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Theatre in Review: Old Stock (2B Theatre Company/59E59)

Ben Caplan, Mary Fay Coady. Photo: Stoo Metz Photography

The coming-to-America story has been worked over so many times -- from Rags to Ragtime to The Golden Land, to name but three examples -- that one might legitimately fear that there is little new to say about it. However, the resourceful people behind Old Stock have found all sorts of ways to freshen it up -- and, more importantly -- to make it seem urgent for today's audiences.

First of all, Old Stock, which is subtitled "A Refugee Love Story," isn't a standard tale of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. Its characters, Jews from Romania, land at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and end up in Montreal. It's a pertinent reminder that Canada -- a nation with its roots in the United Kingdom and France -- has its own immigrant narrative and melting-pot identity.

More fundamentally, Old Stock -- or, what one member of the cast calls "this Yiddishkeit music thing we're doing" -- has a structure and narrative method all its own. Ben Caplan, a Canadian folk singer -- an immensely furry creature with flowing beard and locks, eyeglasses that give him the look of a slightly startled owl, and a Tom Waits-style voice freighted with plenty of gravel -- acts as emcee and narrator, telling the story of Chaim and Chaya and their adventures in the new land, while delivering the bulk of the evening's songs. Interspersed with these are a series of scenes -- economically, almost elliptically, written -- showing how Chaim and Chaya forge a marriage in the face of devastating obstacles.

The future spouses meet in 1908, standing in a medical inspection line. He has a rash on his arm; she is coughing in a way that makes immigration officials suspicious. Chaya has arrived in Halifax with a legion of relatives, but not her husband, who was felled by typhus. Chaim is alone, having lost his entire family in a pogrom. (The way they calmly take stock of each other's disasters tells you plenty about the world from which they have fled.) A friendship of sorts is struck up -- although, Chaya insists, she is in Canada only temporarily. "My husband died in Russia," she explains. "I don't want an ocean between me and his grave."

Both make it out of Halifax and settle in Montreal, where Chaim makes an offer of marriage. Chaya accepts, reluctantly, making clear that there is little or no room in her heart for anything but the memory of her late husband. Nevertheless, they build a life -- he works hard, she has children -- and only through series of crises, the most terrible of which is an outbreak of typhus -- do they discover exactly how much they mean to each other.

There's something positively Brechtian about this two-part then-and-now structure -- with Caplan interrupting the immigrant story to provide songs (backed by a quartet of musicians) and commentary -- and it could have gone wrong in all sorts of ways. Yet it succeeds, in part because of the marked contrast between Chaim and Chaya's carefully held-back emotions and Caplan's flamboyantly theatrical personality. As Chaim and Chaya, Chris Weatherstone and Mary Fay Coady -- who also play woodwinds and violin, respectively -- perform with remarkable sensitivity and understatement, signaling by the subtlest of means the enormous emotional shifts unfolding behind their frequently clipped words. Indeed, their restraint has become second nature: Tragedy has become a too-familiar visitor, and they cope by steadfastly refusing to let it overpower them.

Caplan's words -- sardonic and brusquely humorous -- fill in the rest of the story. In one especially gripping passage, he describes Chaim standing outside a movie, staring at a sign that says "Gentiles only" and remembering the headline of the day's newspaper: "Old Stock Canadians Soon to be Overrun by Semitic Hordes!" This moment cues a memory of Brasov, his hometown, which was gutted by a pogrom; we learn that he arrived home to discover the bodies of his mother, father, and brothers. Finding the still-warm corpse of his four-year-old sibling, "Chaim picks him up, turns and looks into the eyes of God," Caplan says. Whatever pains the new world holds for Chaim and Chaya, the only way for them is forward.

The songs, by Caplan and Christian Barry, blend klezmer, folk, and a touch of Kurt Weill, lending a fatalistic undercurrent to words that are pointed and pertinent. "I have been libeled as a wanderer," Caplan sings, adding, "This is not the case/I have a home/It's just an inconvenient place right now" -- a statement that sums up the experiences of so many modern refugees. At times, they carry more than a touch of Leonard Cohen: "The dead become the emperors of memory/The saints have been eaten by the worms/The living have the right to twist the future/And the sinners all have practical concerns."

Barry, who also directed, maintains a perfectly poised balance between the show's two halves; he also designed the set -- a shipping container, which spills open, disgorging the actors and musicians -- and solid lighting, with Louisa Adamson. Carly Beamish's costumes are also fine, whether simple, plain immigrant wear or Caplan's lavender-and-brown three-piece suit and top hat. No sound designer is credited, but Jordan Palmer, the sound operator, maintains a fine balance between vocals and instruments.

There are moments when Caplan becomes too intrusive a presence, especially in some lame attempts at humor. A passage about the necessity, according to Jewish tradition, of maintaining sexual relations in marriage leads to a pointlessly vulgar roundup of euphemisms for coitus, among them "doing squat thrusts in the cucumber patch." (I am at a loss to explain this one.) But, most of the time, the play's two halves inform and enrich each other, leading to a finale that is very likely to provoke tears.

I haven't mentioned that Chaim and Chaya's last name is Moscovitch, and that Old Stock is by Caplan, Barry, and Hannah Moscovitch, Chaim and Chaya's descendant. As the show's later passages reveal, the couple was fruitful and multiplied and, today, their family is part of Canada's old stock. It's a deeply moving saga, made more so by the fact that it is never over, even if today's immigrants are from different countries and different, if equally dire, circumstances. "We made it, you made it," Caplan tells us. "Others were not so lucky. Others are not so lucky." And they won't be, as long as we continue to demonize them. -- David Barbour

(20 March 2018)

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