Edinburgh Fringe 2017
A darkly humourous musical tale about refugees and how to love when you are broken, with Klezmer folk musician Ben Kaplan and band. This is a true story from Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
The show description states that ‘It’s about how to love after being broken by the horrors of war.’ While this is true, it underestimates the lively way in which the performance is structured with theatre, music and a challenging approach to the storyline.
This is the universal refugee story – one which can take on mythic status – when persecution in the home country forces people into making a dangerous journey into exile and to settling in a new country.
The notion of transience is present from the start via the set design. We’re presented with a red, corrugated iron container which holds the set, props, actors and musicians. It’s a temporary structure. You could close it and move on if you had to.
The show plays with stereotypes right from the beginning. Ben Kaplan appears on the roof of the container – and gets a laugh straight away – in his rabbinical Eastern European shtetl garb, looking for all the world like someone out of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ But within minutes he’s talking to us, wondering what they’re doing on stage with all this sentimental ‘Yiddishkeit’ and we know that we’re in for a complex representation of history and memory, as well as just a little bit of comedy and Jewish humour thrown in.
Chris Weatherstone and Mary Fay Coady play the young pair newly arrived in Halifax, Canada from Roumania at the turn of the 20th century. Their acting is sensitively fine-tuned and understated throughout. The tautness of Hannah Moscovitch’s dialogue and the Yiddish-inflected English provide context and much irony for the audience as their relationship develops.
As the story unfolds, Weatherstone, Coady and Caplan play exuberant – and tender – live music on stage along with band members Graham Scott and Jamie Kronick. The theme of integration is beautifully mirrored by the range of hybrid musical styles and forms threaded through the show: klezmer, blues, folk, rap, jazz as well as liturgical Jewish prayer and Leonard Cohen-style lyrics.
There is a visceral quality to the music when Weatherstone and Coady join in with Kaplan. At times the microphone volume is too loud for Kaplan’s voice, so some adjustment here would be welcome, along with an occasional breather before a song comes in after dialogue. He doesn’t really need a microphone, as we hear when he chants a haunting melody that would have been sung by a cantor in an Ashkenazi synagogue.
It is as story teller that Kaplan’s relationship with the audience becomes most palpable. As the protagonists arrive at significant points in their new lives in Canada where they have the potential for happiness, their past traumas re-surface. It is Kaplan who voices their unbidden memories as we watch them on stage. The storytelling is mesmeric, stripped down, unsentimental. We are with them and with him as he recreates their shocking history.
We know that we’re watching a story that’s based on biographical sources, but Caplan teases the audience about what’s true and what’s not. Through theatre, music, and original witty and irreverent songs we’re taken beyond the specifics of the Jewish Canadian migration and are alerted unavoidably to present day parallels.
When the worst has happened, how can we stop expecting it and how do we make it through? The large and enthusiastic audience is fully engaged throughout, and we leave with these questions and the infectious music ringing in our ears.