The company of Bard on Beach’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (photo by Tim Matheson)
The thespian delights of Shakespeare set against the glorious backdrop of mountains, sea and sky have been missed. But now, after a COVID-induced two-year hiatus, Bard on the Beach at Vanier Park is back with a bang, based on the audience buzz on opening night.
The comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a perennial crowd pleaser, will occupy the BMO Mainstage all season. Harlem Duet, a tale of Black life spanning three periods in American history, runs until mid-July on the smaller Howard Family Stage, with Romeo and Juliet taking over that stage in August through to September.
This is the seventh time Bard has produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this rendition has “hit” written all over it. It is one cheeky dream.
Set against the backdrop of the upcoming marriage of Athenian Duke Theseus (Ian Butcher) to foreign Queen Hippolyta (Melissa Oei), three stories weave their way through a mélange of mistaken identities, unrequited love, feuding fairy royalty and would-be actors, riotously intersecting in the enchanted wood outside of Athens.
Four young lovers, Hermia (Heidi Damayo), Lysander (Olivia Hutt), Helena (Emily Dallas) and Demetrius (Christopher Allen) dash through the woods in a mad, “looking for love romp” replete with a WWE-worthy cat fight and zingy insults.
Meanwhile, in the sylvan wonderland, Fairy King Oberon (Billy Marchenski) and his queen, Titania (Kate Besworth), are in the midst of a custody battle. Oberon sends his trusty servant, the mischievous Puck (Sarah Roa), to exact revenge on his queen with a potion meant to make her fall in love with the first thing she sees when she awakes.
Finally, we meet a troupe of bumbling tradesmen who seek refuge in the forest to rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe, the play they have written in honour of the duke’s pending nuptials. It is during this rehearsal, that one of them, Bottom (Carly Street), morphs into an ass, both literally and figuratively, and becomes the love interest of Titania.
In a nod to diversity and gender fluidity, director Scott Bellis (who knows this play from top to bottom, having performed in five of Bard’s previous Midsummer productions) has cast lovers Hermia and Lysander as a lesbian couple, while two of the tradesmen, Bottom and Snug (Jewish community member Advah Soudack), are played as females.
Bellis has also incorporated some interesting staging devices. Oberon arrives on stage on stilts, towering over his subjects. Bottom makes numerous asides to the audience and takes forays up the aisles. And the Mechanicals characters, at one point, move in a shuffling turntable motion around the stage.
Street steals the show as Bottom, the know-it-all of the working class group. Although given the lead of Pyramus, she wants to play all of the parts, thinking she can act better than the others. In her quest to prove this, she gives whole new meaning to the concept of emoting. It generally works and the audience loves it, although she often upstages her castmates.
Roa provides a refreshing spin on her impish character and Soudack, although in a minor role, is hilarious as the timid lion in Pyramus and Thisbe, as is Flute (Munish Sharma) as Thisbe, the reluctant object of Pyramus’s affection. Many of the actors are making their Bard debut and it is good to see new blood in the Vancouver theatre scene.
Jewish community members are prominent behind the scenes in this production. Amir Ofek’s set, backed by two leaded glass windows framing the view of the North Shore, easily transitions from the staid royal Athenian court to the warehouse of the tradesmen to the whimsy of the Oberon realm. Mishelle Cuttler, as sound designer/composer, provides original music that complements Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s ethereal choreography, as performed by students from the Simon Fraser University School of Contemporary Dance. You don’t usually get to see Shakespeare with so many dance elements, which adds an interesting layer to the mix.
Christine Reimer’s costumes are a delight – earth-toned, tailored day suits and cloche hats for the women, a white bejeweled gown for Titania, frothy candy-coloured tutus for the fairies and silky evening frocks for the final scene. Gerald King’s lighting – the greens, the purples, the reds – all work in harmony with the sun as it sets behind the stage.
Nicholas Guerriero, left, Lorene Cammiade and Rudy Smith rehearse a scene from Bema Productions’ staging of Men Overboard, which will be at Emanu-El Synagogue’s Black Box Theatre May 5-15. Guerriero plays Jay Silver, a Buddhist monk and the youngest son of Zaida Ernie, Cammiade portrays Eva Fuzesi, the bar mitzvah tutor from Hungary, and Smith plays Doug Silver, Ernie’s middle son and a psychotherapist. (photo from Bema Productions)
Next month, Victoria’s Bema Productions mounts the first full production of Men Overboard.
Winner of the Long Beach Playhouse New Play Contest and a finalist for the Woodward-Newman New Play Award, Men Overboard was written by Rich Orloff. After well-received readings and workshops in New York, Philadelphia, Long Beach and Dayton, the play comes to Victoria, where the première will be directed by Kevin McKendrick.
The play focuses on a bar mitzvah for a boy, Abraham, who doubts he’s ready to become a man. The event brings together Abraham’s politician father and the father’s two brothers, a therapist and a Buddhist monk. Add their fading but forceful father and Abraham’s bar mitzvah tutor, a woman who loves Abraham and possibly one of his uncles, and it’s easy to see that Abraham is torn between obedience and defiance of his father. Tensions grow, affecting everyone in the family, until anger becomes abuse and it becomes clear that the family’s status quo is no longer an option. Men Overboard asks “What makes a man?” as it explores the responsibility each of us has to protect the souls of those we love.
The Bema production stars Lorene Cammiade, Nicholas Guerriero, Asa O’Connor-Jaeckel, Evan Roberts, Alf Small and Rudy Smith. It is produced by Alan Segal and takes place May 5-15 at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue’s Black Box Theatre, 1461 Blanshard St. For tickets ($25) and showtimes, visit eventbrite.ca/e/295008758137.
