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.
Adam Olgui, centre, stars in Theatre in the Raw’s production of Enter Laughing, which opens May 9 at Studio 16. (photo from Theatre in the Raw)
“The show has everything you could ask for: comedy, romance, great music and a great message at the heart of it, without taking itself too seriously,” actor Adam Olgui told the Independent about Theatre in the Raw’s latest production, Enter Laughing.
Enter Laughing opens May 9 at Studio 16. It is directed by Theatre in the Raw artistic director Jay Hamburger.
“It is time,” Hamburger told the Independent, “for this 25-year-old theatre company – that has toured parts of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and resided primarily in Vancouver – to do a full-blown comedy: Enter Laughing by Joseph Stein of Fiddler on the Roof fame.
“We just finished producing the intense Incident at Vichy, dealing with the systematic arresting and putting away Jews for ‘processing’ in the occupied part of France during the Second World War, all part of the Holocaust,” explained Hamburger. (See jewishindependent.ca/miller-play-remains-relevant.) “The Stein two-act play is a positive challenge for an independent theatre company to spread its wings and take on a comedy with lots of fun, and universal and Jewish humour inherent in it. The characters are searching for love, relationships and something positive to do with their lives, and there are some wonderful, gentle yet funny, scenes that can melt the heart through very good acting, with the fine talent on board.”
Stein’s play is an adaptation of the 1958 semi-autobiographical novel Enter Laughing by actor, writer and comedian Carl Reiner, said Hamburger. “Reiner co-wrote and acted on Caesar’s Hour and Your Show of Shows, and formed the comedy duo with Mel Brooks for the 2,000-Year-Old Man. He has acted in numerous films, such as The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Reiner, at 97, is one of the oldest celebrities still active, and has been honoured countless times, including receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour in 2000.”
Olgui won the lead role of David Kolowitz.
“During the audition process,” he said, “I read for a few different roles including David, Marvin and the Foreman. Auditioning for Jay is always fun because he doesn’t limit himself to ‘traditional casting’ and he approaches the audition process with an open mind. And the same can be said for the rehearsal process as well. Jay is an extremely humble and gracious director and he lets his actors bring their ideas to the table, which isn’t always the case in this industry.”
Olgui described David as “a young guy who dreams of being an actor but he’s caught between the desire to make his parents happy, while also wanting to pursue his passion. David has an eye for the ladies, but he’s got a heart of gold. He’s a storyteller with a bad habit of telling tall tales, but he’s also honest to a fault. All of which makes for some interesting situations along his journey.”
There are several aspects of David’s character and story to which Olgui can relate.
“We’re both young Jewish men pursuing acting careers despite the sticky situations it gets us into. And, while most of David’s situations are stickier than my own, I’ve been in a number of situations that have required a fair bit of explaining and negotiating on my part,” said Olgui. “Like David, I can relate to the late nights, the Jewish mother, the tough family conversations, the proverbial Jewish guilt – all this, and much more, firsthand. But, as wild as the situations sometimes get, at the heart of it, David’s story is that of a young man chasing after his dreams, and I think that’s something anyone and everyone can relate to.”
As a young actor, though, Olgui admitted that he wasn’t that familiar with Reiner’s work before taking on the role in Enter Laughing. “I had seen a few hilarious Sid Caesar skits…. But, being in this play and researching the man behind the character has really given me the opportunity to discover more of Carl Reiner’s works and the comedy legend that he truly is.”
Reiner was an associate of Stein, Brooks, Caesar, Dick Van Dyke and other well-known creative sorts out of New York and Hollywood, said Hamburger. “This play in particular was originally written in the early ’60s and then revised in the mid-’80s and I think it’s a good show to do at the moment,” he said. “It’s our first large comedy production in a long time and, at times, audiences need to laugh and have a bit of comic uplift.”
Hamburger added that Enter Laughing has special meaning for him, as “it was the first professional piece of theatre I did (as an apprentice) way back in the 1960s with the Cleveland Playhouse at their yearly Chautauqua, N.Y., festival. What a wild and crazy and fun play to break into the art performance form as an apprentice.”
As to its continued relevance for today’s audiences, Hamburger said, “With the play Enter Laughing, we get a chance to see a young man in the late 1930s of low income starting to follow a dream he has of becoming an actor. He has an inspiration that he wants to be an actor, though has little to no idea of what even being in a play entails. There are a number of trial and errors that he goes through on his journey to get on the stage with a role in hand, as well wanting to hold onto a girlfriend who has helped him reach beyond his low-income neighbourhood.
“Surely, in 2019, there is many a young person looking for a career or working on a hunch of what truly interests them, and moving forward with what it is they really might want to do. Surely, in 2019, there are young and old peoples who go for their dreams, having little idea of what it all might entail, or how it all might work in terms of the craft or job they seek to do. Yet they take the plunge, learn and enjoy what the craft or business is about and find solace, enjoyment and purpose with that choice(s) in life.”
In sum, Hamburger said Enter Laughing “is a fine story that gives faith and courage to those with dreams, seeking to make their inspirations and likes come true.”
Enter Laughing previews May 8, and runs from May 9 to 19. For tickets, visit theatreintheraw.ca.
Comedian Robby Hoffman in action. (photo from Bell Media)
Onstage, her energy is barely contained. She delivers lines in a clipped, almost angry fashion, sporting a tight bun and dark clothes. From contemplating pizza’s puzzling popularity, to sharing how one customs officer saw the fire in her that she never knew she had, to musing about what it’s like to be the seventh of 10 children, the fashion choices of antisemites, her sexual prowess and the cost of duotangs, Robby Hoffman is very funny. It is no wonder that Robby Hoffman: I’m Nervous is among the new stand-up comedy specials Bell Media released last month on Crave.
Produced with Just for Laughs and Counterfeit Pictures, Robby Hoffman: I’m Nervous was filmed last September at Toronto’s Longboat Hall during the JFL42 comedy festival.
“It’s huge deal. It was always a dream of mine to have a special, to have a TV special specifically, and to do an hour,” L.A.-based Hoffman told the Independent in a phone interview from London, England, where she was doing gigs, and visiting her girlfriend, writer and director Ally Pankiw, who was there for work. In contrast to her stage persona, Hoffman was relaxed and chatty on the phone.
