I had the privilege of seeing Mark Leiren-Young’s play Bar Mitzvah Boy when it premièred at Pacific Theatre in 2018. It was funny, edgy and insightful, and well-acted by Gina Chiarelli and Richard Newman. It contained a lot of local references, making it even more special.
What I see from the Playwrights Canada Press edition, which was published in 2020 and arrived at the JI sometime in 2021, is that Leiren-Young’s notes on various aspects of the play allow productions to change certain references and pronunciations to localize the action, thereby making it special no matter where it is performed. For instance, the audience first meets Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon, who is in her mid-30s to maybe 45 years old, on a jogging path, “dressed in sweats and a ball cap for a local sports team.”
The next scene: in the rabbi’s office, there sits a man in his mid-60s or older, Joey Brant, “decked out in prayer regalia – including tefillin, which are on incorrectly.” This is our first hint that he, despite initial appearances, is not a rabbi or a religious Jew. When Michael arrives, Joey assumes that the relatively young woman in running gear doesn’t belong at the synagogue – and certainly isn’t the congregation’s spiritual leader. This exchange sets the tone for the essentially two-person play that unfolds. The other cast member is Sheryl, the receptionist, who is never seen, only heard. As described by Leiren-Young, the actor of this role (which was Jalen Saip in 2018 at Pacific Theatre) should have “the accent you want the woman who runs your local deli to at least pretend to have.”
I love having these types of stage direction “made public.” It is a completely different experience to read a play than to attend it in person. It’s almost like listening to the acoustic version of one of your favourite pop musicians – if they are able to sing on key and play their chosen instrument skilfully, they really are excellent at their craft. Similarly, if the words of a play still make you laugh and cringe and move you emotionally in other ways, with no cues from actors or audience members, it is a very well-written play. Bar Mitzvah Boy in book form made me do all those things – I chuckled a lot throughout, and also got teary near the end. Michael and Joey (the bar mitzvah “boy,” btw) are both dealing with some serious, raw issues.
Since I finished the book, I’ve been revisiting some of the many topics it covers. I’ve thought about my own beliefs about Judaism and faith, what happens after we die, what makes a good friend, parent or spouse, how people navigate challenges differently, the ways in which a congregation (or any other group) can be both supportive and trying at the same time.
Leiren-Young dedicates the publication to his mother, Carol Leiren: “I guess it was worth sending me to Talmud Torah.” For viewers or readers of Bar Mitzvah Boy, it certainly was worth it – thank you.
Liz Glazer headlines the Nov. 24 Chutzpah! event Celebrating Queer Jewish Comedy. (photo from Chutzpah!)
Lawyer-turned-comedian Liz Glazer shares the Rothstein Theatre stage Nov. 24 with the Holy Sisters, Israeli drag queens Ziona Patriot and Talula Bonet, in the Chutzpah! Festival event Celebrating Queer Jewish Comedy. The evening is hosted by multidisciplinary artist and performer Yenta, whose alter ego is Stuart B. Meyers.
Based in New Jersey, Glazer is an award-winning comedian. Before taking to the stage as a career – and engaging in other creative endeavours, including acting and writing – she was a tenured law professor.
Of comedy, Glazer said, “I never intended to get into it. I had a crush on a woman who asked if I ever thought of doing comedy (no) and said she would put me on her show (to which I initially also said no, then realized she would probably be at her own show, so I said yes). I loved it so much from that first performance, and I think what I loved about it wasn’t even the laughs or attention or even that this woman I had a crush on was in the audience, though all of those things were nice, but that all I had to be to do it was me.
“I enjoyed teaching law, but there was always something about it where I had to fit what I wanted to say or write about into a framework of legal analysis. I had to have the topic of whatever I was saying or writing be the law, not just my own life, because there would eventually be something like a bar exam. When I did comedy, all I needed to talk about was myself. Though I should note: after all of my shows there are exams, so audience members should be prepared for that.”
Glazer’s first comedy performance was on March 5, 2013. She admitted to having been “a wreck.”
“I wrote stuff to say,” said Glazer, “but had the thankfully correct instinct that it wouldn’t connect with the audience or be funny or good, so I called a friend with experience performing comedy and she told me to just say something vulnerable to the audience at the beginning of my set.”
