Live performances – that you can see in person – are, thankfully, a thing again. At least, for now. And this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 4-24, features many shows that people will be able to attend, most of which will also be streamed digitally.
For the two artists the Jewish Independent interviewed this week about the festival, the upcoming performances hold special meaning.
“I am so looking forward to coming back to Canada,” said New York-based comedian and storyteller Ophira Eisenberg, who was born in Calgary. “And Vancouver at that! Where it all started.” Eisenberg performs Nov. 7 at the Rothstein Theatre.
Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art’s Momentum of Isolation sees its world première at the theatre Nov. 13 and 14. The dance company returns to Chutzpah! as resident artists. The Rothstein Theatre and Chutzpah! “have been critical to the growth of Radical System Art and my work as an individual artist,” Kuebler told the Independent, describing the theatre as “the cradle that supported us” during “our infancy as an organization.”
“When I stepped back into the theatre,” Kuebler said, “it was like being back in a close friend’s home. It feels right. There’s a groove and comfort there. This has enabled us to create with as much momentum as possible, both as a company and collective of artists.”
Stepping back into a theatre has been an emotional experience for many artists.
“This spring in New York, I performed numerous times outside,” said Eisenberg. “All of the situations were a little different and, a couple of times, the address of the show was a large tree in a park! It wasn’t ideal and definitely was challenging, but people really wanted to laugh and take in some live entertainment, so it was uplifting.
“My first real performance inside at a comedy club was in early May, when New York opened small performance venues,” she said. “The audience was distanced and masked, and I think they laughed louder and harder than an audience of 3,000 – or maybe my ears weren’t used to hearing live indoor laughter and it sounded explosive. Either way, it almost brought me to tears, and I know I’m not the only one that felt that way.”
Eisenberg comes to Vancouver soon after the final episode of National Public Radio’s comedy trivia show Ask Me Another, which she hosted for nine years, interviewing and joking with numerous famous folk, including Sir Patrick Stewart, Awkwafina, Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, among many others.
“After interviewing hundreds of celebrities, authors, musicians,” said Eisenberg, “one thing that stands out to me is that, whenever we talked about a project that meant a lot to an artist, they mentioned that what made that project so successful was the supportive environment – and the fact that they worked with people who allowed experimentation and even failure. That ended up bringing out their best work. I think about that a lot when it comes to creating a space for artists to truly succeed.”
Eisenberg has headlined and performed at countless festivals and appeared on numerous comedy networks and programs. She has her own comedy special, called Inside Joke, and her first book, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy (Seal Press), was optioned for a feature film. She is a regular host and storyteller with the Moth, an organization that has become a radio show and podcast, in addition to putting on live events and other activities.
As for what she would still like to accomplish in her career, Eisenberg said, “I’m working on another podcast that I hope is also long-running! But I have so many things I’d like to do. Maybe too many things! On the docket are writing another book, and I’d love to write for TV. Performing live is my first love, so I’m looking forward to a safer world where that can happen more often.”
Eisenberg’s journey to success began at a young age.
“I truly believe I was drawn to New York as a child from watching Sesame Street!,” she said. “I went to McGill for university, where I got a bachelor’s in anthropology and theatre, then moved to Vancouver for a couple of years, where I tried standup for the first time.
“I was honestly too scared to move to New York,” she admitted, “so I moved to Toronto and spent five years performing and starting to understand my craft. Then, one day, I thought, ‘I need to move to New York now while I can still happily live with a futon and milk crate furniture.’ Two years after moving here, I discovered the Moth…. I love writing jokes, but I was working on other material that just did not fit into the standup mold. I found an outlet of expression at the Moth and in this short form storytelling, and I continue to pursue both.”
When asked to describe her connection to Judaism and/or Jewish community or culture, Eisenberg said, “I have a joke in my act that goes something like this: ‘I was raised Jewish in Calgary, Alberta, or so I thought because when I moved to New York I wondered, “maybe I was raised Protestant?” Everyone in New York is more Jewish than I am. My Puerto Rican neighbour knows more about Judaism than I do.’
