Review: OLD STOCK: A Refugee Love Story.

by Lynn on November 21, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Ben Caplan as The Wanderer

Live and in person at The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ont. until Nov. 24, 2022.

Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan and Christian Barry

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Christian Barry

Songs by Ben Caplan and Christian Barry (except where otherwise noted)

Set and lighting by Louise Adamson and Christian Barry

Costumes by Carly Beamish

Sound by Jordan Palmer, Graham Scott, Christian Barry and Ben Caplan

Music director, Graham Scott

Cast: Ben Caplan

Shaina Silver-Baird

Eric Da Costa

Graham Scott

Andrew Wiseman

Out of the brutal world of pogroms and forced exile to Canada comes the story of how Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents met, married and endured their new life in a new country. Presented with appropriate impish irreverence provided by Ben Caplan and the musicians/actors.

 The Story. Old Stock: a refugee love story is by Hannah Moscovitch who writes about her great-grandparents Chaim and Chaya, their struggles to come to Canada and how they fell in love, sort of.

The story begins in 1908. Chaim and Chaya met on the boat coming over from Europe. He was smitten immediately. She was cool and stand-offish.

Chaim’s family were all killed in a pogrom in Rumania.  He found their bodies. The images were ingrained in his memory. Hannah Moscovitch does not hold back when describing the brutality  Chaya came to Canada together with her whole family. Her first husband died in Russia while trying to leave there. She adored him. He thrilled her.

Chaim and Chaya then coincidentally met again in Montreal where they were both living. He expressed his affection for her. She was non-committal but since her father liked him she married him.  It was a prickly marriage. He was shy and awkward and didn’t know how to please her. He had to live in the shadow of Chaya’s first husband. How could he thrill her like her first husband?  She was impatient with his awkward attempts at intimacy. She was sarcastic and direct, but she showed Chaim how to love her. I think she grew to love him.

Their first-born son, Sam, was named after Chaim’s youngest brother who was murdered in the pogrom. Sam was followed by three other children. Over time, there were grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The most recent to be born was Elijah, the great-great grandson of Chaim and Chaya and the son of playwright Hannah Moscovitch and her husband Christian Barry. I find that symmetry touching.

The Production. This is a wild-ride of a production. The set and lighting of Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry is clever and atmospheric. A corrugated metal wall with “Tehva” on it opens up to reveal the klezmer band complete with clarinet, violin, keyboards and drums. Eric Da Costa stage right sits in a chair and plays the clarinet/flute/other woodwind instruments and plays Chaim. Sitting across from him stage left is Shaina Silver-Baird playing the violin and also plays Chaya. Up from them are Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion and Andrew Wiseman on drums. The lighting also by Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry is moody, hazy and atmospheric.

Playing the narrator, The Wanderer (symbolic of the Wandering Jew?), the guitar and banjo is Ben Caplan, a wild-man of expression in movement, singing, dancing and mesmerizing energy.

He has unruly long hair, a full wild beard and is impish and original.  He is like the trickster who twists up well-meaning people with trouble to see how they cope with it; the unwanted guest with the big personality-you can’t take your eyes off him. His personality is huge. His character is also annoying, intrusive and comments on the comings and goings. You endure him. He has important things to say that are often hard to deal with. He has a wicked sense of humour and cynicism that gets him and his fellow wanderers through. And he sings in a gravelly, smooth, mellow, crystalline, raucous voice. Stunning to listen to him. His impishness draws the audience in to deal with the hard truths of the time, the cruelty and meanness of the treatment that the refugees endured.

Chaim is played by Eric Da Costa. There is an awkward sweetness about Chaim because of the shy, unobtrusive way that Eric Da Costa plays him. There is nothing shy or unobtrusive about the way he makes music when he is playing his various woodwind instruments.

Chaya is played beautifully by Shaina Silver-Baird. As Chaya she has a briskness to how she talks to Chaim. She takes a breath to punctuate her comments. She says little and there is an attitude to her.  She is so economical with her body language that says so much it’s wonderful to see. She knows what she wants of Chaim and she wants him to take charge. The scene in which she is guiding him to become intimate is achingly delicate, urgent and full of yearning. Shaina Silver-Baird plays the violin with expression, joy and verve.

Ben Caplan and Christian Barry wrote most of the songs. The songs create the atmosphere of what Chaim and Chaya are going through; bad luck, a mean world, and truths. The lyrics are raw, dense, witty, lyrical and perceptive. At one point when the refugees arrive in Canada at Halifax, the refugees experience a full body search in security.  The lyrics go something like this: “You have to endure a little humiliation before you can join our nation.” Woow. Another song references an immigration policy that will take place: “None is too many of that kind.” But because the music is the bouncy, buoyant Klezmer style, the music ‘plays’ against the harshness of the lyrics and the audience is drawn in to hear the message.

The production is directed by Christian Barry. As beautifully subtle as those scenes are they are also wildly energetic when Ben Caplan engages with the audience. His irreverence, energy and charm are disarming. He’s like an explosion of clear sound and a mournful voice. But there is a scene in which he uses a megaphone bellowing racist slurs, to simulate what was going on in Europe and the world then. I could not make out what he was saying because the existing amplification of his microphone drowned him out.

Also a warning on some language. Caplan uses the ‘F’ word often especially as a verb. It’s colourful and appropriate. There is a scene in the show when he is trying to describe the ‘act’ of what it means and urges the audience to say the word. Audiences are shy. They don’t talk back. So there is Caplan using many and various forms of how to express this particular form of the ‘F’ word, wanting the audience to shout out ‘THE’ word and not getting it. Put in context for what Chaim and Chaya and other Jewish refugees had to endure, yelling out “FUCKING” isn’t such a big deal.

Comment. Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is personal, poignant, moving, sensitively written and beautifully poetic in its economy. I loved the tenacity, resilience and humour of Hannah Moscovitch’s great-grandparents and all her ancestors.

Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company presents, 2b Theatre Company in Co-production with the National Arts Centre Production:

Plays until: Nov. 24, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

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