Thinking she got the message, she hung up before realizing she didn’t know how to be vulnerable.
“They don’t teach you how to do that in law school,” she said. “So, I paced around a bunch trying to think of something vulnerable to say, couldn’t really think of anything, then headed to my front door to leave for the show…. I see a package at my front door, and I hadn’t ordered anything.”
With time to spare before the show, Glazer brought the package inside. As she was about to open it, she said, “I realize[d] a trick to being vulnerable is not knowing the answer to something, and I didn’t know what was in the package, so perhaps the vulnerable thing I could do to start my set would be to open the package on stage. So I did.
“Turns out the package was from my mom, who had visited my apartment a couple weeks before and noticed that my white fluffy cat Mona – who would climb to the top of my closet – was shedding her white fluffy fur on my dark suits I would wear to teach class, making me look like a white fluffy law professor. My mom said I should buy vinyl suit covers … [but] knowing I wouldn’t, she ordered me three packs of six of them and sent them to me without my knowledge. So, my first set ever began with my opening this package on stage and explaining to the audience my relationship with my mother and my cat Mona, and how I’m a law professor who teaches class with white fluff all over my suits. And it worked! I think because, even though I had no idea how to do comedy, I couldn’t not be myself because I was genuinely reacting to what was in that package in the moment I opened it for the first time along with the audience. And/or because, as a rule, vinyl suit covers are very funny.”
Glazer no longer relies mainly on improvisation, but it still is an important part of her act.
“I do write a lot of jokes,” she said, “and much of my shows consist of prepared material but also improvising is everything, to quote the great Joan Rivers (in a very short interview I saw somewhere and am not sure where). Live comedy, whether it’s written down ahead of time or not is, by nature, dependent on interaction and connection with the audience which is, by nature, improvisational. So, to prepare for a show, I make sure I know what I want to say – sometimes a set of things and, more often, one big idea I want to get across – and I annoy my wife for a few hours repeating it aloud while she tries on clothes and asks me if I like them. And I try to meditate before [a show] because the key ingredient for me is clearing my focus so I can be present with the audience in the moment. That’s really the stuff. Connection and clarity.”
Glazer is married to Rabbi Karen Glazer Perolman, a spiritual leader at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J.
“I was raised going to Orthodox Jewish day school, a Conservative synagogue, and I’m now married to a Reform rabbi, so I think that makes me Chassidic,” Glazer joked. “I do talk about being Jewish in my comedy, and I do comedy for Jewish organizations and synagogues frequently. I talk about being married to a rabbi and, when I do comedy for Jewish audiences, I talk more extensively about my upbringing and how I learned in school all of these rules about what not to do, then lived in a house where we ate pepperoni pizza on trayf silverware on Shabbos.
“At an even deeper level,” she said, “my lineage consists of four out of four grandparents who survived the Holocaust. Not to brag, but it’s true. And I think of them constantly when I do comedy, especially when it’s explicitly about being Jewish and especially now as antisemitism is on the rise, unfortunately. There’s always a fearful part of me that wonders how much to talk about being Jewish in situations where there might be antisemitic people in the audience or if I post a video that may spark antisemitic comments, but I think of my grandparents in those moments, too. I think, if they survived for me to not be loudly Jewish, what was the point?”
Glazer doesn’t shy away from who she is or what challenging circumstances she has faced.
“I’m recording an album soon called Still Born Sorry, about grief and trauma and stillbirth (and it’s funny!) that will be an audio album available wherever you get your music and such, and also part of a documentary film about how I was supposed to record an album and have a baby last year, and neither of those came to fruition when I thought they would. That prior album was supposed to be called Born Sorry, and was postponed due to a stillbirth, so this one (the album and the documentary) will be called Still Born Sorry, which may be the best pun I definitely did not intend.”
In addition to the Nov. 24 performance at Chutzpah!, Glazer will be leading a two-hour workshop on the afternoon of Nov. 25. Participants will explore their “personal experiences, opinions and overbearing family members to find funny material to bring to the stage,” as well as setting up a “punchline joke structure and what it means to find a comedic voice.”