Emma Slipp co-stars in Bunny. (photo by Emily Cooper)
Emma Slipp co-stars in Bunny, written by Jewish-Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch, and presented by the Search Party in the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab March 17-27.
In Bunny, Sorrel – a young woman raised by unconventional parents – tries to reconcile her love of Victorian literature, her intellectual Marxist-feminist upbringing, and her burgeoning sexuality. From high school, through college and into adulthood, Sorrel’s story reveals a woman who feels the weight of societal expectations, wants to make the “good” and “right” choice, while simultaneously embracing her own sexual nature.
Bunny premièred in 2016 at the Stratford Festival, and garnered rave reviews for its bold and honest portrayal of female sexuality. With this upcoming run, the Search Party presents the play for the first time in Western Canada. A relatively new theatre company, their 2019 production of Florian Zeller’s The Father won six Jessie Awards. Mindy Parfitt, artistic director of the Search Party, directs this Vancouver première, which features Slipp, Ghazal Azarbad, Kayvon Khoshkam, Jay Hindle, Nathan Kay, Pamela Carolina Martinez and Liam Stewart-Kanigan.
Kerry Sandomirsky co-stars in Ominous Sounds at the River Crossing by Jason Sherman, which has its world première at Performance Works March 6-13. (photo by David Cooper)
Who is permitted to tell stories? This is the main theme of Ominous Sounds at the River Crossing; or, Another F–king Dinner Party Play, playwright Jason Sherman told the Independent.
The world première of Ominous Sounds takes place March 6-13 at Performance Works on Granville Island. Not only is Sherman a member of the Jewish community, but so are cast members Alex Poch-Goldin and Kerry Sandomirsky and lighting designer Itai Erdal. The production is being staged by Touchstone Theatre, whose artistic director is Roy Surette.
Ominous Sounds is described as “a provocative and darkly comedic piece of metatheatre that dives into hot-button issues including the ethics of representation, climate responsibility, and social power in a reality marked by colossal cultural shifts and blurring meanings.”
“In exploring the central theme,” said Sherman, “characters in the play reject a number of storytelling approaches, old and new, notably the dinner party play, of which there are many fine examples, to be sure, but which one of our characters is desperate to escape from. The play keeps returning to various versions of a dinner party play, interspersing it with attempts at other forms of storytelling, before finding a synthesis in a new story.”
The launching point of Ominous Sounds was a planned follow-up to Sherman’s play Patience, which Surette directed some 20 years ago. Patience is “a contemporary retelling of the story of Job; the new play was to pick up with news of the death of the earlier piece’s main character,” said Sherman. “But I found myself balking at returning to the earlier story – for reasons of both form and content – and instead incorporated some of its elements into what would become Ominous Sounds.”
Erdal described some of the considerations in lighting a play like Ominous Sounds. “In a naturalistic play,” he said, “the lighting usually wants to be invisible; it should move the story forward and set the mood and the tone for the scene but it should do all that without pulling any attention to itself…. In an abstract play, the lighting doesn’t have to be justified – it can be part of the architecture and the dramaturgy of the piece. This play is about making theatre, so it moves between the two approaches – sometimes the lighting is invisible and sometimes it can be very dramatic and noticeable.
“We have a brilliant projection designer,” he added, “and many of the locations will be done with video projection, so I will have to … work closely with the projection designer to determine which scenes will be done with lighting only and which scenes with lighting and projections. We are still very early in the process so a lot of those decisions are still being made.”
When Poch-Goldin spoke with the Independent, there had been only three days of Zoom rehearsals.
“It was a bit exhausting using that format, but very enlightening,” he said. “The writer, Jason, was part of our rehearsals and he was able to clarify things for us, which was very helpful.
“I hope people will come see the show now that things are opening up. While COVID is hovering in the background, I have to be optimistic. I want to share this play with people. I want to work with other actors without masks on and I want a sense of normalcy to prevail. I’m not nervous about having restrictions loosen and a full theatre appreciate the work.”
Sandomirsky echoed this last sentiment. “We have all been inside now for two years, many of us living on a diet of Netflix and Skip the Dishes,” she said. “This play does what theatre does best – engages in the cultural conversation of the moment in a provocative, entertaining way. It’s an opportunity to see theatre that you will keep discussing post-show. It’s an opportunity to leave your bubble and safely let a group of experienced actors delight and enrage you. You don’t need to go to New York. You can hear a script that has intelligence, humour and heart right here, on Granville Island.”
Both Poch-Goldin and Sandomirsky play more than one character.
Among Sandomirsky’s roles, she said, “is a 50-something actor trying to navigate the minefield of what stories she is and is not allowed to tell. Is her voice still relevant?”
“We start as numbered entities and then we start to play other characters in little plays along the way, but always return back to our numbered entity,” explained Poch-Goldin. “My character starts vulnerable and becomes quite strident and outspoken, longing for the good old days, when theatre was something he understood. As for the other characters I play, Peter is a bit of a wisecracking dad who is trying to be a better person and facing a lot of struggles. I also play the character of Ruben, who is someone who has passed away and comes back in a flashback to talk about his struggles, and to learn to accept himself and his failings. I love all the characters, they’re profound and reflect many things I feel about the changes in society.”