A lot of comedians self-produce amazing albums or routines in smaller increments of time, said Hoffman, but, “for me, in stand-up, it always felt like the pinnacle to have an hour…. It was a really great way to cap off all the work I’ve been doing since I started, and, to have an hour that was sharp, it felt like everything. And to do it with Just for Laughs, name of all names, it was everything and it was incredibly fun.”
Hoffman’s numerous writing credits include The Chris Gethard Show on TruTV, which just wrapped up last year, episodes of PBS’s Odd Squad (which has won an Emmy for writing), and CBC’s Workin’ Moms and Baroness von Sketch Show. Most recently, she wrote for eight episodes of the series Mind Fudge. The Crave special allowed her to jump back into stand-up full-time.
“To be doing stand-up night after night until this hour was great. And I had never recorded the hour all at once,” she said. “I was doing it in small increments of 10-minute spots, 15-minute spots, seven-minute spots, so when I recorded the hour, it was the first time I had done that hour. I had to nail it, working through all the themes … making sure it all cohesively worked, even though I only really worked on it in portions. So, agonizing over the different portions coming together and working on the transitions from different themes so that they flowed.”
And they do flow, somehow, despite the vast diversity of topics. She said that (apparent) randomness is a signature of hers. She uses it both to take audiences off guard, but also as part of the joke. As well, she uses it to prepare people for what’s coming. For example, she drops hints along the way to warn the audience well in advance that she will be talking about the Holocaust, so that, when she gets there, they will have been with her for some time. Then, she said, when “we’re really in the thick of it together … I’ll reward you with hand-job material or whatever.”
While Hoffman said she doesn’t have any red lines when it comes to comedy, she said, “I talk through my own experiences only. I’m never going to step into a territory that I don’t feel is mine to speak about. But, beyond that…. If it’s something within my realm of what I could talk about and you tell me not to talk about it, that’s what I want to talk about more. For instance, the Holocaust is taboo, and some people are really offended by [jokes about] it. I feel, as a Jew, I’m reclaiming it and, if you’re telling me not to talk about it, I’m going to.”
She said, “I think that Jewish people can talk about Jewish experience. I think black folk can talk about black experience. I don’t think there’s anything off limits within the Jewish community for me. I do think everything is off limits to me with regards to communities I’m not a part of or I don’t have a firsthand experience. My comedy is very firsthand – I’m not doing observational humour that are these one-liners that can relate to anyone. My comedy is unique, such that I’m the only person who could say my comedy…. You hear of big comedians having writers – I don’t feel like that would work for me simply because my comedy is so personal. I’m the only person who can write my own comedy.”
And Hoffman’s background is unique, indeed. Born in Brooklyn, she grew up in Montreal, where her mother raised her and her nine siblings as a single parent, having divorced Hoffman’s father and having left the Chassidic community. Hoffman came out as lesbian in her late teens, left home at 18 and kept kosher until about the same time. She started her working career as an accountant.
“I wanted to have a Plan B,” she explained, “and I knew that the arts was always something free, that if I wanted to do it, I could do it on my own, and I could find a way that wasn’t with the structure of school to do it. But a financial backup plan was not something as easily attained for me, so I went into accounting. I thought, well, I can always get a good job.”
With a laptop from her employer and a regular paycheque every two weeks, Hoffman said, “I felt like a billionaire. I can’t even explain what it was like…. It was just the best to be able to sleep at night. Being worried about money is not something a lot of my peers thought about. I felt very alone in that sort of stuff.”
Once she “felt safe and comfortable,” that’s when her “creative juices went wild,” she said, and that’s when she discovered stand-up.
“I didn’t grow up with it, I wasn’t somebody who had the albums and all this stuff, but, once I knew about it, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, I feel like I could do that.’ I don’t mean to say, ‘Oh, it looks easy.’ A lot of people think they could do it – I felt like it was me. I felt, ‘Oh, my God.’ It felt like me already. And I got started immediately.”
Thinking that all stand-ups wrote, she started writing. Noting that it was only later that she realized how little comedians also write, she said, “I wrote a pilot and, even though it never got made, it did get me rep and it got me writing on other shows and it started my writing career. But it’s amazing how many times I’ve been the only active stand-up and writer in a writers’ room, which I didn’t know.”
Hoffman is driven by her love of the work.
“What’s so incredible about doing what I do and making a living doing what I do is … I never imagined it possible. I didn’t know these careers as careers. I didn’t know writing was even a thing, let alone what you got paid for a script, nothing like that. But waking up and not dreading where I go to work every day is still something I don’t take for granted.”
She started as a writer’s assistant. “I was first one in, would get there early, have my coffee, enjoy. I was last one out. I was never more motivated – and it’s still to this day. I would have to be literally on death’s door not to go into work because I love it so much.
“I’m also really lucky in that the shows that I do work on, I choose to work on them for a certain reason. There’s something about them that either gives me growth or it gives me a challenge or I really just love it. And it’s a pleasure to work creatively all day, every day, and to be valued for it.”
As for what lies ahead, Hoffman said, “I have so many goals. Think of the biggest goal you can imagine, and that’s what I have for myself. Yes, my own show. Yes, who knows, my own studio. I don’t even know where it could go. I just want to try for the biggest, best thing. I want my life to be as much as I want it to be. There’s no limit on wanting that for yourself. There shouldn’t be a limit on dreaming. I never want to lose that.
“I almost, for a second, lost my childhood curiosity and dreaming and spirit, for a second, because, when you are poor and you want to be normal, and you want to make ends meet, you do give up a lot, and I was never somebody who was able to dream. We weren’t told to dream, we weren’t taught to dream, we weren’t taught we could be anything we wanted to be, almost nothing. There was not a lot of encouragement, so I gave that all to myself…. I always want to tell myself to reach for the biggest, best, whatever that is, and that changes for everyone. Within my career and within my capabilities, I want to continue growing forever.”
Elon Gold performs in Vancouver on April 14 at the JNF Negev Gala. (photo from elongold.com)
Comedian Elon Gold loves doing charity events, especially Jewish ones. The Independent caught him for a phone interview as he was on the road – with his family – to Las Vegas from Los Angeles to do gigs for the Adelson Education Campus and then the Israeli-American Coalition. On April 14, he will be in Vancouver to co-headline, with Ambassador Ron Prosor, the Jewish National Fund, Pacific Region, Negev Gala. The event raises funds for Sderot Animal-Assisted Therapy Centre.