For anyone a little nervous about trying to seek out that voice, Glazer said, “I adore nervous people, so I really encourage especially those who are, to come to the workshop.”
Glazer encouraged readers to check out her website, dearlizglazer.com, and send her “a nice email! I would love to hear from you!”
Much of the humour in Something Rotten! comes from Nostradamus (Jyla Robinson), right, leading Nick (Kamyar Pazandeh) astray with incorrect visions of the future. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Theatre Under the Stars is a fun, relaxing way to ease yourself back into theatre after the COVID hiatus. Its two productions, Something Rotten! and We Will Rock You, are happy fare that alternate nights through Aug. 27, outdoors at Stanley Park’s Malkin Bowl.
The Independent saw Something Rotten! on opening night, hoping to see Jewish community member Daniel Cardoso, who plays Jewish moneylender Shylock in the TUTS productions. However, it was understudy Simon Abraham who took on the role of the moneylender that night. He and the entire cast put on a great show.
In this comedy, set in 1595, Shakespeare is monopolizing the theatre industry and playwright siblings Nick and Nigel Bottom are trying to write a hit. They face several challenges, including being in debt to Shylock, who is willing to forgive that debt if they permit him to produce their new production. However, they initially refuse because he and they could be put to death, as Jews at the time were permitted few professions, one of which was moneylender.
Something Rotten! takes on – in very light manner – antisemitism, the treatment of the poor and the place of women in Shakespeare’s time. It also takes on these issues as they are depicted in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.
“Shylock has been a very interesting character to explore and I extremely grateful to our director, Rachel Peake, for giving me the chance to do so,” Cardoso told the Independent in an interview before the show opened. “In researching for this part, I certainly took a cursory look at Merchant of Venice, but only so I could have an idea of who Shakespeare’s Shylock is. Because of how much Something Rotten! subverts the audience’s expectations of these well-known Shakespearean characters, there are only a few similarities between what I’m doing and what we see in Merchant of Venice. I don’t think that antisemitism is a central theme of this show, but we certainly get a view of it through Shylock.
“I also dove into what antisemitism looked like during the time of the Renaissance,” he continued, noting that Jews were “expelled from England in the late 13th century and only officially allowed to return in the mid-17th. However, it does appear that there were indeed Jewish people living in England during Shakespeare’s time and that some even fled to England from Spain and Portugal, due to the Inquisition.”
Cardoso sees parallels between Shakespeare’s time and today’s undocumented immigrants in both Canada and the United States and the refugee crises around the world. “In trying to find a way into the Shylock ofSomething Rotten!,” he said, “I found myself drawing on these modern-day examples, as well as trying to imagine what it must have been like for Jewish people in the time of the Renaissance or various other points in history. I found that, given my own connection to the community, this hit quite close to home for me. At the end of the day, he’s a smart guy who works hard and, despite the obstacles in front of him, he is able to be an equal and a friend to many of the characters in the show.”
Not such a smart guy is Nick Bottom (Kamyar Pazandeh) who, in trying to skip the hard work and best Shakespeare (Daniel Curalli), seeks out a soothsayer, Nostradamus (Jyla Robinson), who tells him that musicals are the popular theatre of the future. Nick sinks the last pennies he and his wife Bea (Katie-Rose Connors) have into a musical production with a reluctant Nigel (Vicente Sandoval), who has Shakespeare’s talent but lives in his brother’s shadow. It is only after Nigel meets Portia (Cassandra Consiglio), the daughter of Puritans, that he becomes to his own self true.
The homage to and satire of both musicals and Shakespeare makes for a lot of laughs and reference guessing – is that line or musical snippet from Annie, Evita, Rent, A Chorus Line, or more than a dozen other shows? Standout songs are “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” with the Bottom brothers’ differing views of their main competitor; “The Black Death,” a cheery ditty about the plague, the Bottoms’ first musical attempt; “Will Power,” Shakespeare enjoying his rockstar status, amid fawning, crying, screaming, fainting fans; and “Make an Omelette,” the title song of the Bottoms’ new musical. Foreseeing Omelette instead of Hamlet as Shakespeare’s best-ever play is only one of the soothsayer’s many slightly incorrect visions.