Poch-Goldin has been busy since the pandemic began. He moved to Winnipeg two years ago and has been doing a lot of TV and film, he said. For example, the première of the series The Porter started on CBC Feb. 21, and Poch-Goldin is in five of the eight episodes.
“I also just finished writing a new play called The Trial of William Shakespeare,” he said. “After three years of development, we’re finally starting to share the script after several workshops. I also have a play called The Great Shadow, about the first film studio in Canada in 1919. It’s going to première this summer at 4th Line Theatre, which is an outdoor theatre in Millbrook, Ont.”
For her part, Sandomirsky continued to teach acting for film and television at Langara’s Studio 58.
“I gathered a group of friends and directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Galiano Island in a field,” she said. “It was an opportunity to have experienced Bard on the Beach actors mix with local islanders and create a bit of magic on a few warm August nights.”
As well, she, her son Ben (who is in Los Angeles shooting The Mysterious Benedict Society) and her mom (who lives in Saskatchewan) “started doing nightly themed Zoom sessions to amuse ourselves and stay in contact. We’d choose a theme and then give ourselves half an hour to whump up costumes and props using only what we had at hand.” They shared photos with friends and “began to take thematic requests and covered everything from Bergman to Batman to Brueghel.”
Next for her is the play Courage Now at Firehall Theatre. Written by Manami Hara, it’s a piece about Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara, who helped thousands of Lithuanian Jews flee Europe. “The director, Jane Heyman, is herself a descendant of a family saved by Sugihara’s actions,” said Sandomirsky.
Left to right: Sofie Kane, Zachary Bellward and Angus Yam in Studio 58’s The Rocky Horror Show, with costume design by Donnie Tejani and makeup by Weebee Drippin. (photo by Emily Cooper)
“It’s the fun and freaky escape we’ve all been craving!” announces the press release for Studio 58 at Langara College’s The Rocky Horror Show. And it’s a statement that’s proven true, with an almost sold-out run as the JI went to press this week.
At least two Jewish community members are involved in the production, which takes place live in the theatre Feb. 3-20. Josh Epstein directs and Itai Erdal created the lighting design.
Amid the happy news regarding ticket sales, COVID continues to cause challenges. “We have multiple Plan Bs and we update them often,” Epstein told the Independent. “Enough of the show has been learned that I know, wherever we end up, this incredible group of performers can entertain.”
While Epstein has done other creative works over the past two years, and so has experience dealing with all the pandemic regulations, this show has been “way harder,” he said.
“I was involved in Craigslist Cantata, which was a filmed production; and a workshop of a new musical at Studio 58 I co-wrote, it was basically an outdoor concert. With Rocky Horror, the cast is large, the lighting, sets and costumes are all world-class. We are being extremely careful to follow all regulations, Studio 58 guidelines and avoid infection. We took a week on Zoom when needed and made other adjustments as needed. I also have two kids under 2 – that’s really the harder part!”
Erdal also has been busier than many in the performing arts sector, but he, too, is finding the situation difficult.
“I have been luckier than most designers I suppose, but still, the last couple of years have been a real struggle, both financially and mentally,” said Erdal. “Just last week, I had to postpone my one-man show How to Disappear Completely, which was scheduled to run at Presentation House in North Van – one of the toughest decisions I had to make.
“Making a living as a theatre artist is tough in the best of times,” he added. “Right now, it’s damn near impossible. It’s been tough mentally too – I basically sat at home for a year between November 2020 and 2021. Fortunately, I’ve been writing a play about my military service [in Israel], so that kept me busy and sane for that year.”
That Erdal is also a writer, producer, performer and artistic director (of the Elbow Theatre) must help in his design of lighting for a production, which begins with his reading of the play in question, “taking notes of things like locations, time of day, mood, atmosphere, effects (lighting, gun shots, smoke, haze, etc.).”
He then meets with the director to “hear their vision of the piece and if they have any specific ideas about lighting. Ideally, this is before the set is designed so I have some input into the set design – Is it an abstract set or a naturalistic one? If the set has walls on the sides, then I can’t use side lighting; if it’s staged in the round, it will obviously change my design.”
He takes more notes while watching rehearsals and, for a musical, like Rocky Horror, he needs to know exactly where the performers are for every song.
“Then I will go home and draw the lighting plot – this show has about 150 lights and the crew needs to know where every light is hung, which way it’s facing and what colour or pattern it takes. Then we hang all the lights, circuit them and patch them to the lighting board.
“After the hang is finished,” he said, “we focus all the lights and then we record the cues. A musical will typically have anywhere between 200 and 300 lighting cues, so that will take awhile to record, at least 12 hours. I use light walkers and ask them to stand where the performers will be standing and we record all the cues and put them all in the prompt script so the stage manager can call the show.”
The performers are then shown their every cue, being told “where to stand, making sure the director likes how it looks and the stage manager knows exactly when the cue is called. In a musical like Rocky Horror,” said Erdal, “the vast majority of the cues will be called with the music, so I would give the stage manager a detailed cue list that includes bar numbers so the show can be called musically. After practising all that for a few days, we add the costumes and all other design elements and do a tech dress and then a dress rehearsal. After that, the audience comes in for previews and we do a few last tweaks before we open the show.”
Collaboration is crucial and it’s one of Epstein’s favourite parts of directing this show – working with the students and the creative team. “After a few years away from this process,” he said, “there is nothing that gets me jazzed more than bouncing artistic ideas off each other and then guiding them to life.”
Given the popularity and longevity of The Rocky Horror Show – first staged in 1973 and then made iconic by the 1975 film adaptation – one might be intimidated when faced with staging it, but not Epstein.
