Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region  


Old Stock.  Ben Caplan as the narrator. Photo: National Arts Centre English  Theatre

Old Stock : A Refugee Love Story  written by  Hannah Moscovitch. Songs by Ben  Caplan and Christian Barry. Directed by Christian Barry.

An old man emerging from the smoky top of an apparently abandoned train, the suggestion of a painful transportation that took place during WWII, suddenly transforms this structure into the site of a travelling theatre, resounding with music, that has “appeared” out of the past with its lively Klezmer Rumanian Jewish /Gypsy background bringing together a huge audience ready to hear its tales, including a love story that must be told.  With music that brings much to the dramatic intensity of the show, this theatrical company of theatre within theatre, is  transported into the present with its  four musicians/actors and a narrator-superb singer, dancer and actor Ben Caplan- under the direction of Christian Barry.

Based on events from the story of her paternal family, author Hannah Moscovitch and her team of actors and musicians, have created an event that feels like a contemporary Jewish folktale about 20th Century immigration, where Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof is just around the corner. However it is much less amusing and its limited budget produces a much less spectacular setting. It does however include tragedy and humor. It is about falling in love, about the trauma of pogroms which keep surging up in the character’s memories as their hardships in the new world send them back to the horrors of their past in Europe: Pogroms, massacres, anti-Semitism, persecution, terror and poverty. . This textual crisscrossing was important to follow because it constructed the totality of an  immigrant conscience that had to be understood. It comes to a head when Ben Caplan  transforms himself into a lively dancer, and passionate narrator as well as  a mischievous biblical scholar who rereads the Torah and revels in sexual vocabulary, the orality of the sacred texts (The Truth Doesn’t live in a Book) that are constantly being reinterpreted. Is this text a lie or isn’t it?  We aren’t really sure.  He dances and hollers and sings his heart out and then suddenly becomes a Kantor singing a most moving Kaddish (prayer for the dead and for universal peace) in the midst of all these experiences that produced moments of apparent playfulness. The whole theatre became a synagogue and you could hear a pin drop.

Chris Weatherstone, a fine musician (Woodwinds) was also Chaim, the young 19 year old who falls in love with Chaya (Mary Fey Coady) when they arrive in Halifax. She lost her first husband and child in Russia when they were forced to emigrate from Romania. The meeting of these two characters creates a personal drama that allowed the show to delve into more personal experiences. The romantic dreaming of young Chaim in contrast to the laconic tough minded dialogue that defined the more experienced, pragmatic and grieving Chaya provided wonderful tension between the two and avoided gushy sentimentality that would never fit in this situation. She took a long time to fall in love because she was haunted by the memories of her first love. Their courtship was funny, touching, the arrival of the baby brought out much anguish.  It all wrung true to the point that some of the show had the feeling of docu- theatre. The dynamics of this couple was beautifully performed and the actors, barely moving, used their facial expressions, their gestures and their voices to communicate all the nuances of emotion that defined their existence.

At times the musicians, the collective voices and with Ben Caplan hollering above them all into his microphone (Plough the Shit) created an almost unbearable cacophony which drowned out the words and gave one the impression they had all gone mad on stage. The noise of these moments even hurt the eardrums with the megaphones roaring, the mikes turned up and all the instruments playing against each other. However, the pain was precisely that, clearly the expression of collective rage against all human stupidity that made people’s  lives unbearable. For example, the tons of administration in the new world, the antisemitism and all the difficulties in their current lives that sent the immigrants back to memories of violence and cruelty they experienced in their countries of origin.

What is certainly true is the powerful way memory is represented as the human impulse that gives all the strength to this show. They clearly wanted us to understand that no immigrant is ever completely wiped clean of his or her past, especially at an unconscious level.  Accepting that makes these human relations much easier, something that is  extremely  important given all that is taking place in the world now.

Old Stock plays until July 15 in the studio of the NAC.

Written by Hannah Moscovitch

Directed by Christian Berry

Performed by Ben Caplan

Chris Weatherstone (Chaim, clarinet )

Mary Fay Coady (Chaya, violin)

Graham Scott (Keyboard , Accordion)

Jamie Kronick (Percussion)

Set design: Louisa Adamson, Christian Barry, Andrew  Cull

Coproduced by 2b Theatre Company and the NAC English Theatre