“I feel like I’m doing a mitzvah by making my people laugh. And I’m also helping this cause that’s really important, and Israel is really important to me,” said Gold. “And we’re living in a highly antisemitic time, it’s dark out there, so anything I can do to bring light into our world and make my fellow Jew happy, I’m there for it.”
Gold’s resumé is impressive. He starred in the television series Stacked and In-Laws, had a recurring role on Bones and on The Dana Carvey Show. He guest starred just recently on HBO’s Crashing and, longer ago, on shows including Frasier and The Mentalist. He has appeared in films, his one-hour Netflix special, Elon Gold: Chosen and Taken, is available on Amazon and his show Elon Gold: Pro-Semite premièred at the Montreal Comedy Festival. He has made multiple appearances on The Tonight Show and his July 2018 segment on The Late Late Show With James Corden – how, like everyone else, Jews love sex, money and food, but just in a different order – has been watched and shared by countless people on the internet, as has his routine on why Jews shouldn’t have Christmas trees and so many others.
Despite all of his accomplishments and his years in the business, Gold still gets excited about his work, and he shared what he described as a “wow” moment, one of the best days of his life, almost immediately when talking with the JI.
“Yesterday,” he said, “I was filming a scene of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David…. It was really, truly a dream come true.”
But Gold didn’t take his being hired by David as a sign that he had “made it.”
“The truth is, I have been a guy with lucky breaks and hard breaks for the last 20 years,” said Gold. “This is another achievement, and one that’s beyond anything I would dream of…. I’m gratified in the sense that I finally feel like I’m in a place, not where I’ve made it, but where I actually have fans, and my clips are viral and people are sharing my bits on Facebook, WhatsApp or whatever. I did the James Corden show and, again, that doesn’t mean I’ve arrived … but what’s cool to me is that I did that set and then everyone’s sharing it, especially Jews. My biggest fans are my people.”
It’s been a 25-year journey, said Gold of his career, “with all sorts of great highs, like yesterday, and huge lows, like having a sitcom that you pitched and created and started get canceled. There are so many lows, and then there is the daily rejection that is show business. And that’s why I’m so glad I’m a comedian and an actor. I get rejected all day in Hollywood at auditions, but then, at night, I’ll go to the Laugh Factory comedy club and I’ll have 300 people roaring, and that will validate [me] – I knew they were wrong! I knew I could do this. See, I’m funny. These people think so, at least.”
Gold said his resilience, his ability to keep trying, likely comes from stand-up. “Because stand-up is all about bombing and killing, and the killing is so worth it that even the terrible, dejected feeling of bombing [is manageable].”
As far as his career, he said, “I have no other choice. I don’t love doing anything else and I’m not good at anything else.”
Known for his impressions, he said, “I used to impersonate my teachers in eighth grade.” His goal wasn’t to ridicule people, he said, but to make even the teachers laugh.
He enjoyed making people laugh, and writing comedy. One of the first things he wrote, he said, was a Purim shpiel. “And I’ll never forget the feeling of having the entire high school laughing, and thinking, there has never been anything more gratifying than what I just did, I want to do this more. Everybody says it’s like a drug…. It’s so addictive. Once you get a taste of it, that’s it, you’re hooked. And very little can discourage a comedian [so much that they get] out of comedy; certainly not a bad set, because we all know that we all have them.”
A combination of things drives him.
“It’s probably disingenuous to say that I do this because I love to make others laugh,” he admitted. There is a selfish aspect to it, he said. While making people happy is a “key component” of why he does comedy, he said, “I also love everything about it… I love the process of having an observation and then writing it and tinkering with it and working on it. I love doing it and I love the fact that I have so much freedom in my days because I don’t have that nine-to-five job most people have…. I’m always working. At the same time, I’m always on vacation.”
Gold loves getting the laughs, and said that’s probably 70% of the reason he does comedy; the other 30% is making people happy.
“There is so much misery in the world,” he said, “to make people happy is a great thing, but it’s only a part of it.”
On the acting side, Gold said his favourite kind of acting is for sitcoms “with a live studio audience because you’re still getting the laugh but now you’re not looking at the audience and talking to them, you’re looking at your fellow actor … and, peripherally, you hear and see these people cracking up.”
Ultimately, he said, “I just love performing.”
The only “grueling part,” he said, is the memorizing “and the pressure of 200 people staring at you, saying, ‘You better know your lines, pal, because we’re all here and we all want to go home…. Acting is challenging, but it’s also just fun…. It’s fun to get into a character and just play.”
Gold, who is from the Bronx originally, recalled his first open-mic night at the Comic Strip Live in Manhattan; he was 16 years old. “Fortunately, I had beginner’s luck because I was doing impressions – my early act was all impressions – and impressions are like magic tricks, they just wow the audience.”
Despite being a touring comedian by university (he got a bachelor’s in economics at Boston U), it took years, he said, to develop his own voice, to figure out what he wanted to talk about and how to talk about it.
“I’m obsessed with Jewish stuff because I live such a Jewish life,” he said. “I’m an observant Jew, I keep Shabbos and all that stuff, keep kosher. So much of my life is in the Jewish world, I can’t help myself but to come up with observations about our traditions, our holidays, our rituals. A lot of what I talk about is what I live…. The other part of my life is being married, being a dad, so I talk about that.”
Gold and his wife, Sasha, have four kids, two sons and two daughters, ranging in age from 9 to 18. The couple is coming up to their 25th anniversary in June.
As he stopped to fill up his car with gas on the way to Vegas, he told the JI about why he likes performing at Jewish events, while simultaneously directing his kids to be quick about heading into the gas station, as they were running late.
“There are not a lot of comedians out there that will go that deep into the Jewish experience and, for me, there are not a lot of audiences I can share my Jewish experiences with,” he said. “I can’t do lulav and etrog jokes on James Corden…. At the same time, we’re raising money, we’re raising awareness for incredible organizations…. It’s all win-win for me – I’m raising money, I’m making money, I’m getting laughs, I’m getting to do material I don’t do anywhere else…. And I love Jewish audiences; I love connecting on more than just a human level…. We’re connecting about a shared experience that is almost indescribable to anyone else.”
For tickets to the JNF Pacific Region evening event on April 14, which will be held at Schara Tzedeck, call 604-257-5155.