“I love and trust my artistic team and give them a lot of ownership over where we’re headed. If we each dream big and make it happen, it will be unlike any other production – and I think we’ve done that,” said the director.
“Usually,” he added, “I avoid any other productions or history of a show but Rocky Horror has had such a unique life. I researched its beginnings, looked for lyric changes, did consultations with different communities, made conscious decisions about context and intention. I really took to heart ‘Don’t dream it, be it’ and have made that a touchstone of our show – that you can be whoever you want to be and, more importantly, be fabulous.
“One thing that’s going to happen,” Epstein concluded, “is we’re going to honour the audience that this show created, in a big way.”
Inspired by real people, Jai Chakrabarti and Michaela Carter have written novels that explore the Holocaust and its impacts. Their books also happen to share common themes. Notably, the power of art to change the world, and the power of love to change a person.
Chakrabarti (A Play for the End of the World) joins Gary Barwin (Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy) on Feb. 6 in a Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival event, moderated by Helen Pinsky, called Mythical Quests. Carter (Leonora in the Morning Light) and Meg Waite Clayton (The Postmistress of Paris) take part in the event Art and War on Feb. 9, moderated by Hope Forstenzer.
In Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World, the quest is that of child survivor Jaryk Smith, who travels from New York to India in 1972 to collect the ashes of his best friend and fellow Holocaust survivor, Misha, who died of a heart attack. Misha had ventured to India to help a village mount a production of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar (translated as “The Post Office”), which Jaryk and Misha had performed when they were under the care of Janusz Korczak (aka Pan Doktor by the children) in Warsaw in 1942.
While Jaryk, Misha and all the other characters are fictional, Korczak and Dak Ghar were very real. “The play is about a dying child living through his imagination while quarantined,” writes Chakrabarti in the author’s note. “Pan Doktor chose to stage the play to help his orphans reimagine ghetto life and to prepare them for what was to come.”
The Indian villagers are also being prepared for what is to come – they are under threat of expulsion, or worse, from the government; already, protesters have been imprisoned, even killed. The Indian professor promoting the play wants to bring international attention to their plight.
Tangled up in all this is Lucy, who Jaryk loves but abandons in New York when he hears about Misha’s death. One of the many choices Jaryk faces is whether he can accept the happiness that Lucy and life in general can offer him.
Happiness is a rare and difficult-to-achieve state in Carter’s novel, as well. The Leonora of the book’s title is artist Leonora Carrington, who was born in England in 1917 and died in Mexico in 2011. An unofficial part of the Surrealist movement (because women weren’t allowed), Carrington was an acclaimed painter and writer. Of her relationships, the most famed would be with fellow Surrealist Max Ernst, who was twice her age at their time of meeting.
“I was drawn to Leonora Carrington before I even knew who she was,” writes Carter in the author’s note. “Long intrigued by the Surrealist artists, by their playful take on creativity and their celebration of surprise and strangeness, I had set out, in 2013, to write a fictional story placed among them, set between the wars and with a young woman at its centre.”
It was only later that Carter, at the Tate Gallery, came across a piece by Carrington, as well as the book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan L. Aberth. For months, Carter says, she resisted the idea of writing a novel, but “read everything about Leonora I could get my hands on, as well as everything available about Max and Peggy Guggenheim, who was, I realized, an integral part of their story.”
Ernst had many lovers, including Guggenheim, who helped him get to the United States, but Carter’s novel posits that Carrington was his true soulmate, and that he was Carrington’s. Their affair is interrupted by the Second World War, however, and, after we get to meet the couple in 1937, the novel mainly alternates between Carrington’s story from that point and Ernst’s from 1940, as he is trying to escape from France. While the two met in London, they moved to Paris – Ernst first (Carrington’s father apparently had a hand in Ernst’s work being declared “the product of an immoral mind,” which was an arrestable offence at the time in London), then Carrington.
Leonora in the Morning Light – which is named after a painting Ernst made of Carrington – takes readers to 1943, by which time Ernst is in Arizona and Carrington is in Mexico; both married to other people.
“During her 94 years on this earth, she created thousands of magical, mystical works of art – drawings, paintings, statues, masks, plays, short stories and her masterful novel, The Hearing Trumpet,” writes Carter of Carrington. “She was also an eco-feminist who fervently believed in the innate rights of all individuals – of humans, animals, plants and the earth itself.”
Temple Sholom treasurer Daniel Gumprich, left, president Melody Robens-Paradise and Rabbi Dan Moskovitz. (photo from JCF)
Temple Sholom has a new $1 million endowment fund that will provide the congregation with stable, long-term income for the synagogue in perpetuity.
“We chose to establish this fund at the Jewish Community Foundation because we know that they will manage it carefully and expertly. We are thrilled that Temple Sholom will be able to rely on income from the fund to meet its needs for generations to come,” said the family who seeded the fund.
It was important to the family that they be able to leverage their giving to inspire others. So, in addition to seeding the fund, they established a program to match contributions, which not only maximized their own impact but that of every donor who joined them in giving.
“The foundation supported our staff and leadership to confidently approach congregants about contributing to the fund,” said Cathy Lowenstein, director of congregational engagement at Temple Sholom. “We were able to give everyone the opportunity to participate, which created the momentum necessary to reach our goal.”
“The endowment will ensure our ability to serve every facet of our congregation through dynamic programming, strong leadership and robust outreach for generations to come,” said Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz. “It also means we can undertake a long-term approach to planning, because we have the financial strength to adapt to the changing needs of our congregation.”