“That is just a joke but living in New York is definitely the first time I felt surrounded by pervasive cultural Judaism. My father was the principal of the Hebrew school in Calgary but left that job the year I was born, so I went to public school. We still practised at home and went to synagogue during the High Holidays. As an adult, I’ve definitely been able to find my community here in Brooklyn, which is very wonderful and embracing.”
In 2018, before the pandemic sent us all into relative isolation, the United Kingdom appointed its – and, apparently, the world’s – first minister of loneliness, to address the problem as a public health issue.
“Right away, the title of ‘minister of loneliness’ grabbed me,” Shay Kuebler told the Independent. “There’s something very simple about it and it almost feels like a caricature, yet, when you think of someone whose entire work/career is to disrupt loneliness, it becomes deeply serious. When you read about isolation and loneliness, the gravity of this position becomes even more clear.”
The United Kingdom’s action was a catalyst for Kuebler, who noted, “You can now find multiple countries that have ministers of loneliness.”
The work Momentum of Isolation “speaks to a number of ideas around isolation and loneliness,” he said. “By doing so, I hope to open up greater conversations around the topic and maybe have audiences start their own exploration of the topic.”
Momentum of Isolation explores the theme both through physical isolation and social isolation, explained Kuebler. “These two points are explored through a number of different scenes, which make the show episodic in its structure, with some through-lines and arcs for characters moving all the way through.”
The work has turned out to be even more relevant than Kuebler initially thought it.
“Honestly, this show took on an evolution that I could have never projected,” he said. “The timing of our first full-company research period coincided with the closures and lockdowns across 2020. I knew that this project was important, and being forced into an online/isolated form of research was profound, to say the least.
“This isolated online research, which enabled one-on-one time with each of the company artists, created a well of material,” he said. “It was a format that was completely new, but something I found extremely valuable. While working with each artist one on one, I was simultaneously writing and composing music for the work. This not only led to a lot of new scenes and ideas, but it also distilled what was most relevant and necessary to say.
“For me, this piece was both a rediscovery and a reinforcement of what I hold most valuable. It has brought me back to how and why I want to create. I am grateful for this.”
For those unfamiliar with Radical System Art and dance in general, Kuebler added, “I know when we hear ‘dance’ and, especially, ‘contemporary dance,’ a lot of people can feel hesitant. I want readers and audiences to see this show as more of a ‘contemporary theatre experience.’ It brings together technology, design and multiple art forms around a very relevant – and timely – theme. It is something being made now, through many different artists and their many unique experiences…. With a collaborative approach to connecting with our audiences, we hope to create something new, relevant and accessible.”
Josh “Socalled” Dolgin leads an evening of Yiddish songs as part of Chutzpah! 2021. (photo from Chutzpah!)
The Chutzpah! Festival returns this November, presenting music, theatre, comedy and dance that reflect the joy of coming back together. For more than two decades, Chutzpah! has been an annual highlight of Greater Vancouver’s arts season. From Nov. 4 to 24, artists will once again grace the stage of the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre, the festival’s hub, and share their work in person and online. Tickets go on sale Sept. 15.
The 21st Annual Chutzpah! Festival will include a variety of performances, paired with conversations and opportunities to interact with the artists. Audiences will have the chance to attend in-person shows, with COVID safety protocols in place, or enjoy digital streams from their homes. With an emphasis on artists from across Canada, the festival will also present work from Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom.
“Artists and arts enthusiasts alike have been eagerly awaiting our chance to come back together to share our stories,” said Jessica Mann Gutteridge, artistic managing director. “With the joy of reconnecting comes the knowledge that our lives have profoundly changed over the past year-and-a-half. The Chutzpah! Festival will explore and celebrate the many ways we tell stories now, with a variety of ways to experience and participate in the work.”
The festival opens Nov. 4 with a screening at the Rothstein Theatre of the Marx brothers classic A Night at the Opera, during which City Opera Vancouver will sing the operatic music parodied in the film. The 1930s cinema experience will include festive treats, glamour and a costume contest.