Ryan Gladstone is co-writer of Jesus Christ: The Lost Years, which opens at Havana Theatre March 13, 8 p.m. (photo from Monster Theatre)
Scholars have pondered the question of the unknown, or missing, years of Jesus. In the Christian Bible, he disappears from the narrative in his teens, only reappearing at age 30. What happened in that time? What was Jesus doing? Even if you haven’t wondered about this before, you should consider checking out the award-winning theatrical romp Jesus Christ: The Lost Years, which offers some unconventional theories that academics and theologians have possibly overlooked.
Written by Ryan Gladstone, Bruce Horak and Katherine Sanders, with an original score by Drew Jurecka, Jesus Christ: The Lost Years was first created in 2006. It toured until 2008, then also had its “lost years,” returning to the Fringe circuit only last summer; this time, with two women playing the male leads. Directed by Gladstone, the irreverent physical comedy opens at the Havana Theatre March 13.
“The script is pretty much the same, so the biggest change is what the two new performers bring to the table,” said Gladstone about how the current iteration of the play differs from the original. “Carly Pokoradi and Alex Gullason really have made the play their own, and that’s been a pleasure to watch. It’s also fun watching two talented and funny women being funny and talented on stage.”
Both actors take on multiple characters. In the play, notes the promotional material, “we see teenaged Jesus, wondering why he doesn’t fit in. Mary and Joseph finally come clean and tell him that Joseph isn’t his real father. Hurt and confused, Jesus heads off on the most epic father quest of all time. Along the way he meets Judas, Mary Magdalene, the Three Wise Men, lepers, Romans, he even has a battle with the spirit of Elvis!”
The idea for Jesus Christ: The Lost Years came up long before it was first produced in 2006.
“Katherine Sanders and I were roommates in Calgary in the late ’90s, and we came up with the idea of doing a play about a teenaged Jesus. But Monster Theatre was just on the cusp of being founded and it wasn’t the right time,” said Gladstone. “I remember calling her in 2005, saying, ‘It’s time.’ So, we started researching, and we got Bruce Horak on board, who we both greatly respected, and got to work. The writing process was pretty smooth for having three writers, though maybe some of us were more forceful with our ideas than others! (I’m talking about me, if it’s not clear.)”
As wild as the play gets, it is based on research, as are all Monster Theatre productions. Part of the company’s mission is to reimagine history or adapt “universal stories to make them relevant for our specific time.”
“I took a couple history classes in university but, funnily enough, my thirst for history came out of doing plays for Monster,” Gladstone told the Independent. “In 2001, we created our longest-running, most successful show, The Canada Show: The Complete History of Canada in One Hour, and the research portion of the project really fired my imagination. I loved the idea of taking amazing events that people have never heard of and exposing them to these great moments in our past, or events that people think they know and showing it from another angle. In 2003, Bruce Horak (and later my brother Jeff) and myself spent about seven months researching and writing the follow-up show, The Big Rock Show: The Complete History of the World. It was really this that gave me my love for history. Having that broad overview of everything has given me context for every other event I learn about.”
Perhaps also “funnily enough,” given his love of history, Gladstone only recently found out about his Jewish heritage. “A couple years ago,” he said, “my brothers and I got one of those DNA tests done for both our parents, and discovered that our dad has about 30% Jewish blood. We have some very close Jewish friends here in Vancouver that took us under their wings and guided us through everything they thought we needed to know.”
Born and raised in Calgary, Gladstone went to theatre school at the University of Calgary. “I had been caught up in the exciting whirlwind that was the Loose Moose Theatre Company, run by improv guru Keith Johnstone, who was also teaching in the theatre department at U of C,” explained Gladstone. “After I graduated, I moved to Toronto, because that’s where all my friends were, and I loved it. That was around the time that I founded Monster Theatre. In 2006, I moved to Vancouver. My (now) wife had come to Toronto from Vancouver and tried it out for a few years and we decided we would give Vancouver a shot for year or two. Well, that’s been 13 years now.”
Gladstone followed up his bachelor of fine arts in acting from U of C with a master of fine arts in directing from the University of British Columbia. He has written or co-written, produced, directed or acted in every Monster production.
“It’s a tough thing to tally, but I think it’s around 40 original plays, written or co-written,” Gladstone said of his literary output. “I occasionally write for other mediums; I’ve been co-writing a kids’ book for many years, and we have tried adapting our plays for film and web series.”
Gladstone founded Monster Theatre almost 20 years ago. “In 2000,” he said, “I wanted to tour the Fringe Festival circuit. I had some friends with a comedy troupe called the 3 Canadians who were very successful and were touring Australia and beyond every year, and I basically wanted to be like them. So, I filled out an application form for the Edmonton Fringe and, when it came down to ‘Company Name,’ I just wrote down Monster Theatre for the first time.
“The name is based on something Keith Johnstone said one day when I was in university. We were working on a scene from Othello and Keith was discussing Iago and the difference between demons and monsters. He said, ‘Demons are evil and twisted on the inside, but they are usually quite attractive on the outside, while monsters are strange, twisted and bizarre on the outside, but they always have a good heart.’ And I thought, that’s the kind of theatre I want to make! So, we try to create original plays that are odd, unique, unlike what everyone else is doing, but we are always focused on the heart of the play, making sure that it is rooted in something meaningful or profound. We often talk about our style as being at the intersection where high brow and low brow meet.”
Gladstone was still living in Calgary when he started Monster Theatre. “But, when I moved to Toronto, the company, such as it was, moved with me and, when I moved here in 2006, it moved again,” he said. “Since arriving in Vancouver, we have laid down roots and I don’t think there will be another relocation for Monster in the future. With that said, Monster is a very cross-national company – we have a fan base in a number of cities across the country. In fact, for a long time, Vancouverites witnessed fewer productions of ours than Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary or Edmonton.”
Over the years, the societal norm of what is acceptable and offensive in word or deed has changed, but Gladstone said there aren’t really any “red lines” he won’t cross in his writing.
“I mean, in the old days, my writing was way more provocative,” he acknowledged. “We were trying to offend people. We often talked about trying to piss off everyone, then no one gets left out. But, these days, it’s a different atmosphere. I’m not afraid of offending people, but I think there needs to be a worthwhile reason, not just for the shock of it.”
Jesus Christ: The Lost Years is at Havana Theatre March 13-16 and 20-23, 8 p.m. For tickets ($20/$15), visit showpass.com/ticket-buyers.
