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Old Stock: a Refugee Love Story

October 20, 2019

Reviewed October 16, 2019

NAC Babs Asper Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performances through October 27, 7:30 p.m.)

Stoo Metz Photography

This musical play, written by Ottawa-born Hannah Moscovitch (in collaboration with Ben Caplan and Christian Barry), is a curious and entertaining mix of tragedy and humour based on the real lives of Moscovitch’s great grandparents. Moscovitch, an award-winning Canadian playwright currently in residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, admits to taking artistic liberties with her story to fill in gaps in her knowledge of actual events.

Briefly, it is a saga of two Jewish Romanian refugees who meet at Halifax’s Pier 2 in 1908 amongst “the swirling human mass” of European immigrants fleeing persecution – a human experience that still resonates today.

Set in a shipping container, the unfolding love story takes place in Montreal, where the couple settle and go on to leave a legacy of 19 grandchildren, we learn at the end.

Photograph by Fadi Acra

Produced by 2b theatre of Halifax, the 90-minute show is dominated by storyteller/songwriter Ben Caplan, who narrates in fabulous over-the-top in-your-face style as a character called The Wanderer. He is the glue that holds the play together, the puppet-master that directs the protagonists Eric Da Costa as Chaim (who doubles as a clarinetist) and Mary Fay Coady as his wife Chaya (who also plays the violin).

From time to time, Caplan beaks the fourth wall to ask the audience, for example, if they’re alright after a particularly dark passage in the tale. Or to ask what we think of the lovers. “Can these people be happy?” he questions the audience. “They are so out of practice.”

Chaim, in spite of or maybe because he witnessed the slaughter of his entire family, is an endearing and determined young man of 19, who clings to the first woman he meets when he sets foot in Canada, and Chaya, who has already lost a husband to typhus and a baby to starvation, is a bit jaded and often unapproachable, but willing to consider the alternative to loneliness.

Caplan steers the script through the heartbreak and the sorrow with a bevy of songs set to a klezmer score, mostly written by Caplan and director (and set designer) Christian Barry.

The fact that the story is a real one intensifies its emotional impact, but the script nevertheless entwines a generous pinch of wit and charm in the abbreviated story of the lives of two people who have fled horror and heartbreak.

While the play premiered first in Halifax two-and-a-half years ago, the show’s big launch was during Canada’s 150th anniversary in the summer of 2017 at the National Arts Centre’s Canada Scene festival. Since then it has toured internationally and performed more than 200 times.

From → musical

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