In the comedy realm – all in-person performances at the Rothstein Theatre – Canadian-born, New York-based stand-up comedian, storyteller and writer Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR’s comedy and trivia show Ask Me Another, performs Nov. 10. Israeli-American stand-up comedian Avi Liberman is joined by special guest Jacob Samuel and host Kyle Berger on Nov. 20. And Iris Bahr, who impressed Chutzpah! audiences in 2020 with her festival hosting and her solo show DAI (enough), performs her new solo show Nov. 23.
The dance performances at the Rothstein will be in-person events, as well as digitally streamed. Nov. 6 and 7, a Project inTandem double-bill features the works of Calgary producers and choreographers Sylvie Moquin and Meghann Michalsky, which explore the themes of female struggle and empowerment. Nov. 13 and 14, Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art return to Chutzpah! as resident artists with the third “chapter” of Kuebler’s research that began in 2018, after he read about the United Kingdom hiring a minister of loneliness. On Nov. 16 and 18, Ballet BC artist in residence Alexis Fletcher, who was 2019 and 2021 Chutzpah! resident artist, returns to the festival with a solo integrating movement and the visual art of Vancouver painter and HIV/AIDS activist Tiko Kerr, while 2020 and 2021 Chutzpah! resident artist Ne.Sans Opera & Dance, led by Idan Cohen, returns to showcase a new solo drawing inspiration from the myth of Orpheus and Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, with co-creator Ted Littlemore (aka Mila Dramatic).
Theatre works featured are Lilach Dekel-Avneri and the Pathos-Mathos Company’s The Eichmann Project – Terminal 1 on Nov. 8 (digital stream available); The Flame – An Evening of Storytelling on Nov. 17, under the stewardship of artistic director Deborah Williams, featuring storytellers including Stephen Aberle, Glenda Zenoff, Eleanor Lipov and Helen Schneiderman, with musical guest Anton Lipovetsky; and Halifax-based Surplus Production Unit’s A Timed Speed-Read of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial Transcript on Nov. 21 and 22.
Montreal’s Josh “Socalled” Dolgin, accompanied by a local string quartet, leads an evening of rediscovered Yiddish songs, with stories and perhaps a little magic, on Nov. 19, and Israel’s Guy Mintus Trio’s performs A Gershwin Playground Nov. 24. (Digital streams available for both shows.)
Nov. 8-12, Chutzpah! Festival favourite, U.K.-based theatre artist Tamara Micner, transforms her theatrical work-in-progress (workshopped in the 2020 festival) into an audio installation. Audience members will be invited into the Zack Gallery to listen to Micner’s reading of letters written to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, reflecting on how their music informs her feelings about friendship, activism, Jewishness and art. There will be opportunities to “meet” the artist via video stream for conversations about her work and ideas.
Throughout the festival, Bahr converses with festival artists, featuring her stand-up and a wide-ranging cast of characters.
Due to COVID-19 safety processes, all tickets must be purchased in advance and will not be available at the door. Visit chutzpahfestival.com starting on Sept. 15 or call 604-257-5145.
Left to right, comedians Andrew Packer, Jacob Balshin and Che Durena are currently on the JNT Comedy Tour, which takes them to small towns around Alberta and British Columbia until Sept. 6. (photo from David Cyr Photography / JNT Comedy Tour)
The JNT Comedy Tour, known for presenting the “highest” level of comedy in Canada from coast to coast, returned for their fourth edition Aug. 18. Featuring stand-up comedians Andrew Packer, Che Durena and Jacob Balshin, the tour comprises live shows in 19 communities across Alberta and British Columbia, and runs until Sept. 6.
Packer is an international headlining comedian and creator of JNT Comedy; his credits include performances at JFL42 (Just for Laughs), JFL Northwest and Edinburgh International Fringe Festival. Durena came runner up in SiriusXM’s Next Top Comic and he has headlined shows at JFL42 and appeared on JFL All Access on Comedy Central. Balshin, who is a member of the Jewish community, was named Toronto’s Best Upcoming Comedian at the I Heart Jokes Awards in 2018, and was nominated for Breakout Comic of the Year in 2020; his comedy has been featured on SiriusXM and CBC’s LOL.
The trio brings the tour into British Columbia Sept. 1, to Kimberley, with actor Sarah Stupar joining them. They then head to Creston Sept. 2 and Crawford Bay Sept. 3, before returning to Alberta for the tour’s last show.