“It’s been a privilege to get to work on Something Rotten!” said Cardoso, who has been in four other TUTS productions. “It’s an extremely funny show and, if you’re a fan of either musical theatre or Shakespeare, then you’ll have a fun time at this show. And, if you like both, even better!”
For tickets to either of this season’s productions, visit tuts.ca.
Left to right, Ori Laizerouvich, Israel Atias, Daniel Gad and Omer Perelman Striks co-star in The New Black. (photo from ChaiFlicks)
I have to improve either my Hebrew comprehension or my English speedreading skills before April 12. The second season of The New Black premières that day on ChaiFlicks and it’d be great if I could understand more of what was going on – even with my limited capacity, the first season was an absolute blast.
Also recently premièring on the streaming service ChaiFlicks, which carries all sorts of Israeli films and TV shows, was the second season of Checkout, an Israeli comedy in the tradition of American sitcoms Superstore, The Office and Parks and Recreation. It has some seriously funny moments, though a couple of the characters may grate on folks, as some of the characters on the aforementioned American shows did.
Superstore takes viewers into an Israel that most Jews will recognize, but that will be less familiar to those whose only experience of Israel is via the news. The show is set in a small supermarket, Issachar’s Bounty, in a small town, Yavne. The store’s patrons are regulars, and one in particular, fanny-packed customer Amnon, who has a complaint or gets into a confrontation every time he comes in to shop, is particularly annoying, as often is his main sparring partner, the brash cashier Kochava. But the other characters – notably Shira, the store manager who idolizes and sees herself as an up-and-coming Steve Jobs – offer enough less-in-your-face humour that the show is well worth watching if you like reality-show-type comedies. As in the other shows of this genre, there is a camera crew making a documentary about the store, so the characters not only interact with one another, but express their views in interview snippets with the film crew.
In the guise of humour, many a true observation is made in Superstore, which touches upon social inequality, terrorism, racism, homophobia and many other issues. Viewers can choose to just laugh at the goings-on depicted or they can take more away from the show. The same can be said of The New Black, which has some uncomfortable moments – for example, are we supposed to laugh when one of the yeshivah students is appalled when his matchmaker sets him up with a woman who uses a wheelchair? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to be appalled at his behaviour, behaviour that one can easily imagine of many self-absorbed 20-something guys who fancy themselves a prize despite all evidence to the contrary.
That the four yeshivah boys at the centre of The New Black seem like regular college-age men is why the show has broad appeal. That is does, while also being packed with somewhat-high-level (to non-Orthodox Jews) talmudic discussions, is a notable achievement. It is easy to see why the show was nominated for eight Israeli Television Academy Awards. It is smart, engaging, fast-paced and has a fantastic soundtrack. While non-Jews will have to watch it with a semi-knowledgeable Jewish friend and non-Hebrew-speaking Jews will occasionally have to press pause to take in the subtitles fully, The New Black has legs … and Borsalinos aplenty.
For access to these two comedies, and many other programs, visit chaiflicks.com.
A still from Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West, a series of vignettes that shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
The Wild West, Jews in Germany and a surprisingly vivacious Israeli seniors home feature among the diverse films at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival this year.
Somehow, we tend not to associate Jews with the legends that have built up around the development of the American West, a serious oversight that is in the crosshairs of filmmaker Amanda Kinsey’s documentary Jews of the Wild West.
The mythology of the Wild West is perhaps as much an invention of Hollywood as of history, so it is notable that the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, which introduced the genre of the cinematic Western, featured Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson – né Max Aronson.
The myth of the West was no less inspiring to Jews than to other Americans and dreamers from around the world. Perhaps one of the most famous names in the lore was Wyatt Earp. The film introduces us to Josephine Marcus, who fled her family in San Francisco to become an actress and ended up being Earp’s wife. Earp himself is buried along with the Marcus family in a Jewish cemetery.
