What’s Old is New Again: Taking Stock of Canadiana at the Segal from Ship to Shore

Most of us enjoying the freedoms and – when we’re being honest with ourselves – unabashed joys of living in prosperous lands of opportunity and safety have roots that trace back to areas of the world where those attributes were luxuries seldom afforded our forebears. It is rather simplistic to conceive of, and perceive, our ancestors’ journey to this New World as unilateral voyages fraught with struggle and danger, but also hopes and dreams of a brighter future. What is easy to forget, or look past, is the nuances that make life worth living for everyone – the small joys, the fleeting moments, the laughter and, yes, the drama. Hannah Moscovitch, as one of Canada’s indisputable shining stars of playwriting, hasn’t forgotten what’s in between the nooks and crannies, and the crevices and indentations, of the bricks upon which this national foundation is layered. In fact, like penning exquisite theatrical productions, it’s in her blood.

Hannah’s great grandparents are the stuff of which flourishing multicultural, pluralistic nations are built. Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch arrived at Halifax’s vaunted Pier 21 in 1908 with the clothes on their back and the hopeful visions of a better tomorrow in their hearts. Their former lives, and respective families – torn apart by oppression and violence in their native Romania – left behind, each find a chance to rebuild – and connect – on the shores of this hemisphere. Their voyage (not so much on the ship that brought them here, but rather their dizzying navigation through their life in the New World and associated newfound identity) is recounted in its entire barebones splendour in Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story. A road not without bumps, psychic wounds, unforeseen avenues of emotional pain and new challenges, Chaim and Chaya know not to take the term alien lightly. Aliens are not merely the fodder of science fiction programming and government collusion conspiracy theorists regarding beings of extraterrestrial origins, but also a cold, frosty term applied to – and heaped upon – strangers from a strange land faced with the daunting task of integration and acculturation in a place where they may not feel completely wanted, welcome, or accepted. Chaim and Chaya could easily be teleported to a modern international airport security check in this day and age, met at their destination with a clashing, bittersweet brew of welcome mat and suspicious eye. In Old Stock, this experience is supplemented with a cauldron of exceedingly difficult obstacles associated with overt anti-Semitism in early 20th century Canada and a situation with a sick child complicated by a repressive refugee status. Truth be told, Chaim and Chaya might feel just as at home in today’s tumultuous and charged political atmosphere in the West.

Enter Ben Caplan, a mad hatter of sorts – if there ever was one – in Canadian folk music. Perhaps only this zany poet Laureate’s offbeat, unorthodox and frenetic form of sonic genius could effectively set this swirling eddy of conflict and yet heartwarming human resilience to a joyous Klezmer beat infused with introspective folk overtones. And he does just that with uncharacteristic aplomb and finesse. This production has now transcended its relatively humble Halifax 2b Theatre roots (though to be fair, 2b is an internationally acclaimed and lauded artistic outfit) and is crossing this country with gusto, not to mention lighting the drama zenith itself, New York City, ablaze with fiery passion and impeccable storytelling. Nominated for six Drama Desk awards this past spring (which are voted on by no less than New York theatre writers and editors on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway productions), this tale resonates internationally too, as it is set to hit Australia and California next year, while currently wowing audiences in the U.K. and the Netherlands. But response has been so strong and overwhelmingly positive right here, and ticket sales so brisk, that its long-anticipated stop in Montreal at the Segal Centre as a co-production between 2b and the National Arts Centre – and presented in association with the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival – has already been expanded to include three extra performances.

With Christian Barry at the director’s helm (and co-penning many of the songs with Caplan), this not-so-Modern Family masterpiece is thrust upon delighted audiences with zest and a not-so-unwitting sense of raw, hardcore vigour by the performance talent of Dani Oore as Chaim (who doubles on woodwinds instruments) and Mary Fay Coady as the irrepressible Chaya (on violin as well). Caplan steps into the enigmatic but supremely entertaining role of The Wanderer as well, and the music is rounded out by Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion (he also composed some of the addictive musical treats in the production as well) and Jamie Kronick on drumset.

“Old Stock” is a term used in the national political discourse most famously – and controversially – by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper a few years back, essentially to draw what he perceives to be an invisible line in the sand between Canadians whose forebears came to these shores a long time ago, and recently landed immigrants. But the experiences of Hannah’s grandparents at the start of the 20th century didn’t exactly make them feel like well-established, shining examples of assimilation at the time. They were new here, they were aliens in the most uncomfortable spirit of the term, and they had a story to tell that would eventually spawn nineteen (19) great-grandchildren – including Hannah Moscovitch.

Prepare your bendable strings – violin, heartstrings or otherwise – and stamp your ticket to set sail on a familiar trip from where we first came, where we are now, and where we’re headed – anchoring ashore at the Segal Centre now and not departing dock again until the conclusion of its extended stay on December 19th . Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .

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