; Nov. 7, 8 p.m.; Nov. 8, 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Nov. 9, 2 p.m. For tickets to these and other Chutzpah! shows, visit chutzpahfestival.com.
Tale of the Eastside Lantern’s Shon Wong and Rosa Cheng. (photo by David Cooper)
Among the many artists participating in this year’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is Jewish community member Elliot Polsky. The multi-percussionist joins the Son of James Band in Tale of the Eastside Lantern, a workshop presentation of a new hybrid Chinese rock opera.
From Oct. 30 to Nov. 10, the annual Heart of the City offers 12 days of music, stories, theatre, poetry, cultural celebrations, films, dance, readings, forums, workshops, discussions, gallery exhibits, mixed media, art talks, history talks and history walks. More than 100 events are scheduled to take place at more than 40 locations throughout the Downtown Eastside. This year’s theme – “Holding the Light” – has emerged from the need of Downtown Eastside-involved artists and residents to illuminate the vitality and relevance of the Downtown Eastside community and its diverse traditions, knowledge systems, ancestral languages, cultural roots and stories.
Tale of the Eastside Lantern is one of the top festival picks: “In the streets and shops of Vancouver’s Chinatown, Jimmy wrestles with his personal demons and sets out to solve a mystery that is guarded by Chinese opera spirits of the underworld. Jimmy is led by the sounds of rock music and motivated by the oldest feeling in the world … love.” Written and composed by Shon Wong and directed by Andy Toth, the rock opera is produced by Vancouver Cantonese Opera and Son of James Band in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre. Performed in English and Cantonese, the workshop presentation takes place Oct. 31, 8 p.m., at CBC Studio 700. Tickets ($15) are available at the door or in advance from eastsidelantern2.eventbrite.ca.
Another top pick is Sis Ne’ Bi -Yïz: Mother Bear Speaks, written and performed by Taninli Wright (Wet’suwet’en) about her Messenger of Hope Walk – she walked 1,600 kilometres across British Columbia to give voice to First Nations children and other marginalized youth. Developed in collaboration with Laura Barron, Jason Clift, Julie McIsaac and Jessica Schacht, the play is produced by Instruments of Change. There are several performances Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at Firehall Arts Centre. For advance tickets ($20/$15), call 604-689-0926 or visit [email protected].
Written and performed by Yvonne Wallace (Lilwat) and directed by Jefferson Guzman, ūtszan (to make things better) follows the journey of a woman to reclaim her language; in the process, she uncovers indigenous knowledge, humour, strength and resilience. The play has three shows at the Firehall Oct. 31-Nov. 2, with tickets ($20/$15) available at the door and in advance.
Of special interest to the Jewish community, whose oral histories form part of Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, is the dramatization of that book, which was first published in 1979. Directed by Donna Spencer and co-produced by the Firehall and Vancouver Moving Theatre, Opening Doors has several performances Nov. 6-9 at the Firehall, with tickets $20/$15.
While there are these and other ticketed shows, most of the festival events are free to attend. For example, on Nov. 2, 11 a.m., at CRAB Park, there is a mini-landing of canoes, featuring a welcome ceremony, after which paddlers and guests journey on land to the Police Museum and the exhibition Healing Waters, an exploration of how communities heal through connecting to cultural practice. This landing, in honour of the inaugural Pulling Together canoe journey in 2001, launches a year of story gathering and history sharing in preparation for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Pulling Together Society at next year’s Heart of the City.
In Speaking in Tongues, guests Woody Morrison, David Ng, Grace Eiko Thomson and Dalannah Gail Bowen discuss mother tongues and how their interactions can give birth to hybrid languages such as Japanese Pidgin, which is unique to the West Coast of Canada. This conversation is part of Homing Pidgin, an interactive installation by Haruko Okano, and takes place on Nov. 2, 1 p.m., at Centre A (205-268 Keefer).
Meanwhile, Irreparable Harm? is by Sinister Sisters Ensemble – activists and theatre folk, young and old, First Nations and settlers, many of whom were arrested in the protests against the twinning of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. It uses videos, transcripts of the court proceedings and statements that were read in the courtroom to shine a light on the justice system. It is at Carnegie Theatre on Nov. 8, 3 p.m.