Comedian Jacob Samuel headlines A Night of Shticks & Giggles Feb. 21 at the Rothstein Theatre. (photo from JCCGV)
In just one week, I will be standing on stage at one of the most exciting events I have ever been a part of. On Feb. 21, some of the funniest stand-up comedians in Vancouver will join me in the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Rothstein Theatre, using laughter to raise money for JCC youth sports scholarships.
A Night of Shticks & Giggles is co-produced by the JCC and Rise of the Comics. Headlined by 2017 Yuk Off champion Jacob Samuel – It’s good to finally see a successful Jewish comedian, right!? – it will also feature a performance from Larke Miller, who I remember watching on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, as well as several other local comedic stars.
While the show will be one of those guaranteed good times for the audience, for me, it also represents a unique opportunity to combine two of my great passions.
Passion #1: As the delegation head for the JCC Maccabi Games – an athletics and arts program that provides Jewish teens the opportunity to travel and experience an Olympic-style international event – I have the responsibility and honour of raising scholarship funds to enable as many teens as possible the chance to participate in this life-changing event.
Passion #2: As a stand-up comic still in his rookie season, I get to meet, learn from and share the stage with some of the city’s top comics. Not to mention the opportunity to stand and perform my craft in front of an audience of 200+ in the Rothstein. (Gulp!)
As a producer of the show, the fact that I will be performing my own original set kind of makes me like that kid who got to start on the soccer team because my dad happened to be the head coach. Except, in this case, I also run the soccer team, picked my dad to be the coach and, oh boy, he’s putting me in!
While I might not end up being the funniest comic of the night, I can promise A Night of Shticks & Giggles will deliver the funny in spades.
Among his many local appearances, Samuel has performed on the Rothstein stage before, when the Jewish Independent team held their JI Chai Celebration in December 2017. He followed that up with his Yuk Off championship win, and his career has taken off since.
Harris Anderson, Joey Commisso and Randee Neumeyer have all inspired me with their irreverent, clever and sharp takes on life, as well.
Another one of the comics, Ed Konyha, used to run the award-winning open mic Stand-up and Deliver, the show in which I finally found the courage to perform my very first set as a stand-up comic.
Finally, Scotty Aceman, emcee for the night and producer of Rise of the Comics, has worked with me on a few shows now (this being the largest by far!) and is a huge inspiration for anyone thinking of quitting their day jobs and following their passion – no matter how little money it makes them. Aceman had a career in the cellphone business before giving it all up to bring comedy to Vancouver’s masses. Today, Rise of the Comics showcases Vancouver’s incredible comedy scene, producing and selling out regular live shows while featuring these local talents on their YouTube channel. His latest venture, Rise After Dark, offers people the chance to bring stand-up comedy right into their living room or private event.
Shticks & Giggles is a well-supported community event with a powerhouse of partnerships including the Chutzpah! Festival; Axis, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s young adult initiative; and, of course, the Jewish Independent.
Tickets for A Night of Shticks & Giggles are $20 and can be bought online at ticketpeak.com/jccgv. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, with the show set to begin at 8 p.m.
Kyle Bergeris coordinator, sports department, Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and co-producer of A Night of Shticks & Giggles.
Girls Gotta Eat co-hosts Rayna Greenberg, left, and Ashley Hesseltine have created careers they love. (photo from JFL NorthWest)
To say it’s a podcast about dating and relationships doesn’t begin to describe Girls Gotta Eat. Co-creators and co-hosts Rayna Greenberg and Ashley Hesseltine invite their guests to talk about pretty much anything, and pretty much as explicitly as they’d like. Recent topics include creating successful online businesses, avoiding toxic partners, managing depression, the health benefits of masturbation, and having sex with famous people – and that was on just one show.
Girls Gotta Eat celebrates its first anniversary this month, and Greenberg and Hesseltine will be in Vancouver for that milestone. The pair has two soldout performances at JFL NorthWest, which runs Feb. 14-23 (jflnorthwest.com). They were scheduled to do just one show initially, and the demand would have sold out a third, no doubt, and probably even a fourth. On Instagram, Girls Gotta Eat has garnered more than 69,900 followers in less than a year. (By the time you’re reading this article, that number will likely be more than 71,000, as the account gained 300-plus new followers in the space of two days last week.)
In addition to Girls Gotta Eat, Greenberg and Hesseltine each have other ventures on various platforms, including websites, Twitter and Facebook, but Instagram is where their celebrity status is most remarkable. At press time, Greenberg’s One Hungry Jew had more than 350,000 followers on Instagram; Hesseltine’s Bros Being Basic, more than 915,000, and her Fashion Dads, another 186,000. It is no wonder that a good chunk of time on the Girls Gotta Eat podcast is spent promoting advertisers’ products, mainly cosmetics and fashion. These women have worked hard to secure an enviable target market – their 30-something peers who have money to spend.
While Girls Gotta Eat generally focuses on one topic or guest, Greenberg and Hesseltine try to cover a range of topics and have different guests for the live version, as well as make the show an interactive experience for the audience.
“We typically try to have a guest that has already been on the podcast,” Greenberg told the Independent in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where she and Hesseltine were performing.
“It’s rare,” she said, “that we go to a new city and invite somebody we’ve never had on the show. Just because our audience is so invested in the show and they love it, it’s so exciting for them to be able to also see another person that was on the show.”
The weekly podcast now averages well over an hour. In its first several months, it was about 45 minutes, the approximate length of a commute to work, said Greenberg.
“As we had more and more guests, the show just became really fun. We want guests to feel like they can cover a range of topics and we don’t want to truncate the show, something that’s great,” she explained. “We don’t want to hold ourselves to 45 minutes if it’s great content, so it’s just gotten a little longer. There was no day where we woke up and said, let’s do an hour-and-a-half. So, it just depends on the guests; some episodes are going to be 45, some are going to be an hour-and-a-half, we’ll see when the guests come in.”
For Greenberg, the podcast was a huge departure from what she had been doing before.
“I’ve worked in restaurants, I went to culinary school and then I really worked in tech startups for a long time,” she said.
The Girls Gotta Eat podcast was Hesseltine’s idea initially.