If you happen to be traveling the province early next month, check out linktr.ee/jntcomedy for tickets and show times.
Megan Phillips, left, and Hayley Sullivan in A Coveted Wife of East Van, part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival, which runs Sept. 9-19. (photo by Marn Norwich)
An all-star Jewish team consisting of poet Marn Norwich, director Ariel Martz-Oberlander, jazz musician Itamar Erez and actress Hayley Sullivan join forces to produce A Coveted Wife of East Van, the post-pandemic dating musical that you didn’t know you needed at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. Light and fun, this show is the cathartic release we’ve all been jonesing for after months of pandemic isolation and, if you’re single, forced celibacy.
A Coveted Wife of East Van tells the story of Samantha Cohen as she navigates friendship, men and dating apps while making some very bad decisions along the way. Featuring both original music by Erez and familiar melodies from shows like Fiddler on the Roof, the story is set in Commercial Drive’s Café Deux Soleils. Samatha goes on a date with an East Van hippie, don’t forget the crystals; a mansplainer, need we say more; a pimp; and a murderer, who brings her ex’s head as an offering on their date. Just before things go horribly wrong, Samantha is saved by her best friend in this story about friendship, online dating and the search to find “the one.”
Norwich, an independent journalist for the CBC and Georgia Straight, and Erez, nominee for 2020 Instrumental Artist of the Year award, are joined by award-winning director Martz-Oberlander and Sullivan, as well as producer of the Or Festival Olivia Etey; Best of Fringe Award-winning actor Megan Phillips; winner of best comedy at the 2020 Florence Film Awards actor Mostafa Shaker; and set designer Michael Duggan, who has 30-plus years in the industry and has worked on more than 25 film productions.
A Coveted Wife of East Van opens Sept. 11, 3:30 p.m., and closes Sept. 19, 4:30 p.m., with several shows in between. The Fringe Festival runs Sept 9-19. For the full schedule, visit vancouverfringe.com.
Niv Nissim, left, and John Benjamin Hickey co-star in Sublet, one of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival’s many offerings this year. (photo from facebook.com/subletfilm)
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival will take place exclusively online March 4-14. And, while you might think that COVID’s continued presence would necessitate a trimmed-down festival lineup, there are as many high-quality and diverse films being offered this year as in previous years. We give JI readers a small teaser of what’s to come, with more reviews in our next issue.
Sublet explores divides
In the film Sublet, a New York Times travel writer whose shtick is to get a feel for a city in just five days arrives in Tel Aviv. Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) has booked the apartment of film student Tomer (Niv Nissim) but, realizing the student has nowhere to go, the pair end up as temporary roommates.
The somewhat uptight middle-aged Ashkenazi American, standing out like a sore thumb in his semi-casual blazer, is contrasted with the hot-tempered, in-your-face young Sabra. The differences between the two men – and, by extension, between two generations of Jews, of gay (or, in Tomer’s case, possibly bisexual) men, of Israelis and Diaspora Jews – form the heart of the leisurely paced film. Just as Tomer ridicules Michael’s touristy ideas of Tel Aviv’s highlights, the cinematography captures the city at some of its grittiest best.
Is it a generational divide or a cultural one that has Tomer and Michael adopting wildly different sensibilities toward the tragedies of recent Jewish history and the experiences of gay men in the AIDS crisis, which Michael’s first book explored?
“It’s so depressing,” Tomer says of the AIDS pandemic. “Why does everything always have to go back to that?”
A more stark response – and one that is darkly humorous but startlingly confusing to Michael and perhaps many viewers – comes when one of Tomer’s friends is discussing fleeing Tel Aviv for a more successful artistic life in Berlin.
“It’s a bit odd that you’re moving to Germany, the place that symbolizes Jewish tragedy,” Michael observes. The Israeli pair pauses for a moment, then burst into hysterical laughter.
“Berlin’s, like, the coolest place,” Tomer assures Michael.
The theme of patrimony runs through the drama. Michael and his partner are struggling to find a surrogate for a baby they want to parent. Tomer, it turns out, is himself the product of a mother who chose the path of artificial insemination. Michael is wondering if he is getting too old to start afresh as a father. Tomer, in his clumsy way, may be struggling with the absence of his own paternal influences.
