by Lynn on April 6, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

Tough Jews

At Kensington Hall, 56K Kensington Ave.. Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Ross Albert
Directed by Benjamin Blais
Set by Adam Belanger
Costumes by Lindsay Dagger Junkin
Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez
Lighting by Melissa Joakim
Fight director, Simon Fon
Cast: Blue Bigwood-Mallin
Luis Fernandes
Stevie Joffe
Anne van Leeuwen
G. Kyle Shileds
Theresa Tova
Maaor Ziv

Another grab-you-by-the-throat production by Storefront Arts Initiative about a Jewish gang of toughs in Kensington Market during Prohibition that leaves you gasping by the end and then pats you on the head as you leave, giving you a wink as you go.

The Story. Three brothers—Ben, Joe and Teddy–and their hot-head cousin—Ziggie– are in the bootleg liquor business and other forms of shady doings, in Kensington Market in Toronto during Prohibition. They are also involved with other toughs in Detroit etc. and look forward to doing more business with them until Ziggie takes offence to something another cousin says and shoots him. A few times. All of them are Jewish, tough and snappy dressers. The matriarch of this group of men is Ida, a calm, formidable woman.

The play concerns getting rid of the body of the deceased shot-up cousin and the after effects of it; family turmoil etc.

The Production. We are beautifully situated in the basement of a graffiti covered building in Kensington Market. If Global Cheese up the street wasn’t closed for the evening I would have bought way too much cheese to take home—such is the lure of Kensington. We go down an alley to the back of the building and then down the stairs to the playing space. There is a bar to fortify us and when the play begins, will be Ben’s ‘blind pig’, in other words, a speakeasy.

Besides the bar, Adam Belanger’s set also includes a set of shelves behind the bar which holds liquor and other secrets. A table and chairs are down to one side of the playing area. The audience is on two sides of the space. Off at the back are stairs that lead to the rest of the family’s living quarters. The stairs leading up and out to the back of the building are used as exits and entrances for various characters and the audience. Lindsay Dagger Junkin’s costumes are suits and ties for the men—very stylish, and equally stylish dresses and in one case, slacks for the women. Ida is always in a black, loose dress.

The lights go up on the ‘blind pig’ with the brothers, some women in their lives, Ziggie and others in the bar when suddenly there are gunshots and pandemonium. My jaw clenches, as does my sphincter, and if I had arm rests on my chair I would have gripped those too. Ziggie has shot one of the Bernstein cousins, putting a crimp in future business transactions with that tough Jewish family. Emotions are heightened. Joe is agitated to take the body out and get rid of it. Ben is calmer but just as concerned to get the body out. Teddy frets. Ziggie can’t see what the fuss is about. This sets the power dynamic of how that family works.

Ben, as played by Blue Bigwood-Mallin, is a charming man who runs the ‘blind pig’ and doesn’t let anyone push him around. Joe, a tight-jawed Luis Fernandes, is a quick thinker with moments of agitation and organizes the family’s business dealings with his brothers. Teddy, a bespectacled G. Kyle Shields, is the youngest son, quiet, sometimes pious—he is eager to go to the synagogue for the high holidays to honour his late father. He really isn’t included in the ‘family business’ and feels left out. Everybody makes fun of him and pushes him around until he pushes back. Their cousin Ziggie (Steve Joffe) has red hair. No disrespect or to cast aspersions but that red hair says everything. Ziggie is like a time bomb with faulty wiring, waiting to explode. He seems slight and shorter than his cousins but makes up for it with attitude, a smile and a gun. (Rule to live by: You can do more with a smile and a gun, than you can with just a gun). Rose (Maaor Ziv) is the sister in this family of toughs. She’s tough too but in a different way. She is married to a man who beats her up. Joe is married to Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) a genteel woman who bosses him in her own way.

And there is Ida, the matriarch, played by Theresa Tova with regal imperiousness. As fast moving as her sons are, that’s as slow moving Ida is. She doesn’t need to rush to command. She can just stand, stare and in the most seductive low voice, give orders or comment with sprinklings of Yiddish. Tova is so arresting that she almost seems as if she is sending up Ida, but we know she isn’t—the voice is so dramatically low, the Eastern European accent so nuanced. While the sons rush and roar around demanding respect and attention, Ida stands still and commands respect. It is one riveting performance.

Director Benjamin Blais directs Tough Jews with such a sure hand that the sense of danger or that anything could go wrong in an instant, is palpable. A simple scene of Ziggie making the moves on a woman goes from being flirty, aggressive and then dangerous in a steady escalation. You suck air slowly with that. Simon Fon, the fight director on the show, continues to show his mastery of creating fights that are so real and frightening you subconsciously look for the exit sign should you have to beat a hasty retreat. The world of thuggery is beautifully created by Benjamin Blais and his creative team, where making a deal is as important as dressing well.