Many local Jewish agencies, congregations and other organizations have endowment funds at the Jewish Community Foundation, including the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, Jewish Family Services Vancouver, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and others. In addition, individual fund holders often choose to support an organization through their own donor-advised or -designated funds.
Diane Switzer, chair of the foundation’s board of governors, said, “We are very proud to manage endowment funds on behalf of so many crucial organizations across our community, and we take our responsibility to manage these investments prudently extremely seriously. This is how we carry out the important work of building and enriching our community.”
People can make a contribution to the Temple Sholom Endowment Fund via jewishcommunityfoundation.com. They can also establish a fund for an organization or an area of need about which they care by contacting JCF executive director Marcie Flom at 604-257-5100.
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Alex Leslie’s Vancouver for Beginners was one of the works shortlisted for the 2020/2021 City of Vancouver Book Award. The honour recognizes authors of excellence of any genre who contribute to the appreciation and understanding of Vancouver’s diversity, history, unique character, or the achievements of its residents.
In the poetry collection, “[n]ostalgia of place is dissected through the mapping of a city where Leslie leads readers past surrealist development proposals, post-apocalyptic postcards, childhood landmarks long gone and a developer who paces at the city’s edge, shoring it up with aquariums.”
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Prairie Sonata by Sandy Shefrin Rabin was named one of the best books of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews. The novel tells the story of Mira Adler, a teenage girl growing up on the Prairies after the Second World War, and what she learns about life and love from her Yiddish and violin teacher, Chaver B, a recent immigrant from Prague. Kirkus called it “a compelling work with a wistful longing for days of childhood innocence. A poignant and eloquent reflection on tradition, family, friendship, and tragedy.”
Winner of the Independent Press Award, and named a 2021 New York City Big Book Award Distinguished Favourite in the young adult fiction category, Prairie Sonata has been introduced into high school curricula.
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The Canada Council for the Arts’ 2021 Governor General’s Literary Awards winners include, in the drama category, Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes by Hannah Moscovitch.
“Hannah Moscovitch’s play is an articulate, poetic, beautifully written play with characters who are complex and complicated,” noted the peer assessment committee. “A superb piece of writing that shines as a play, as a living piece of theatre and, no doubt, literature that will endure.”
In the drama, “[t]he archetypal student-teacher romance is cleverly turned on its head for the post-#metoo era…. Jon, a star professor and author, is racked with self-loathing after his third marriage crumbles around him when he finds himself admiring a student – a girl in a red coat. The girl, 19-year-old Annie, is a big fan of his work and also happens to live down the street. From their doorways to his office to hotel rooms, their mutual admiration and sexual tension escalates under Jon’s control to a surprising conclusion that will leave you wanting to go back and question your perceptions of power as soon as you finish.”
Left to right: Drew Carnwath, Measha Brueggergosman and Sam Rosenthal are the main creatives behind the podcast The Christie Pits Riot. (photo by John Ebata)
On Aug. 16, 1933, Toronto experienced what is viewed as one of the worst race riots in Canadian history. Earlier this fall, the Hogtown Collective, an immersive theatre company, released a four-part podcast that recreates the events of that summer evening 88 years ago.
The eponymously named podcast, The Christie Pits Riot, is seen through the eyes of its 12-year-old protagonist, Joey Rosenbaum. Created by Sam Rosenthal and Drew Cranwath of Hogtown Collective and set amid the circumstances of the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and escalating ethnic unrest within Toronto, the series also contains an interactive walking tour through the neighbourhood where the riot took place.
The centre of the conflict is a baseball diamond in Christie Pits Park. Tensions began festering during a playoff between two local teams, the Harbord Playground, consisting mostly of Jewish and Italian players, and St. Peter’s, a club sponsored by a local church. Fights erupted and a full-on riot ensued. There were many injuries, but no fatalities.
The mass brawl, which lasted six hours, started after the final out of the second game of a quarterfinal pitting Harbord against St. Peter’s. Two nights earlier, at the first game, a swastika had been displayed by some fans. In the weeks before these games, troubles in Toronto had been brewing more broadly between some Jewish residents and antisemitic groups, primarily those calling themselves the Swastika Club.
A number of Jewish boys and young men who had heard about the swastika incident at the first game rushed to destroy the swastika unfurled at the end of the second. Supporters of both sides, including the Italians, who supported the Jews, joined in the melee.
In the podcast, narrated by Rosenthal, the listener gets a snapshot of life in the city at the time and follows Joey through his day – running errands for his father’s drugstore – along Bloor Street, near the ballpark.
“We wanted the audience to be able to access this story through an emotional, not just historical, perspective,” Rosenthal told the Independent. “Making our hero a young boy allowed us to show the world from his perspective.
“Exploring the deeper issue of systemic racism and antisemitic behaviour can be challenging,” he added. “Our young hero doesn’t understand hatred the way an adult might, so his character provides a means of asking questions about antisemitic racism. We also wanted a way to keep things rooted in the present simultaneously, so as to be able to draw clear parallels to the same problems and issues” that still exist.
The first three instalments take the audience through Depression-era Toronto, with the final episode coming to a head at the fateful game. When the riot breaks out in the story, we find Joey trying to get his friend Rachel home. They are helped along the way by Nala – voiced by Juno Award-winning soprano Measha Brueggergosman – who encourages Joey to stand up for what he believes.
In addition to providing her vocal talent, Brueggergosman was the podcast’s musical supervisor.