The gold rush drew Jewish peddlers and merchants to the West Coast in the late 19th century including, most famously, Levi Strauss, who left the Lower East Side and, via Panama, arrived in San Francisco. His brothers sent dry goods from New York and Levi sold them up and down the coast. When Jacob Davis, a tailor, was asked by a woman to construct pants that her husband wouldn’t burst out of, he imagined adding rivets. He took the idea to Strauss and the rest is American clothing history. As one historian notes, it was a Jew who invented “the most American of garments.”
The rapid industrialization in the mining sector is where the Guggenheim family got its start and so, while the name is now most associated with Fifth Avenue, the finest address in New York City, their start was in the gritty West of the 19th century.
We meet Ray Frank, the first woman said to have preached from a bimah. Called the “golden girl rabbi,” she was not ordained, but was apparently a phenomenon that drew crowds to her sermons.
Many people will know that Golda (Mabovitch/Meyerson) Meir spent formative years as an immigrant from Russia in Milwaukee and then Denver. This footnote to her history is often considered curious and interesting, but in this film it integrates the Jewish experience of the 20th century and its roots in the American West with the development of the Jewish state – the opening up of another frontier, one might say.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, seeing the poverty in the Lower East Side, actively encouraged migration to the West. The film introduces families who have worked the land for generations, some of whom have maintained their Jewish identity and at least one of whom was raised Methodist. But, it suggests, the thriving Jewish community of Denver owes much to the failed farmers of the West who made their way to the nearest metropolis to salvage their livelihoods.
The documentary is really a series of vignettes and at times the shift from one story to another is confusing but, as a whole, Jews of the Wild West successfully shines a light on a noteworthy and usually overlooked history.
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The festival features two German films that complement each other in interesting ways.
In Masel Tov Cocktail, a short (about 30 minutes) film, high schooler Dima (Alexander Wertmann) welcomes viewers into his life just as he is suspended for a week as a result of punching a classmate in the face during an altercation in the washroom. The “victim,” Tobi (Mateo Wansing Lorrio), had taunted the Jewish Dima, graphically play-acting a victim in a gas chamber, a performance enhanced by the austere, sterile setting of the restroom’s porcelain-tiled walls. So begins an interplay of victim and perpetrator that is just one of several provocative themes weaving through this powerful short.
Dima’s family, it turns out, heralds from the former Soviet Union, like 90% of Jews in today’s Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, the German government actively encouraged migration of Jews to revitalize Jewish life in the country. This fact, like other statistics and tidbits, is flashed across the screen.
Juxtapositions pack a punch, including Dima’s switching between a baseball cap and a kippa, perhaps reflecting his complex identities, as well as the schism in the identities of post-Holocaust Jews more broadly in a society that struggles to assimilate the idea of contemporary, living Jews in the context of the blood-soaked soil of their state. A shift from colour to black-and-white also evokes the stark break between the present and the past.
But the present and the past are themselves in conflict as Dima recounts how other Germans react when they learn he is Jewish. Why does he only meet Germans whose grandparents weren’t Nazis, he wonders. Statistic: a survey indicates that 29% of Germans think their ancestors helped Jews during the Holocaust, while the screen text helpfully informs us the number was more like 0.1%.
Dima’s teacher, who can’t utter the word Jew and struggles to get the word Shoah out of her mouth, wants Dima to share his family’s Holocaust story with the class. The film’s implication is that Dima’s family was largely spared the trauma of the Holocaust, but he decides to play along because, “There’s no business like Shoah business.”
Dima’s grandfather is taken in by the AfD, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany party, convinced that their pro-Israel and anti-Muslim rhetoric means that they are defenders of the Jewish people. In a moment that confounds the AfD campaigner (and causes the viewer to reflect), Dima drags his grandfather away from the campaigner while yelling: “Don’t let foreigners take away your antisemitism.”
The film is kooky, funny and light, while also serious, dark and thoughtful throughout.
That description applies to the similarly named feature film Love and Mazel Tov, which features Anne, a non-Jewish bookstore owner who has Munich’s largest selection of Jewish titles and who herself is more than a little obsessed with all things Jewish – including potential romantic partners.
“Some are into fat. Some are into thin. Anne is into Jews,” a friend explains. This turns out to be more than a romantic or erotic attraction, perhaps a disordered response to national and family histories.