The bonds and divisions between generations, between conceptions of the past, between Israel and exile are explored but unresolved in this pleasant (if sometimes PG) film. The brief glimpse of Tomer’s hilariously awful horror film is just a bonus.
A shiva from hell
When her parents browbeat her into attending a shiva, Danielle does not expect to run into Maya. The two young women have an entwined past, so much so that other attendees can’t remember which one is which. The film Shiva Baby quickly turns into a subtly riotous adventure in the joys and drawbacks of tight-knit communities and the challenges of keeping secrets in a yenta-intensive environment.
Though their shared history is a source of immense awkwardness and brilliantly snarky sparring, for Danielle (Rachel Sennott), this shiva is a house of horrors. Having told so many lies to cover her failure to launch successfully into adulthood, every turn, every new face at the shiva, is an opportunity for sequential interrogations and fresh humiliation. It becomes an unintentional parlour game to piece together the variety of stories Danielle has told of changing majors, areas of specialization and plans for the future. Family, friends and acquaintances compare conflicting tales Danielle has woven over the years, creating an elaborate narrative of mostly imagined endeavours.
Her parents Debbie (Polly Draper) and Joel (Fred Melamed) seem both oblivious dupes and co-conspirators in Danielle’s web of deceptions. The loving but exasperatingly overbearing parents add to their daughter’s discomfort time and again, leading to an understated climax that literally shoves Danielle’s bad choices in her own face.
This “comedy of discomfort” is a masterpiece of interfering adults and world-weary youth. The unifying bond between generations is a shared art for the backhanded compliment and straight-up insults. After Danielle spills coffee all over herself and a friend’s baby, her mother offers solace: “Well, thank God Sheila’s coffee is always lukewarm.”
Shiva Baby, a Canadian-American co-production, features a musical score that amusingly invokes the horror genre to emphasize the nightmare scenario in which Danielle finds herself, almost exclusively of her own design. Any awkwardness on the part of the viewer is alleviated by schadenfreude that whatever she has coming is probably well overdue.
In Bloomywood, Michael Bloomstein (played and co-created by David Meyers) wanders around Tinseltown asking random people on the street to help him make a movie about his life. (photo from David Meyers)
When David Meyers moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles, one of his goals was to make it in Hollywood. Without any connections or famous friends, he set out to get a project off the ground. Finding humour in his struggle, Meyers developed a fictional comedic YouTube mini series called Bloomywood, which is loosely based on his experiences.
Meyers plays the main character Michael Bloomstein, a nice Jewish guy who wants to write his uneventful life story for a major Hollywood studio.
“It isn’t autobiographical per se, but is definitely based on my experience of trying to be an artist,” Meyers told the Independent. “Michael Bloomstein has never been to Hollywood before, but he does have an unyielding self-belief and a willingness to do anything to succeed. As he chases his goals, Michael will see the highs and lows of the industry – and question if he really has what it takes to make it.”
Meyers said there is so much rejection and “no” along the way for people trying to succeed in Hollywood that he and his co-creators want to show there can be joy and optimism in chasing your dreams.
In the series, Michael wanders around Tinseltown asking random people on the street to help him make his movie, using an unscripted mockumentary format. “In the tradition of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, Bloomywood incorporates man-on-the-street interactions, sketch comedy and improv to explore the absurd realities of Hollywood,” said Meyers.
“When we made the show, I thought no one would stop to talk to Michael when I approached them on the street – but almost everyone did. And I think it is because they were attracted to this character who was determined to be positive and happy, no matter what happened. And I think that’s a message people could really use right now, with all the negativity we are bombarded with.”
Meyers, who was raised in Fort Lee, N.J., went to Rutgers University and Columbia Law School. After graduation, he worked in the staff secretary and communications offices in the White House for three years, then did communications and speechwriting in the U.S. Senate. He worked part-time in journalism, wrote plays and pursued acting, as well. He did a national commercial with Danny DeVito, was in a feature film called Killer Caregiver for Lifetime TV, did a commercial with James Franco, and more.