In releasing a theatrical production during the pandemic, the creators spotted a chance to provide audiences with a safe and tangible way to experience where the riot happened via the walking tour.
“To look out at Christie Pits Park and imagine what it would be like being in the middle of 1,000-plus people fighting is a terrifying thought, and so it makes the story land in a more visceral way if one can actually be there while listening in,” Rosenthal said. “Since my grandfather owned a store at the corner of Bloor and Manning, the walking tour is a perfect addition to share some of my family history within the broader scope of this chapter from Toronto’s history.”
Several scenes in the story are situated in the drugstore operated by Rosenthal’s grandfather from the early 1920s until the late 1950s. Rosenthal’s father, Joseph, grew up in the neighbourhood and worked there. Joseph was born after the riot, and knew about it from his own father.
“My dad shared many stories of being a young boy in a deeply divided antisemitic Toronto,” said Rosenthal. “When he told me there were once signs posted at the Balmy Beach Club that said, ‘No Jews or Dogs,’ and that there were Swastika Clubs in the 1930s, I felt compelled to tell this story. My father and his friends were often brutalized or threatened whilst walking home from school. I wonder how many Toronto residents know this about our city’s past, and why it seems still entrenched in our present.”
Rosenthal’s hope for the production is that younger listeners not only learn that the riot was a dark chapter in Canadian history, but see it as a way to honour previous generations who paved the way for the diverse culture that Toronto is celebrated for today.
The Christie Pits Riot is available online from multiple providers. The Anchor app can be used by anyone interested in taking the guided walking tour through the Toronto neighbourhood where the riot transpired – the app can be found at hogtownexperience.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Surplus Production Unit’s Briony Merritt. (photo by Alex McLean)
No matter how well we document history, it matters little unless people are aware of it. Two very different productions at this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, which began this week, were born of personal discoveries of documents from the past – in one case, a trial transcript; in the other, Yiddish compositions. The artists’ unique interpretations help ensure that important aspects of our culture are not forgotten.
Halifax-based Surplus Production Unit, under the direction of Alex McLean, performs A Timed Speed-Read of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Trial Transcript on Nov. 21 and 22 at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, in the Wosk Auditorium. Montreal’s Josh “Socalled” Dolgin performs music from his album Di Frosh with a local quartet at the JCC’s Rothstein Theatre Nov. 19 in a concert that will also be livestreamed.
“I had never heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire until 2010, when I was doing research for an MA in Toronto,” McLean told the Independent. “I was totally fascinated by the case and got especially swept up in the extensive trial transcript.”
Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were put on trial for manslaughter after a fire at their factory on March 25, 1911, killed 146 people – mostly women and girls – in part because one of the exit doors was locked.
“I think the gender politics were what initially stood out to me – it was an all-male jury, the case hinged on the discrediting of female witnesses, and it was all taking place at a time when women weren’t able to vote in either Canada or the United States. I also knew that this was a time when the labour movement was massive globally and that the Ladies Garment Workers Union had waged its major strike just a couple years earlier. The way that this all reads as subtext in the trial transcript was fascinating to me. I knew that I wanted to work with the material somehow, but wasn’t sure how.”
In 2011, during the 100th anniversary year of the fire, McLean saw an interview with Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, who mentioned the Hameen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “And then there was the Tazreen factory fire in 2012 and then the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka in 2013,” said McLean. “It all made the record of what happened in New York in 1911 hauntingly relevant.
“Somewhere around this time,” he said, “I got a small grant to create a verbatim script from the transcript. I started work on it but it felt lifeless, like a bad ‘historical drama.’ So, I gathered a few actors who I knew and trusted and who were interested in the material. We started playing around with ways to approach the material that felt honest and the current production grew from there.”
McLean believes “it is endlessly worthwhile to think about the hidden costs in our global economy and the conditions under which so many of the products we consume are created.” At the same time, he added, “I was very aware that my life – like those of my colleagues – was radically different from the lives of the people in the trial transcript. None of us are immigrants, none of us are Jewish or Italian (as were almost all of the Triangle victims). As middle-class Canadians in the 21st century, I felt that we had to acknowledge the gulf between us and those New York factory workers in 1911. We had to build this distance into the structure of the show, and so this idea emerged that we would actually sit the trial transcript on the stage and the performance would be a group of people engaging with this historical record, rather than trying to represent it realistically. This felt like the only way we could approach the material respectfully.”
Throughout the trial, said McLean, “witnesses, especially women, were treated with palpable disrespect. Max Steuer, the lawyer defending the factory owners, repeatedly tried to cast suspicion on witness testimony. This came to a head in his cross-examination of Kate Alterman, the ‘star witness’ for the prosecution. Knowing that Alterman’s English wasn’t great, Steuer had her repeat her testimony multiple times to make it appear rehearsed. This ultimately worked for him.
“There’s also a fascinating class dynamic at play: Steuer and his clients, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were themselves Jewish immigrants who had worked their way up in New York’s garment district. While at times they appear callous towards the victims and survivors, there is also this sense that they come from the same place. The prosecutor, on the other hand, comes across as much more of a patrician and, at times, this results in condescension. To him, the victims are helpless little girls, while the defence tries to portray them as streetwise conspirators plotting their revenge. Their actual messy humanity gets lost in the crossfire.”
Justice was not served by the trial, nor other legal measures, but there were positive changes that resulted from the tragedy.