“She is a comedian herself and she really wanted to do a show about dating and relationships, and wanted to find somebody that would be open and honest about their own lives and also could be funny,” said Greenberg. “She and I met on a press trip because we both have very large Instagram influencer accounts, and we just really hit it off. We had a great time with each other, we became friends over the course of a few months, and then she asked me if I’d be interested in doing this.”
As soon as the idea came up, said Greenberg, “I decided, and she decided with me, that it wasn’t going to be a hobby or a side project, this could be what we do. So, we focused on it as a business: we built a website, we had professional photos taken, we devised a way to market this. From Day 1, there was definitely a strategy of let’s make this a business, let’s expand it.”
Greenberg had already monetized her food blog, One Hungry Jew, by doing ads for brands. “For example, a company like American Express will come to me if they’re looking to attract a younger audience that has money and they’ll say, OK, we want to create a campaign that is designed to encourage people to use our AmEx Travel and they’ll give me an idea of what they’re looking for and, obviously, a budget, a price, and it can be something like, hey, we want to encourage people to sign locally, so go to a restaurant, take a photo of yourself at the restaurant, write a caption, and they pay me for something like that. It’s clearly an ad, it says ad. That’s how, personally, I make money through social media.”
One Hungry Jew started “as a silly hobby,” said Greenberg. “I would never purposely have named a business One Hungry Jew…. I’ve always enjoyed food, I’d always worked in food, and I was in the tech startup world and I didn’t have much of a creative outlet, so I started taking photos of food with my cellphone. It’s something I always spent money on anyways, it’s what I enjoyed, and I just put them on Instagram because I wanted somewhere to put the photos. It’s just as simple as that.
“There weren’t a lot of food blogs back then…. I was one of the earlier people that started posting continuously. I had really good content, and it was really ‘right place, right time.’ It was certainly a time in the world where marketing and PR were shifting heavily to social media…. And I started getting invited to all these places for free, for a free meal in exchange for a photo.”
Working at Amazon at the time, Greenberg said she was splitting her focus between her job and the social media account. “I was obviously doing a bad job of both of them and I had to make a decision, so I chose. I left my job two-and-a-half years ago to pursue this full time and I worked really hard. I reached out to every single PR and advertising agency in the United States. I introduced myself, I said this is what I do, this is what makes me unique, I’d love to find time to meet. So, just like the podcast, I tried to make it into a business as opposed to a silly hobby.”
While not religious, Greenberg said, “I am exactly who I am because I was brought up in a Jewish family, I was brought up in a big Jewish community. A lot of my social activities as a child revolved around that, so I had a really nice upbringing because I was brought up in this Jewish community.”
Though her parents divorced when she was 4 years old, she said, “I have an incredibly supportive family from both sides.”
She could always talk about sex with her parents, and said her mom is a psychologist, so “we’ve always explored my feelings.”
“My mom bought me a book about puberty when I was like 11,” said Greenberg. “She wanted me to understand my body and what was happening.”
Nonetheless, she admitted to being a little nervous when she and Hesseltine started the podcast, as the pair does talk openly about their sex lives.
“It was a real struggle and a real choice that I wrestled with, how much do I talk about myself and how open am I going to be? And we both, Ashley and I, made the decision that, if we’re going to put ourselves in a public light, then we have to be honest and open about things in our life, and we both really are. And I think that’s what makes our show really good, is that people really feel like they know us, they really feel like they understand our pitfalls and our successes.”
Over the course of the year, Greenberg and Hesseltine have interviewed a wide variety of people. “We’ve had the founder of Hinge, which is a dating app, on the show; we’ve had a sex therapist; we’ve had a psychotherapist; we’ve had matchmakers; we’ve had comedians, actors and artists and all these different people. And everybody brings such a different, unique view of their own life and other people’s lives, and I feel so lucky to have amassed this huge knowledge of dating and what other people go through,” said Greenberg.
The podcast, she said, has “helped me be more calm and not so emotional, not take everything personally all the time. It’s helped me to realize that people are people and they make mistakes…. And I think that lots of people are looking for love and, just because you’re not the person they fall in love with, it’s not insulting, it’s not personal.
“It’s helped me to relax a little bit and be happy with my own life and realize that I should do other things besides focus on dating, which is funny because I do a show about dating. But, the advice I always give girls is focus on your job, focus on hobbies and friends and family and all these other things that bring so much joy your life, and that can be really fulfilling. And love will come and dating will come. And, if you’re a more whole person, it allows you to let in love in a really beautiful way.”
Actor, writer and comedian Andy Kindler is one
of several Jewish community members on the Just for Laughs NorthWest roster for
Vancouver. He’ll host The Alternative Show at Yuk Yuk’s Feb. 21-23.
Kindler spoke with the Independent from Montreal, while on a shoot for the dark comedy
feature film The Fiddling Horse, in which he co-stars as Barry
“I’m a bitter ex-jockey and it’s perfect for
me,” said Kindler. “I’m five, five-and-a-half, so I almost look like an
ex-jockey, I’m not too tall, and it’s just fun.”
Kindler has a ton of acting credits, including Bob’s
Burgers, I’m Dying Up Here and Portlandia, as well as Everybody
Loves Raymond, Maron and But I’m Chris Jericho! But standup
came first, he said, “although I did acting in college and in summer camp – I
played Elwood P. Dowd, the lead in Harvey, when I was 12. But, any
acting that was filmed to be seen by others, that happened after standup.
Standup, if you’re doing it right, is a good rehearsal for acting; it is just
Before standup, Kindler was a musician. It was
his pursuit of a music career that took him to Los Angeles “many, many, many
years ago,” but he “couldn’t make a living.”
“I was in my 20s,” he said. “I was very
insecure, I kind of hated myself, like many kids that age, unless you have a
tremendous amount of confidence. So, I just happened to stumble into standup
comedy. A friend of mine – we were working at the same stereo store together –
he said, you’re funny, let’s try it, so I actually was in a duo for a couple
years and that was really a good way to start.”
Kindler played guitar. “I played classical
violin when I was a kid, but I didn’t play very well … and I still took it for
another 12 years, even hating it, because I had issues…. I started playing
guitar in high school, which was the greatest. When I grew up, people wanted to
be the Beatles. We didn’t want to be necessarily [comedian] Shecky Greene. Now
I want to be Shecky Greene but, back then, all my heroes were musicians, except
for Richard Pryor. But, I didn’t know much about comedy.”
