Review: HIRSCH

by Lynn on July 13, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. Created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson. Directed by Paul Thompson. Designed by Gillian Gallow. Lighting by Itai Erdal. Sound by Verne Good. Starring: Alon Nashman.

Actor Alon Nashman and director Paul Thompson do things differently. Separately they are provocative theatre creators. For example, Alon Nashman created a memorable portrayal of Franz Kafka dealing with his disapproving father in Kafka and Son. Paul Thompson is a pioneer of ‘collective creation’ in which actors create a play after going into certain communities and improvising their experiences, as in The Farm Show.

Together they have created HIRSCH, a play that deals with the life of a volatile, thorny, fascinating theatre pioneer in his own right—John Hirsch, director, artistic director, enfant terrible of Canadian theatre, Holocaust survivor, teacher and theatre creator among other things.

John Hirsch lived from 1930 to 1989. He was born in Hungary; survived the Holocaust although his parents and brother did not. He came to Canada as a young orphan and settled in Winnipeg, a place that he loved and celebrated. He created the Manitoba Theatre Centre with Tom Hendry. Hirsch directed all over Canada and the United States. He ran the Stratford Festival. He was the head of CBC Drama for a bit. He taught and directed. He died of AIDS in Toronto.

That information is factually straightforward. HIRSCH is not. Both Nashman and Thompson of course were faced with many decisions on how to present the information of John Hirsch’s life. Scattershot is the best way to describe it. This is not a bad thing. The information is covered. A simple projection above the stage tells us the time and place of the scene. Scenes flip back and forth in time beginning in 1989, the year he died—and from such places as Texas, Toronto, Hungary, Stratford etc. This might seem a bit messy, but so is life, isn’t it, and certainly that of John Hirsch.

What Nashman and Thompson have done, beautifully, is show the complexity, charm, tenacity, humour, anger, obstreperousness, brilliance, and clear thinking of John Hirsch. There are scenes when he is talking about Shakespeare, explaining a character, that is illuminating, simple and dazzling in its insight. He could be brutally honest. At the end of the play he is in Texas, dying of AIDS but still teaching. He is trying to impart something of Juliet to a young acting student who isn’t seeing it. “Look, I’m a dying man….” he says, trying to get her to see the light and quickly because he doesn’t have that much time left. Poignant and hilarious.

Hirsch was that kind of pioneer who ignores any obstacle when he has an idea he wants to put into practice. So with that bull headedness he and Tom Hendry started the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. He completely revamped the CBC Drama Department. Changing anything at the CBC is a Herculean effort. Hirsch did it.

His loyalty shines through in this work. He was a staunch supporter of Winnipeg, a city that welcomed him as a frightened orphan and embraced him as an adult.

Hirsch was first and foremost a man of the theatre and that’s where the play is set, simply established with the ‘ghost light’ centre on the Studio Theatre stage. The ghost light is to ‘ward off’ theatre ghosts and pragmatically to make sure anyone there after hours doesn’t fall off the stage. In this case the light beckons the spirit of John Hirsch. The soft ‘bong’ at the start of the show echoes the bong that is struck at the beginning of every show at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

Alon Nashman is always on the move as Hirsch, prowling the stage, darting here and there. Moving gracefully, hands chopping the air for emphasis. Nashman starts the play as himself, telling of the three things that affected him as a teenager—a John Hirsch production at Stratford being one of them. Whenever he portrays Hirsch all Nashman needs to do is put on a pair of horn rimmed glasses, affect a Hungarian accent, the body language of the man, and voilá, John Hirsch.

Simplicity is the watchword for this production for the most part, but I have a quibble. Two stage hands often bring on props, take them off later, and help Nashman with costume changes, a sweater here, some other kind apparel there. They are distracting and unneeded. The audience’s focus should not be pulled as often as it is from the main point—watching Alon Nashman give a splendid performance as John Hirsch. For future productions, as I hope there are many, I suggest cutting down on the props and that Nashman do the little shifting and lifting himself.

American poet, Emily Dickinson often said if someone was boring that person ‘had the facts but not the phosphorescence.” Because of the fine work of Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson in bringing John Hirsch to life, HIRSCH has both.

HIRSCH plays at the Studio Theatre of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival until September 14.

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1 Marilyn Vivian July 19, 2012 at 11:01 pm

What can I say. I was moved, excited, angry, sad, – I laughed cried, smiled and was in awe and wonder of the miraculous use of the English Language, the use of improve and gesture and a groundedness, that in spite of some of the painful moments felt safe and inspired by the man Hirsh the actorNashman and the director Thompson. I want to see it again and again…there is so much more…..thanks so much.