The creation of that world begins with Michael Ross Albert’s muscular script. His language is hardnosed with sprinklings of Yiddish which makes it hilarious. And the idea of a family of Jewish toughs in the bootleg business in Kensington Market makes perfect sense. (For the longest while in Toronto history, Kensington Market was where Jews lived and worked.)

Comment. Storefront Arts Initiative has gone from being displaced from their home on Bloor St. to live another day in the basement of this perfect building in Kensington Market, to produce a play that takes place in the basement of a building in Kensington Market about a family of bootleggers. It’s all done with the same verve, energy, daring, boldness and fearlessness as one expects from Storefront Arts Initiative. It’s a terrific production. Mazol Tov on the result.

Spadina Avenue Gang and Storefront Arts Initiative Present:

Opened: March 31, 2017.
Closes: April 16, 2017.
Cast: 7; 4 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 min. approx.

Jack Charles v The Crown

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Co-written by Jack Charles and John Romeril
Directed by Rachael Maza
Set and Costumes by Emily Barrie
Lighting by Danny Pettingill
Musical direction, Nigel Maclean
Performed by Jack Charles
Musicians: Malcolm Beveridge
Phil Collings
Nigel Maclean.

Jack Charles v The Crown is part of Spotlight Australia, a festival of theatre, dance and performance pieces from Australia, under the auspices of Canadian Stage. What better way to start a festival than with the compelling story of Jack Charles, an aboriginal Australian. To be specific, Jack Charles is a Boon Wurrung Man and it’s a life full of ‘incident.’ He was taken from his family at age three and brought up in a home for boys where he was abused. What followed was a life of drugs, alcohol and jail. He did a documentary film of his life called Bastardy. Director Rachael Maza saw it and thought Jack Charles’ natural home was on stage telling his story, so the film was rewritten and performed on stage in Melbourne. Jack Charles brings the show to Toronto to begin the festival.

He certainly has led an eventful life. There is a scene from Bastardy showing Jack Charles shooting up and asserting his behaviour after the hit does not change his behaviour. The action then focuses on Jack Charles on stage. Trim with a full grey beard and long thick white hair, he tells his story in a mellifluous voice and an almost formal way of expression. He had been in and out of jail and rehab before he began living a clean life, helping others to do the same.

He plays guitar and sings songs with the band. He changes clothes a few times. He takes two cell phone calls, one of which is from a man who needs help with a legal matter. Jack Charles is a man who is always available, even in the middle of a show, to help a fellow human being. There is a sense of good cheer with the show, of a man who went through hell and came out the other side clean and sober and wants to pass it on. He tells us that since he is clean and sober he argued in front of the crown to get his record removed.

At times the show seems padded. The inclusion of the three piece band is a bit unnecessary. The set and costumes by Emily Barrie are over stuffed as it goes upstage into a corner, providing an alcove to make tea; change jackets and put on a vest; comb his beard and hair, tc. If anything I wanted to hear what was the impetus that moved Charles to get clean and sober? This is such an important bit of information and it’s not there in the play. However Jack Charles is charming, impish and a natural storyteller without judgement that I recommend seeing as an example of theatre done in Australia.

Canadian Stage Presents.

Opened: March 29, 2017.
Closes: April 8, 2017.
Running Time: 75 minutes.

Binti’s Journey

At Theatre Direct in the Wychwood Barnes, Toronto, Ont.

From the novel, The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis
Adapted by Marcia Johnson
Directed by Lynda Hill
Set and costumes by Melanie McNeill
Lighting by Joseph Patrick
Cast: Aiza Ntibarikure
Dayna Ntibarikure
Jaa Smith-Johnson
Karen Roberts.

Theatre Direct is a wonderful theatre company dedicated to presenting stories for young audiences. Binti’s Journey premiered by Theatre Direct in 2008 and has been remounted in 2009, 2010, and now again in 2017.It’s an important story. I was invited to a preview—he cast had been touring it before coming to Toronto. It’s a very strong production.

It’s about the AIDS epidemic in Malawi as it affects Binti, an inquisitive 13 year old girl and her family. Her mother died when she was six. Binti lives with her father, brother and sister. Binti is the youngest in that family The mother probably died of AIDS but no one says that in the family. There is a stigma about it, even though it is rampant. Binti’s journey is not just physical—being taken in by relatives–but also spiritual and emotional—coming to grips with AIDS and accepting the truth about it. As the show says, “It’s an anthem to hope, courage and the resilience of youth”.

The cast of four works as an accomplished unit with Aiza Ntibarikure creating a feisty, inquisitive Binti. Lynda Hill directs her cast with sensitivity and detail to the smallest reaction. She has filled it as well with South African music which the cast sings with conviction. Binti’s Journey illustrates how AIDS does not discriminate on who can get it. And it also offers a picture of resilience and determination to live with it and not be defeated.

Theatre Direct presents:

From: April 4, 2017.
To: April 23, 2017.
Cast: 4; 1 man, 3 women.
Running Time: 60 minutes.

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