While he learned to do comedy in Los Angeles,
he said he wouldn’t recommend that people follow his example, “because it’s
kind of a frightening thing. But I lived in L.A., so the only way I wouldn’t
have been able to not start in L.A., I would have had to have moved out of
“I put my name in the hat, did all the open mic
things, and that’s how I started and it just, I don’t want to say, took off,
but I’ve been making a living since ’87.”
Despite his long career, Kindler has spoken in
interviews about only recently becoming comfortable with doing standup.
“A lot of people, they see comedians and they
say, how can you do it? Well, when you start comedy – unless you’re a person
who really has no fear – you’re scared for a long time because you can be funny
off-stage, but you still can’t do it under pressure or it’s not necessarily
that you can produce it at anytime. That’s where the technique comes in,” he
explained. “The technique basically for standup comes from doing it over and
over and over again, until you either hate it or it becomes something you love.
So, I felt like, after 10 years, oh, I’m really good at this but I wasn’t….
There are still nights I don’t feel comfortable, but it gets better.”
Kindler faces challenges that most comedians
don’t: he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive
disorder. When he was younger and just starting out, he said, “At that time,
you didn’t hear a lot about OCD and so I thought I was losing my mind, because
I never got help until a couple of years ago for it…. And when I was first
starting comedy, it was like a whole year where I would say to myself onstage,
I am holding the mic in my right hand, I am gesturing to the crowd with my left
hand, I am walking two steps – I couldn’t get out of my head and I didn’t even
know I was officially OCD.”
While knowing that he has OCD and ADHD hasn’t
changed his act, which he describes as “so stream of consciousness,” it has
helped him in other ways. “I feel better about myself now,” he said. “I’m more
calm.” And he has learned ways of coping, he said, recommending the book Delivered
from Distraction. “I don’t make any money on the sales of the book,” he
said, “but they give you tools for dealing with OCD.”
Kindler has been to Vancouver often, including
with JFL’s The Alternative Show.
Alternative Show started in Montreal at that festival,” explained Kindler,
“and it started in the late ’90s when you actually needed to have a show called
The Alternative Show. A lot of people
probably don’t remember there was a big comedy boom, comedy got very generic
and everybody was like, what’s the deal with this thing? It started to be very
homogenized and so there was kind of a movement in L.A. and New York in the mid
to late ’90s, or even earlier, for the core of alternative comedy. And now, the
good news is, that comedy is better than it ever was, everybody is doing
interesting things. So, I don’t really need to have a show because almost the
whole festival you could call alternative, but one thing I do like to do is
have people working on new stuff and hopefully taking chances, so it’s not like
them doing their honed five minutes.”
Generally, Kindler brings five or six comedians
onstage during the night. “It’s usually a combination of two things: other
people in the festival and local people,” he said.
Kindler has been coming up to Canada in one
form or another since the late 1980s. He worked Yuk Yuk’s in the west, he said.
“So, I know a lot of the comedians and the comedians in Canada are hilarious. I
think Canada has the best comedians per capita in the world. What I’m doing in
my act, which is commenting culture, all Canadians do that naturally because
you’re next to American culture, but you can comment on it and feel separate
Being Jewish is a large part of Kindler’s
routine. While he sometimes thinks that, in his act, he’ll just do a few Jewish
jokes and move on to other material, he said, “I just can’t stop it because I
feel so Jewish. It’s so much a part of me. I used to make a joke about how
Jewish people are funny even when they’re not trying to be funny. Like, when
the Whitney Houston song ‘How Will I Know?’ came out, I was with this Jewish
friend of mine, and she’s singing, ‘How will I know?’ and my friend yells at
the radio, ‘You’ll know, Whitney, you’ll know. Believe me, you’ll know.’
“And this is just how all Jews are, even when
they’re not trying to be funny. So, I feel very, very Jewish, but it also could
be a member of any oppressed group that responds to being oppressed with humour
and self-deprecation. I love to make fun of the fact that I’m Jewish.”
While he doesn’t have any topics that he won’t
talk about in his act, Kindler does shy away from certain words and thinks
about whether his material is unnecessarily offensive.
“I get very angry when comics say they never
apologize, because everybody makes mistakes,” he said, giving the example of
having used, early in his career, a joke that referenced the Holocaust. Two
audience members approached him afterward, upset because they felt he was
“gratuitously making fun of the Holocaust, and I decided that I wasn’t in that
particular case, but also decided it’s important for comics to think about what
they’re saying because, when you’re onstage, you can say something in the
moment and then you have the right to not want to say it later. There’s no
specific red lines, but I do think about why I’m doing the joke and whether
it’s worth doing it and who’s the subject of the joke.”
Kindler said being a comic is a “kind of a
miracle, or a magic thing” and “like a dream come true because I really,
really, really love standup and a lot of people get sick of it after awhile. I
just haven’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t get sick of it temporarily, but it’s
still the thing I most love doing, it’s the thing I feel most natural about
doing and it’s just I feel it is a dream come true.”
The Alternative Show is at Yuk Yuk’s Feb. 21, 10 p.m.; and Feb. 22 and 23, 11 p.m. For tickets and the full JFL NorthWest lineup, visit jflnorthwest.com.
Tzahi Grad, left, and Ala Dakka are great together in The Cousin. (photo from Shaxaf Haber/Venice Film Festival)
The 30th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, has an impressive lineup. Not only is there a wide range of quality films from which to choose, but the reach of the festival has widened, with screenings this year also taking place in West Vancouver and Port Moody. Here are just some of the great films you’ll be able to see.
After Naftali, a successful Israeli actor-director, proudly shows his newly hired Palestinian worker, Fahed, the trailer for his latest creation – an internet series called One by One, which will bring Israelis and Palestinians together to talk and, eventually, Naftali believes, help bring about peace – Fahed’s response is, “Yes, it’s nice. It’s a little, um, a little naïve, isn’t it?” Begrudgingly, Naftali admits, “Totally, but not impossible.”
Maybe not impossible, but certainly beyond the scope of a web series, as Naftali soon finds out in The Cousin. When a ninth-grade girl is attacked in the neighbourhood, suspicion immediately falls on Fahed, who is arrested, then let out on bail – bail paid for by Naftali, who is pretty sure that Fahed is innocent. As the film progresses, Naftali’s beliefs are seriously challenged, both by his neighbours, who are champing at the bit to mete out their own justice on the not-proven-guilty Fahed, and by his wife, who wasn’t comfortable having a Palestinian worker in the first place. The pressure forces Naftali to confront his own latent racism, which arises rather quickly.