“Part of what the case revealed was that workplace safety regulations at the time had no teeth, so the silver lining was that a host of new laws were introduced,” explained McLean. “Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a U.S. cabinet, actually witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and described it as a pivotal moment in her life. She became secretary of labour under FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] and was a major player in ushering in the New Deal.”
In terms of lessons learned, however, “we seem doomed to continually forget the inequality that animates our world,” he said. “Going to work under dangerous conditions seems like a reasonable choice to many people in impoverished conditions. As long as those conditions exist, workplace tragedies are likely to occur.”
He added, “There’s a fascinating historian of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Michael Hirsch, who argues that it’s a mistake focusing anger and blame on the factory owners. He uncovered the names of several bodies that were unidentified in 1911, and he makes a yearly pilgrimage to the victims’ graves…. To me, Harris and Blanck do appear negligent, but acknowledging systemic imbalances is also important. Economic inequality has proven a difficult problem to solve, but that doesn’t give us the right to forget about it. My sense is that we need a new New Deal today.”
A love of Yiddish music
Josh Dolgin has many artistic interests and musical styles – from composing to photography to puppeteering, from hip-hop to musicals to Yiddish music. As different as they may be, Dolgin said, “all the passions stem from an attraction to ‘realness,’ to things that just deeply move me, spark inspiration, speak to my soul.”
For him, the 2018 album Di Frosh “was a kind of return to a pure, more ‘traditional’ Yiddish music, even though it’s a project of ‘new’ music. I had experimented with using Jewish music sounds in contemporary ways,” he explained, “sampling, mixing, collaborating and fusing to create hip-hop, rap and funky pop music. In so doing, I became rather immersed in the form – in klezmer, in Yiddish folk, art, theatre music, cantorial sounds from the synagogue and Chassidic music – by collecting old records looking for sources. Listening to all that music, I eventually fell in love with the source material … I wanted to play and sing it! I eventually started learning the songs as a pianist, as an accordionist and singer. I wanted to just perform that music, without mixing it, without adding beats, just to play and sing it as is.
“In the meantime, I started getting into four-part harmony singing and collecting choral arrangements, then directing choirs at synagogues and music camps. That love of harmony mixed with my love of singing Yiddish songs and I thought, hmm, it would be cool to present this repertoire in an almost classic style, maintaining all that beautiful real harmony from arrangements from the ‘time.’ Some friends and I created new arrangements based on old sources – all the arrangements are ‘new,’ this repertoire for string quartet never existed before, so it’s ‘new’ music, but it’s more traditional than my fusion/pop experiments.”
Dolgin went to Hebrew school and was raised Jewishly. But, while he “adored” the “holidays and rituals and foods and songs,” he said, “I never was very inspired by the religious aspect of my cultural history, or the establishment ritual practice. When I started to find old records of Yiddish music looking for samples to make hip-hop music, I had stumbled on a part of my cultural identity that I could take pride in, that spoke to me, something I had never been exposed to with the more ‘mainstream,’ ‘modern,’ ‘reform’ version of Judaism I had experienced as a child.”
Musically, he started piano lessons at a young age and “was bribed and forced to keep at it, until I finally was allowed to study ‘jazz,’ i.e., not classical music. Then I got into the ‘rap music’ of my peers, and wanted to participate in that, to make a current music from today. I started looking into studio production techniques, sampling, using drum machines and computers to sequence and combine sounds and compose. Finding the Yiddish sounds and repertoire gave me a voice in hip-hop culture.”
Dolgin has always been one to seek out things that were “off the beaten path” and “a bit more hidden.”
“That led me as a teenager, in the days before the internet, to develop a real love of Brazilian music and funk, by digging and exploring,” he said. “The digging required to find sounds to sample in hip-hop led me unearth … a whole universe of Yiddish music and culture. I never heard Yiddish growing up! I had no idea! It was so fun to discover these treasures of my own cultural history, these sounds, modes, rhythms, poems and songs that were developed by my Eastern European ancestors. I dug around and really got into trying to find as much as I could, and that was more fun for me than having a whole repertoire handed to me on a silver platter.”
Dolgin chose his favourite songs for Di Frosh, ones “that weren’t the same top five Yiddish ‘chestnuts’ that everyone has already sung. Even though it’s not at all a well-known repertoire, there are a few songs that keep coming up, and they’ve been sung and presented enough, thank you very much. I wanted cool, rare repertoire. These could be things I heard from old records, or things I found as piano and choral arrangements on paper that could be brought to life in new arrangements.
“I thought it would be nice to have a range of repertoire from the various sub-genres of Yiddish music, from theatre music, from folk song, from Chassidic song, from postwar things, Holocaust songs, and even some ‘originals’ from contemporary Yiddish writers. Those ‘high concept’ factors were at the back of my mind when putting the program together, but it was mostly just a very subjective process of picking my favourite songs, the songs that blow my mind lyrically, harmonically or melodically.”
He went through another selection process when he was asked by a bass player from Vienna to do some Yiddish songs with a big band. Dolgin said he picked “out a whole new repertoire of more Yiddish songs I was interested in presenting, sent charts and recordings to them and they created arrangements for an actual 19-piece big band! I showed up in Salzburg and, after one rehearsal, performed with them to a sold-out jazz festival audience – it was magical! We have since done the show several times, including this summer with the Toronto Jazz Orchestra for the Ashkenaz Festival.”
They were about to travel with the show in Germany and Austria when COVID struck; the plan is now for a spring tour. During the lockdowns, said Dolgin, “I did manage to write quite a few more arrangements of Yiddish songs for string quartet, so hopefully a Frosh 2 is possible.”