Thinking she has found not only a Jewish boyfriend but a doctor at that, Anna (Verena Altenberger) courts Daniel (Maxim Mehmet), who in typical cinematic fashion lets her believe what she wants to believe until the inevitable mix-up explodes in a farcical emotional explosion – though not before an excruciating family dinner.
Parts of the film exist on a spectrum between cringey and hilarious. The film features (at least) two fake Jews who don this identity for extremely different reasons, inviting reflections on passing, appropriation and the fine line between veneration and fetishization.
Both of these films use humour to excavate deeply troubling concepts of identity and addressing horrors of the past. They approach these challenging themes in truly innovative and entertaining ways.
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Understated comedy is key to the success of Greener Pastures, an Israeli film in which Dov, a retired postal worker, has lost his home after a “pension fiasco” involving the privatization of the postal service.
He is a curmudgeonly old square when it comes to marijuana, which the government has decided should be available to anyone 75 and over, but he sees a moneymaking opportunity. Dov (Shlomo Bar-Aba) enlists a network of seniors to order medicinal cannabis and mail it to him so he can distribute it to his “connection,” who shops it around to younger consumers. This “kosher kush,” guaranteed “Grade A government-approved stuff” sold in tahini bottles, brings Dov into conflict with a two-bit drug kingpin in a wheelchair and, of course, a snooping police officer.
There is romance and suspense in this madcap caper, but there is also the theme of elder empowerment, along with the laughs.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival runs online only March 3-13. For the full festival lineup and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Vancouver counselor and comic David Granirer has been standing up for mental health, literally, for nearly two decades. His brainchild, Stand Up for Mental Health, is a program that has helped hundreds of people on the road towards addressing and recovering from all sorts of psychological disorders by taking to the stage and performing comedy before live audiences.
The concept came to Granirer after observing his students during a stand-up comedy clinic he taught at Langara College in the early 2000s. While the course had nothing to do with mental health, Granirer noticed that some students experienced psychological benefits by the end of the semester.
“So, in 2004, I thought, why not put this in a package for people who wanted to do comedy but also wanted that life-changing experience? And, since I work in mental health and have a mental illness, this was the natural place to start,” said Granirer, who, in addition to advocating for destigmatizing mental illness, speaks openly about his own experience with depression.
“I’ve had students overcome long-standing depressions and phobias, not to mention increasing their confidence and self-esteem. There’s something incredibly empowering about telling a roomful of people exactly who you are and having them laugh and cheer,” he added.
The idea, which was seeded in Vancouver’s Oakridge neighbourhood, has blossomed to a program that Granirer has run in 50 cities throughout Canada, the United States and Australia – in partnership with mental health organizations in each area.
Granirer has trained nearly 700 comics since Stand Up for Mental Health’s inception. In that time, there have been more than 500 shows for a range of audiences, including mental health organizations, government departments, corporations, universities, correctional facilities and the military. He even created a show for the United States Secret Service in Washington, D.C., in May 2021.
In Vancouver, the Stand Up for Mental Health course is six months long. Classes start by teaching participants how to write stand-up routines; then they spend the next part of the classes working on their acts. Each week, participants write some jokes and bring them in to try in front of the class. Most of the acts are about their mental health experiences.
Classmates do a lot brainstorming together to hone the routines. At the halfway point, each student does a five-minute set. Afterwards, the prospective comics develop a completely new set for their graduation show at the end of the program.
In terms of therapeutic benefits, Granirer said doing comedy builds a comic’s confidence and self-esteem, enabling many to tackle other challenges in their lives successfully. It also helps get rid of the shame many feel about having a mental illness.
“People transform their past trauma into great comedy material,” he said. “In therapy we call that a cognitive shift. All the bad things they’ve been through now make a great act. Instead of feeling ashamed, they now feel proud of what they’ve been able to survive.”
Granirer emphasized that, while much can be explored in the process, the humour has to be clean, and there are taboo elements, such as homophobia, racism and antisemitism, which are off limits.
When the pandemic started last year, Granirer shifted to online classes and shows on Zoom. In 2021, Stand Up for Mental Health has done about 25 virtual shows for organizations across North America. Recently, live classes have resumed.
