by Lynn on November 18, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley with Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke.

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

Scenography by Trevor Schwellnus

Sound by Lion Smith

Cast: Mary Berchard

Katka Reszke

Michael Rubenfeld

This is a play about a mother and son who find a new peace between them as they explore their family roots in Poland. Their discoveries there are unexpected and intriguing resulting in a new awareness about the country.

The Story. This is a play about a son and mother who love each other but can’t stand to be in each other’s company for a long time. The characters are played by Michael Rubenfeld and Mary Berchard, who are actually son and mother.  Rubenfeld is a theatre maker, creator, playwright, artistic director. His mother Mary is not of the theatre.

Rubenfeld suggested that to resolve this conflict they travel to Poland together to explore their Jewish roots.  Their whole family came from Poland. His grandmother survived Auschwitz but they certainly lost a lot of family there.  Rubenfeld’s mother Mary agrees as long as they do the whole thing together. She even creates a contract for the both of them to keep it formal and serious.  Rubenfeld agrees, but then something happens. He falls in love with Magda Kowalewska, a Polish Jewish woman he meets at a conference in Montreal. She was the keynote speaker talking about the renaissance of Jewish life in Poland; that many Poles hid Jews and were killed for it; that there is now a vibrant Jewish life in Poland part of which is called ‘the unexpected generation’. Rubenfeld found that Magda dispelled many of his prejudices that he had about Poland and he wanted to go to Poland as soon as he could to keep up the relationship with her. Where does this leave his mother with whom he promised to go to Poland. This is one of the dilemma’s of the piece.

Rubenfeld said he wanted to go to Auschwitz to cry. On a personal note I can totally understand that sentiment because that’s how I felt about the place when I went there in 1977.

 The Production. Michael Rubenfeld and his co-creator and director Sarah Garton Stanley, have created an energetic, playful, yet earnest production—certainly wanting to go to Poland on a trip of discovery makes this an earnest enterprise, considering what happened to Rubenfeld’s family there.

As the audience files in Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke are already on stage watching the audience file in, greeting those they know with a wave and a smile. They are also welcoming to those they don’t know. There is a projection of a crowd of people on the whole back wall.

Rubenfeld and his mother tie themselves together with a long flat expanse of material. There is room for them to move around the space with plenty of distance between them, but they are nonetheless tethered to each other—tied by their prickly, loving relationship, their history and their determination to visit that troubling country.

Rubenfeld is the narrator of the piece. He introduces his mother Mary Berchard and the person they hired as a translator, Katka Reszke. Reszke also videotapes much of the action of the show that is then projected on the back wall. Trevor Schwellnus, master of technology, is also the scenographer—there is a movable comfortable seat for Berchard and a chair and table stage left for Reszke.

Rubenfeld banters with his mother Mary Berchard about her history, her marriages and their life in Winnipeg. There is definitely an edge to the conversation. Berchard displays a dry, pointed sense of humour and a sense of sarcasm towards some of what Rubenfeld says to her. While she’s not an actor her honesty is engaging. Reszke is also not an actor but her wit, intelligence and laid-back confidence are compelling. Michael Rubenfeld is an opinionated, intense man bursting with ideas. He is an actor and shows it in excessive enthusiasm, which is deliberate.

With breathless energy, Rubenfeld hauls a large ladder around the stage. He climbs to the top of it and writes in chalk on the wall/chalkboard the name of the town they are looking for where his grandparents lived. It’s a struggled to get the correct spelling until Reszke helps out.

They tell the story of how the trip developed; where the family home was; there are video projections of the town and their trip to Auschwitz. A video of Rubenfeld pushing Berchard’s wheelchair along a path inside the camp, neither of them talking, is so moving.

But there are times here when Rubenfeld is berated by his two playing partners for his narrow mindedness and perhaps rudeness to people who wanted to help. It is Reszke who is not afraid to call out Rubenfeld for his behaviour. For once he doesn’t answer back but takes the criticism, considering it.  I liked that generosity of spirit.

There are moments when the audience is asked for its opinion of moral dilemmas. While Rubenfeld is mindful of his contract with his mother confirming they both will step on Polish soil together and they will travel the country together, there is the matter of Magda who  Rubenfeld met in Montreal and wants to see in Poland. That would mean he would have to break the contract. What to do? He asks the audience. One eye-rolling person (me) says, “Ask your mother.” Well what else would one do—go to the person with whom you have the contract and talk to her.

Rubenfeld wonders if his trauma of knowing much of his family perished in Poland is more weighty than Reszke’s trauma of trying to find her Jewish roots. This is another question for the audience. I wonder can one have ownership of trauma? Can one’s trauma be more profound than another’s? It might look like a flippant question, but it certainly gets an audience to ponder the whole idea of trauma and identity.

Comment.  I have a few concerns. I do find some of Rubenfeld and Berchard’s conversation a bit disingenuous because it appears framed as if this is the first time issues have been brought up and surely this would have been covered in their life before the show.

We are told about Magda, Rubenfeld’s Polish-Jewish girlfriend at the beginning of the journey but then nothing almost to the end. Magda factors heavily in the story. I think she should have a more of a presence in the story along the way.

I appreciate the personal journeys of Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke. In their own way they are each engaging, thoughtful, searching for answers to their questions and certainly, in the case of son and mother, anxious to get past their differences. It’s Rubenfeld who makes the first move to reconciliation.

I love that the title of We Keep Coming Back is clever word-play that references the resilience of Jews in the face of adversity and that Rubenfeld, Berchard and Reszke have gone back to Poland often.

On the whole I was very moved by We Keep Coming Back.

Factory Theatre presents a Selfconscious production:

Opened: Nov. 15, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 25, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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