He has written plays that have been produced around the United States, and has two TV shows in development. His play We Will Not Be Silent – based on the true story of a group of German college students who opposed Hitler during the Second World War – had five productions around the country. “It was supposed to come to New York, starring two-time Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon and directed by Dexter Bullard. Unfortunately, we were derailed by COVID, but I hope not permanently,” said Meyers.
Growing up, Meyers was very active in his Jewish community. His grandfather was Orthodox and his grandparents were a very big part of his childhood. Because of his strong Jewish identity, Meyers wanted to make it clear that Bloomstein was a member of the tribe.
“Viewers will definitely know Michael is Jewish,” he said. “He talks about it all the time. Since so much of the show is improvised, and since being Jewish forms so much of who I personally am, I knew Michael had to be Jewish. Once I came up with the name Michael Bloomstein, it wasn’t even a question. I didn’t try to come up with a Jewish name – it’s just so internal to me, that my first idea of a name was Michael Bloomstein.”
“Not only that,” Meyers continued, “Bloomstein brings up his Jewishness constantly – whether it’s landlords liking him because he’s Jewish and, therefore, responsible, or the fact that his Jewish mother doesn’t believe in him. It informs all of his interactions and, to be honest, he’s definitely a bit of a nebbish.”
Meyers met his co-writer for the show, Taylor Gregory, after an audition in Los Angeles. “The director left right before I was supposed to go on,” he said. “So Taylor and I talked about the way that people mistreat actors and writers (Taylor is also a writer), and how hard it can be to pursue your dreams amid all the rejection.
“Taylor had the idea to create this show – he initially called it Doormat – which would have my character constantly being rejected, but still move forward with hope and optimism. We decided to start filming and see what happened. Taylor’s friend Rory Leland is an incredible editor and he shot all of our footage. On our first day, the character of Michael Bloomstein really came to life. Rory and Taylor had so many great ideas and the three of us put together Bloomywood.”
They started filming Bloomywood last November and, after finishing seven episodes, the pandemic arrived. “COVID hit us really hard. We had to stop production on the show, abridging our season from 10 episodes to seven,” said Meyers, noting that each episode is two to three minutes long.
“We had an amazing social media person who was helping us, who had to withdraw after her mother died from COVID. We had a great press agent who agreed to take us on pro bono because she loved the show – and then she had to leave because of staff cuts at her agency and a death in her family. At times, it felt like the show was cursed,” said Meyers. “But we were inspired to move forward with hope and optimism, just like Michael Bloomstein. The show inspired me to stay positive on a daily basis.”
Meyers is financing the show himself. “I have been using my money from past acting and writing projects to try and invest in myself and get exposure. Right now,” he said, “the main goal is to get as many people to see Bloomywood as possible.”
Meyers is thrilled with feedback they have received. “It’s been amazing,” he said. “We have heard from celebrities and TV writers, including one of the writers from The Goldbergs. It has been really gratifying because we put so much time and so much love into this show.”
One of the people they heard from was Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines. “We sent Cheryl a cameo request and, in return, we would donate money to charity, asking if she would watch our trailer and send Michael a message,” Meyers explained. “We assumed she wouldn’t do it, but she did! And we could tell by her response that not only had she watched the show, but she enjoyed it, so that was extremely gratifying.”
Although Meyers doesn’t have any ties to Vancouver, he said, “There is so much TV shooting in Vancouver and I’ve often said that I want to move there one day – I am just waiting for the right professional opportunity.”
Who knows, maybe Michael Bloomstein will wind up taking his quest for fame on the road to Canada!
Bloomywood can be found online at youtube.com/bloomywoodtheseries and at bloomywood.com.
Alice Burdick Schweigeris a New York City-based freelance writer who has written for many national magazines, including Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman’s Day and The Grand Magazine. She specializes in writing about Broadway, entertainment, travel and health, and covers Broadway for the Jewish News. She is co-author of the 2004 book Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman, with Jennifer Berman and Laura Berman.