“The pandemic has also got in the way of my traveling to other cities where I’ve trained groups,” Granirer said. “I just finished training a group in Culpeper, Va., and had to emcee the show virtually instead of in person.”
Granirer has been the recipient of numerous accolades over the years. Among the honours decorating his mantel are an Award of Excellence from the National Council for Behavioural Health, a Life Unlimited Award presented by the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, a Rotary Shine On Award in Australia for special achievement in mental health, and a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada.
His work for Stand Up for Mental Health has been featured in media throughout the world, including, of course, the Jewish Independent, and also in The Passionate Eye documentary Cracking Up. Granirer is the author of the book The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst Can Lead to Happiness and Success.
The new year promises a busy start for Stand Up for Mental Health. On Jan. 12, Granirer and his team of comics are organizing “an evening of stigma busting comedy” called Speaking of Normal. The Zoom event will be hosted by TSN personality Michael Landsberg. To attend, visit wellnessinstitute.org/speakingofnormal.
The next Stand Up for Mental Health Vancouver class starts on Jan. 25 and is currently recruiting students. Classes are Tuesdays from 10:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. More information can be found at standupformentalhealth.com or by emailing Granirer at [email protected].
As far as being able to participate, Granirer stressed, “there are no prerequisites, no auditions, and no one needs to have any comedy experience. All they need is a desire to do stand-up comedy.”
He strongly encouraged his fellow Jewish community members to take part.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Left to right: Rob Stover, Kimball Finigan, Adam Abrams, Michael S. Weir and Adrian Maxwell in Metro Theatre Vancouver’s The Odd Couple. (photo by Tracy-Lynn Chernaske)
Neil Simon’s famous comedy The Odd Couple opened Oct. 30 on the Metro Theatre Vancouver stage. It runs until Nov. 14.
We meet divorced sportswriter Oscar Madison (played by Rob Stover) as his buddies arrive for their weekly poker game. One of the friends welcomed into Oscar’s messy abode is news writer Felix Unger (played by Adrian Maxwell), who is also divorced, but exists on the opposite end of the neat-and-tidy spectrum. The fact that the men are opposites in so many ways does not prevent Oscar from inviting Felix – who is so depressed it worries Oscar – to move in. Of course, they drive each other nuts.
Jewish community member Adam Abrams plays Roy, a regular at Oscar’s Friday night poker games, in the Metro Theatre production, which is directed by Catherine Morrison.
Abrams has been a part of the local theatre scene for more than 20 years, including many musical theatre productions. “I also played Richard in North Van Community Players’ The Trouble With Richard,” he told the Independent. “A personal favourite was portraying Abraham Goldstein, builder of the Sylvia Hotel, in Kol Halev Performance Society’s Two Views from the Sylvia, back in 2017. That was my last time on the stage, and it’s so great to be back, as part of the return of live theatre, after such a long and trying time for all of us.”
He said that, in real life, he is more like Felix than Oscar.
“My wife Christine will vouch for that – and would readily admit to being much more of an Oscar!” said Abrams. “When Felix is fussing over his London broil dinner or imploring Oscar’s guests to use a coaster, I very much see myself, the chef of the family and the one who is always keeping things tidy. After years of sharing a home, Christine and I have negotiated a much more successful arrangement than anything seen in the play. But our relative household peace has depended on us both accepting each other’s style to some degree.”
As for the character he plays in the show, Abrams said, “I like Roy, though he is somewhat crankier and more blunt than I’d be. He’s a voice of reason for Oscar, imploring him to do what’s right – stop gambling, and pay his debts. No surprise, as he’s Oscar’s accountant!
“My favourite scene in the show is the date with the Pigeon sisters, Oscar’s upstairs neighbours,” added Abrams. “The conflicting attitudes to divorce – a mere inconvenience to the sisters, pure heartache to Felix – and how he both derails Oscar’s hopes for the evening and endears himself to the sisters, is a delight. And, while it’s hilarious, there’s an undercurrent of true emotion that I find touching even as I’m laughing, which I do every time I see it!”
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.