The best part of this project, he said, has been “meeting new string quartets around the world and bringing this new repertoire to them, and then bringing the music to new audiences who may not be too familiar with these songs, with these sounds.
“After recording the music to make the Di Frosh record, with the amazing Kaiser Quartett based in Hamburg,” said Dolgin, “I’ve since presented this music all around the world with ‘local’ quartets: in Vienna, in London, in Venice, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Paris…. I’m very excited to be in Vancouver and meet Elyse Jacobson and the musicians she will put together for this program.
The Chutzpah! Festival opened Nov. 4 and runs until Nov. 24. For tickets and the full lineup, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
Stephen Aberle, Nicola Lipman and Geoff Berner will perform stories from Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz, as translated by Helen Mintz, as part of Western Gold Theatre’s Virtual Gold series.
Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016) is a collection of 13 short stories and two brief memoirs by Abraham Karpinowitz (1913-2004), translated from Yiddish into English by local storyteller Helen Mintz.
Thanks to Mintz, “more of us can now visit Karpinowitz’s Vilna – a city full of colourful characters, both real and not, and share in a small part of their lives.” (jewishindependent.ca/vilna-the-place-its-people) And, thanks to Western Gold Theatre, even more people will be able to visit Karpinowitz’s Vilna this Chanukah.
When Vilna My Vilna was published, actor Stephen Aberle both helped present the book and interviewed Mintz at the JCC Jewish Book Festival.
“As part of the presentation, Helen and I read excerpts from several of the stories. I was struck immediately by how engaging and naturally theatrical these stories and characters were, and I’ve been thinking ever since that a dramatic rendition would be a great thing,” Aberle told the Independent. “Then, earlier this year, Tanja Dixon-Warren, Western Gold Theatre’s artistic director, approached me with the idea of curating one of their Virtual Gold series around Chanukah time. I immediately thought of Vilna My Vilna as the perfect material for such a project, pitched it to Tanja, and she loved the idea, as did Helen. So, I set about to recruit my luminously wonderful co-presenters, Geoff Berner and Nicola Lipman, to be part of it all.
“When Helen and I first began talking about some kind of performance of these stories, we thought of Geoff and it just clicked perfectly. His ‘klezmer-punk’ material and presentation and his beautiful selection and rendition of Yiddish songs provide exactly the flavour to suit these rather gritty stories,” said Aberle. “And I had got to know Nicola through working together on the development of a wonderful new play by Manami Hara, Courage Now (coming soon to a theatre near you – but that’s another story) about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who helped thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews escape the Nazis.”
Lipman was “another perfect fit,” said Aberle. “And here we are!”
Western Gold Theatre will release individual video recordings of the selected stories, one at a time, throughout Chanukah, said Aberle, “and Geoff will frame each of them with some of his stirringly beautiful Yiddish music – an intro and an ‘extro,’ if you like – thematically linked to the content of the story. I won’t say a lot more except to add that, when Geoff and I were talking about which songs to do where, what connections to make and so forth, I think we both found it haunting and moving. Chills.”
Deciding which of the short stories to include in the production wasn’t easy.
“I have pages and pages of notes about the stories, characters, settings, arc of the narrative and so forth,” said Aberle. “In the end, I felt like a lot of my choosing was helped along by the format: we’ll be recording ourselves reading over Zoom, so we need to keep things fairly simple, with not too many characters and not too much complex action. I chose stories where the scenes tend to involve one or two characters at a time, so the performers can dig in and work off each other.
“I also tried to choose a variety of themes and moods. The stories are written against the backdrop of the writer’s awareness of what was to come: the Nazi annihilation of Vilna’s Jewish community. We have to be true to that bleak awareness; at the same time, there’s a lot of joy and humour. I tried to make choices to honour the depth and balance Karpinowitz brings to his work.”
Of the stories to be presented, the production’s press release highlights “Vilna Without Vilna,” describing it: “A Vilna native (a pickpocket in his youth, now grown up and respectable) comes back to visit his home city and finds that not a trace of what he remembers remains.”
In “The Folklorist,” a “researcher into Yiddish folklore finds himself professionally drawn to the Vilna fish market – and personally drawn to one particularly expressive fishwife.” And “Chana-Merka the Fishwife” picks up this story, “continuing the adventures of the Vilna fishwife and the school of Yiddish Institute scholars who swim after her.”
Finally, “Tall Tamara” recounts how a “Vilna prostitute and her friend find their way out of the brothel and into very different lives.”
The performances will all be online.
“Theatres are just starting to re-reopen up to in-person performances, but, for this project, we’re sticking to video presentations,” said Aberle, thanking Dixon-Warren and Western Gold “for their vision in creating the Virtual Gold series.”
“When the pandemic shut things down,” he said, “they decided they weren’t going to let it stop their work. They also decided it was important to provide opportunities to artists from a diverse spectrum of communities. And to make all the presentations free! That all takes courage and generosity of spirit.”
For those who watch the Virtual Gold series, Aberle said, “I think I can pretty much guarantee there will be laughs; there may be a few tears. It’s an honour to help share these works so more people can get to know them.”
The stories from Vilna My Vilna will be posted throughout the week of Chanukah, Nov. 28-Dec. 6, at westerngoldtheatre.org/virtual-gold. The full name of the series is Look! Listen! and Learn! Virtual Gold, and the Learn! segment will feature a video interview with Mintz about Vilna, Karpinowitz and being a translator, which will be posted on the Virtual Gold page, as well as on Western Gold Theatre’s YouTube page.