The character of Guy Nehama, played by Reshef Levi, dreams of becoming a standup comic. (photo from Topic)
It took me a couple of episodes, but then I was hooked. Initially, most of the characters on the award-winning Israeli show Nehama – in particular the lead, Guy Nehama, played by Reshef Levi – are completely unappealing, even annoying. While they more or less stay that way, they do start to show shades of competence and compassion, and begin to use humour to salve as often as to stab. But, most importantly, their intrigues, become, well, intriguing, and more plentiful.
The series starts dramatically, to say the least. Guy’s wife careens off the road, the car rolls (if I’m remembering correctly – so much has happened since then). She manages to get out of the vehicle but doesn’t make it far, though she does manage to make a short phone call. Since it’s the starting point of everything and the main plot, it’s not too much of a spoiler to share that she dies, leaving Guy with their five children, ranging in age from baby to high schooler.
A tech guru working for a beast of a man, Guy – as he repeats often – is the household’s sole breadwinner. Before his wife’s death, he had little or no time for parenting. After she dies, he has no choice but to change his attitude and his approach. It’s difficult, though, not just because of his own self-absorption, but because of the people around him and their pressures and secrets.
Overarching all this is Guy’s dream of becoming a standup comic. He had been the more talented half of a comedy duo and the fact that his partner went on to become famous, while he became his family’s breadwinner in a “real” job, frustrates Guy to no end. In the first couple of episodes, where we don’t see Guy perform, it is hard to believe that this whiny, lacklustre man who constantly dictates ridiculous stories into a recorder could be funny, but turns out he is, which, combined with him trying to do right by his kids, makes him an underdog to root for, as he discovers his wife had lied to him on more than one account – and others, including his children, continue to lie to him.
There are 10 episodes in the first season of Nehama. The acting is superb, the comedy is dark; the hour-long shows go quickly. Topic, a streaming service launched last year by First Look Media, can be accessed on topic.com, AppleTV, Android, Roku, Amazon Prime and elsewhere.
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
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Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
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Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
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Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
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Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
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Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
The new artistic managing director of Chutzpah!, Jessica Mann Gutteridge, faced unique challenges in presenting the festival. (photo from Chutzpah!)
“This has been a challenging time for all communities. I hope that this year’s Chutzpah! Festival can bring a sense of joy, and the communal spirit that comes from sharing performing arts experiences with others, whether at the theatre or from the comfort of home,” said artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge in a recent interview with the Jewish Independent.
This will be the first-ever Chutzpah! The Lisa Nemetz International Jewish Performing Arts Festival that people will be able to watch at home. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the performances will be available online, Nov. 21-28, with a few opportunities to attend small-audience shows that are being live-streamed from the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. Not only will this be the first Chutzpah! presented digitally in the festival’s 20-year history, but it will be the first directed by Gutteridge.
“I knew that I had an exciting and challenging year ahead of me when I took the helm of Chutzpah! from Mary-Louise Albert, who was artistic director before me for 15 years,” said Gutteridge. “I really could not have anticipated how much the world would change just three weeks later, when the pandemic shuttered the Rothstein Theatre and the entire performing arts sector. The first month or so was spent focusing on our staff’s well-being and helping the many users of our theatre to reschedule and replan all the events that had to be canceled.
“The first thing I did for the Chutzpah! Festival was to take some time to think,” she said. “My board was wonderfully supportive from Day 1 and assured me that whatever scale I felt was right would be all right with them – even if I wanted to postpone for a year. I spent a great deal of time just thinking about the purposes of the festival, how it serves the community and the relationships we have with our audiences and community of artists. Even before COVID, when I was thinking about what my first festival might look like in a transition time, I felt inspired to bring together artists who had performed in the festival in the past with new artists who I hoped would join us in the future. So, I began by reaching out to artists from both groups so that we could just start to get to know each other, and find out how everyone was responding to this unprecedented situation.”
By early summer, said Gutteridge, it became clear that the health-related restrictions with respect to the pandemic would still be in place in November, “so I began to think about how we might incorporate digital presentations into the festival, and to talk to artists who were exploring this form of performance in their work.