The acting in this film is excellent. Writer, director and star Tzahi Grad is convincing as the somewhat pompous but well-meaning Naftali and Ala Dakka is wonderful as Fahed, a compassionate, laidback, not-so-handy handyman who shows some promise as a rap musician. The supporting characters fulfil their roles believably. The oddball neighbours, who at first just seem to have been added for comic relief, become truly menacing, and Osnat Fishman as Naftali’s wife aptly portrays her transformation from merely nervous and annoyed to scared and angry.
The writing in the film is mainly good. The serious dialogue and action are compelling and there are humourous interjections that work to both lighten the material and shed light on it. However, there are other attempts at humour that are inconsistent with the overall mood and message. And the last three minutes of the film are completely bizarre, and really should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. But this should not stop you from seeing what otherwise is an entertaining, gripping and thought-provoking movie because, if nothing else, it’s such a bad ending that it’s almost good; at the least, it’s memorable, in a shake-your-head-in-wonder way.
The Cousin has three screenings: Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas; Nov. 25, 2 p.m., at Kay Meek Studio Theatre (West Vancouver); and Nov. 26, 6:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre (Port Moody).
A tragic thriller
Bram Fischer is one of the great Jewish heroes of the 20th century, yet he is not widely remembered outside his native South Africa. The crackling moral thriller An Act of Defiance, which recreates the attorney’s gutsy exploits during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s, brilliantly revives his legacy.
From the outset, the film defines Fischer (played with verve and intelligence by Peter Paul Muller) less by his considerable legal skills and reputation than by the company he keeps: he is a strategist and ally of Nelson Mandela and the other leaders (several of them Jewish) covertly plotting against the apartheid regime. In fact, Fischer is supposed to be at the meeting where the police bust in and arrest the activists.
Free and available to represent the accused against charges of sabotage, Fischer is more than their defender and advocate: he’s an active member of the resistance whose actions – epitomized by a tense, protracted sequence in which he smuggles key documents out of a government building, inadvertently placing his family in danger – express his commitment and courage even more than his legal challenges and parries.
Fischer’s extracurricular activities have the effect of pushing An Act of Defiance out of the realm of courtroom drama and into a full-bore thriller. That said, the film never loses sight of the plight of the Rivonia defendants, who face death sentences if convicted.
Dutch director Jean van de Velde fills the cast with South African actors such as Antoinette Louw, who imbues Molly Fischer with backbone, wit and warmth to match her husband. Along with its other attributes, An Act of Defiance is a moving love story.
An Act of Defiance screens Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue.
Faith and family
Redemption, which is called Geula in Hebrew, after the main character’s daughter, is a powerful film, the emotional impact of which builds up imperceptibly, such that you may only find yourself teary-eyed awhile after it has ended, when all the feelings it evokes finally reach the surface.
Co-directors and co-writers Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov grab viewers’ attention right away, with a lyrically and musically edgy song accompanying us as we follow Menachem through the streets to the drugstore, where he gets his photo taken – even though his attempts at smiling fail – then pausing to have a smoke before returning to his apartment to relieve the babysitter. Within the first five minutes, we know he is an awkward, sad, kind and generous Orthodox Jew, as well as an attentive, caring and loving father.
Other aspects of his life come into focus as he reconnects with his former friends and band mates, including his reason for reuniting them. Menachem’s 6-year-old daughter, Geula, needs expensive cancer treatments if there’s a chance for her to survive the cancer that killed her mother. Menachem, who works at a supermarket, needs the money that the band could make from playing at weddings.
The renewal of the friendships involves the reopening of some old wounds, and the men’s paths to healing are stories well told, though the film is mainly about Menachem, who, we find out, broke with the group when he became religious 15 years earlier. Moshe Folkenflik plays the widower with nuance, humility and depth, and Emily Granin as his daughter, Geula, captures the strong will, intelligence, bravery and fear of this young girl, playing with subtlety what could have been a maudlin role.
Redemption will be screened twice: Nov. 12, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue and Nov. 29, 8:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre. [It will also screen as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival on nov. 4, 1:30 p.m., at the Vic Theatre. For tickets and information to the Victoria festival, visit vijff.ca.]
Smiles and belly laughs
Sam Hoffman’s resoundingly funny debut feature, Humor Me, imagines a well-appointed New Jersey retirement community as the setting for mid-life rejuvenation and resurrection. Neatly avoiding or flipping every cliché about seniors (cute, crotchety or flirtatious), the adult son-aging father dynamic and the theatre, Humor Me is a warm-hearted, flawlessly executed fable.
When his wife takes their young son and leaves him for a billionaire, talented-but-blocked playwright Nate Kroll (New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement) has to move out of their Manhattan brownstone and into the guest bedroom at his dad’s town house at Cranberry Bog. Bob (a note-perfect turn by Elliot Gould) is an inveterate joke teller, but his repertoire doesn’t work on a 40-year-old failed artist.
“Life’s going to happen, son, whether you smile or not,” he declares, a philosophy that the audience can embrace more easily than Nate can. If it contains a bit of Jewish fatalism, well, that’s Gould’s voice. So Bob’s jokes, which are consistently risqué and constructed with an ironic twist, have a faint air of the Borscht Belt about them. (It’s not a coincidence that Hoffman produced and directed the web series Old Jews Telling Jokes.)
There’s not a single stupid character in Humor Me, including Nate’s bland, successful brother (Erich Bergen), and this generosity of spirit means we’re always laughing with Nate’s foils, not at them. It helps immeasurably that Hoffman (best known for producing the TV show Madame Secretary) assembled a veteran cast – Annie Potts as Bob’s girlfriend, Le Clanché du Rand as a flirtatious senior and Bebe Neuwirth as a theatre heavyweight – that nails every last punch line and reaction shot.
Humor Me plays out the way we hope and expect it will, which is to say it delivers on its implicit promises. En route, it provides lots of smiles and several belly laughs. Even Nate, who’s well aware that he’s earned every joke that he’s the butt of, gets his share of one-liners. There’s plenty to go around, you see.
Humor Me is at Fifth Avenue on Nov. 14, 1 p.m.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.