“I was thrilled to learn that Iris Bahr, who was in the 2019 festival, is not only a brilliant actor and stand-up comic, but is also a podcaster who interviews other artists and public intellectuals with much wit and insight. I invited her to perform her solo stand-up, but also to function as our festival host and conduct live interviews with all the festival artists,” said Gutteridge. “Because Iris divides her time between Israel, New York and Los Angeles, we knew she would have to appear digitally and, though this adds another layer of technical complexity, I think it’s such a special opportunity that the present moment brings us – to join artists from across the world and have a chance to learn more about how the pandemic is changing and shaping their creative work.”
The festival’s online-only shows will include Bahr’s stand-up comedy performance (click here for story); New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen’s Shtumer Shabes (Silent Sabbath) and former Vancouverite-current Londoner (England) Tamara Micner’s Old Friends, both of which are works-in-progress; a concert by Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus; and Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim.
There will be two shows live-streamed from the Rothstein, where limited audiences will be permitted. Ben Caplan will perform music from Old Stock, which is adapted from his music-theatre piece Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story (see jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). And Chutzpah! artist-in-residence Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance) presents the world première of Hourglass. Closing out the festival are Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini (click here for story), who will be live-streaming from Brooklyn, joined by yet-to-be-announced local comedians performing at the Rothstein.
The lineup is a fraction of what it would have been if not for COVID, but Gutteridge thought it important to proceed with the event.
“Well, for starters, I’m stubborn and I like a challenge!” she said of the decision. “I also knew that we were well-positioned with staff and support to execute a creative and fulfilling festival, even though it would not look much like past festivals. In talking to colleagues inside and outside the JCC, and hearing from our community via a survey in July, I understood that there was a lot of enthusiasm to keep experiencing the kind of performing arts presentations that Chutzpah! has offered for 20 years now. And, looking ahead to dark November nights, I think we can offer a communal experience that will bring some much-needed joy.”
In addition to focusing on quality entertainment, health and safety has been at the forefront of the planning.
“We have worked carefully with health and performing arts sector experts to make sure that we are providing the safest possible experiences for audiences, staff and artists, including at our physically distanced, intimate live events at the Rothstein Theatre,” said Gutteridge. “I’m also very impressed by how our artists have risen to the challenge. Rokhl Kafrissen, the playwright of Shtumer Shabes, has been working with her cast via Zoom since April, when they presented a workshop of the play in lieu of the debut performance they were scheduled to have at LABA in New York. Our audiences will have a chance to meet the artists and see excerpts from the play, with context about the work’s meaning and creation, all performed from the artists’ individual locations. It’s a special opportunity for our audiences to peek inside the creative process.
“Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, a new dance piece with live piano accompaniment, is being created this fall at the Rothstein Theatre as part of our creative residency program. With 318 seats and a large stage, the theatre is large enough for physical distancing, and Idan is working with a skeleton crew – often just himself and the two dancers at work. The dancers, Brandon Lee Alley and Racheal Prince, are partners offstage as well as on, so they are already in a household bubble. The other dance piece, Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, comes to us from the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, where the performance was previously recorded in a studio theatre, so that health and safety protocols could be observed and the dancers could form their own bubble.”
Tickets for the festival start at $18 and are available online at chutzpahfestival.com or by phone at 604-257-5145.
Iris Bahr pulls double duty at the 2020 Chutzpah! Festival, as host and performer. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Comedien, writer, actor, director, producer and podcaster Iris Bahr will both host this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, Nov. 21-28, and perform her stand-up live Nov. 26.
Known for her eclectic characters, Bahr will call on many of them as she converses with the other festival artists as part of her hosting duties.
“I’ll be conducting these conversations either as myself or as some of my characters, depending on the artist I’m speaking to,” Bahr told the Independent. “My alter egos include Shosh, the salty Israeli who has become popular on Instagram, Rae Lynn Caspar White, my ‘Southern redneck intellectual,’ and Shuli, my Orthodox character who is beyond excited to ‘dive into the arts’ for the first time.”
Many JI readers will know Bahr’s stand-up from having seen her perform at last year’s Chutzpah! The show will be somewhat different this time around.
“My stand-up will involve more crowd work and storytelling versus just straight-on stand-up to camera,” she said. “I have found that to be a more captivating and enjoyable experience for everyone involved when the audience can also engage and experience each other’s presence, it’s the closest we can get to a communal live theatrical experience in these challenging times.”