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How to grab an audience by the lapels

How to grab an audience by the lapels
Entertainment
“I feel weirded out, not premièring in Toronto. It’s this feeling of wanting your mom to see something and I guess Toronto is my mom?” Moscovitch told the Star just before rehearsals started for Old Stock.

After an intense global tour, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story has “come home” to Toronto.  (Old Stock)

Hannah Moscovitch says the Tarragon feels like home..  (Courtesy Hannah Moscovitch)

“If it hasn’t happened in Toronto, has it really happened?”

The concert/play hybrid premièred in Halifax in 2016 and has travelled a lot since then: New York, Sydney, Victoria, Montreal, Edinburgh, the Netherlands — the list goes on.

“We’re in the midst of a 30-city tour,” said director Christian Barry, who cocreated the show with Moscovitch and musician Ben Caplan.

Upcoming stops will take them to Ottawa, Vancouver, Winnipeg, China, London and more, and likely back to Europe and Australia.

“Frankly, when all of us set out on this journey around three years ago we didn’t know we were signing up for the next three years of our lives to be performing back to back to back to back,” said Barry, who is married to Moscovitch.

But before the journey continues, Toronto finally gets to see this show that the New York Times called “a neo-klezmer musical” that’s “didactic and anarchic, tragic and comic,” earning six Drama Desk nominations in 2018.

Tarragon Theatre, which has premièred almost all of Moscovitch’s works, from her 2007 breakout East of Berlin to 2015’s Infinity , will host the Old Stock team for the Toronto première, including Caplan, musicians Graham Scott and Jamie Kronick, and Dani Oore and Mary Fay Coady, who alternate between acting and music. It officially opens Wednesday night.

“I have such a long relationship to Tarragon; to me, it does feel like home,” Moscovitch said.

“Maybe because of who I am and what I am, when I think of home I think of feeling safe. And Tarragon makes me feel safe.”

Though unexpected by the show’s three creators, Old Stock’s intense global tour and, now, the idea of “coming home” to Toronto adds complex layers to the show’s subject matter: The story of Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch.

They immigrated to Canada in 1908, fleeing the dangers of the Jewish pogroms in Romania, which she discovered accidentally while visiting Halifax’s Pier 21 museum with her then newborn son, Elijah, and a visiting aunt.

“It’s so stupidly unemotional when you say it, but it made for this giant internal epiphany,” she said.

“They pull out the papers and say, ‘This is the date he arrived and at this time, and this is the name of the boat.’

“And I’m standing there with my son, in this spot. There was a line between life and death and they crossed it here.

“And from this date comes my grandfather, my father, me and my son. My brain felt like it got rearranged in that moment.”

At the same time, Barry had begun experimenting on a collaboration with klezmer bandleader Caplan.

The devastating photos of dead Syrian boy Alan Kurdi had recently surfaced and Stephen Harper’s comment about “old stock Canadians” during a federal election debate was in the air, too.

Caplan and Barry were motivated to work on a show that tapped into the conversation around the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Obviously, we were trying to be sensitive and not appropriate a story that wasn’t our own. And it was in that kind of moment of not being exactly sure what this musical collaboration was going to be about when Hannah came home from Pier 21 and told me the story of what she had uncovered,” Barry said.

Caplan’s ancestry, too, connects to similar areas of Romania, with family members who immigrated to Canada to escape Jewish persecution, settling in Ontario.

“For Ben and for Hannah, as Jews in Canada, they’ve lived their lives as white citizens in the country of Canada and they were probably included in Stephen Harper’s definition of ‘old stock Canadians,’” Barry said.

“Which pointed out the very absurdity of the phrase by saying, ‘OK, well at what point did they become old stock Canadians?’ There was a period of anti-Semitism into which Chaya and Chaim arrived in Canada. The things that were being said, even in the newspapers at the time, were shocking but not totally dissimilar to the Islamophobia of the current moment.”

“In some ways, if I am supposed to be included in this lucky club, it’s at the expense of denying my more complex identity,” Caplan added.

“And I think saying that because I am a third-generation white guy that I’m just an old stock Canadian is this colonial move to deny the more complex sub-identity that exists within me.”

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is meant to “put a human face on the refugee experience,” Barry said.

Instead of focusing on the specifics of the Jewish programs in Romania, the show is “singing songs and telling stories that evoke joy and sorrow and pain and humour to expose the underpinnings, the human underpinnings, of the issue.”

But that doesn’t mean Caplan lets the audience off the hook.

“The show is set in 1908, but it isn’t about 1908. We walk out onstage and we say, ‘Hello, Toronto!’ We acknowledge the place that we’re in and we take time, in the show, to speak to the audience and make them feel a little bit uncomfortable, to pose questions and make them put their own consciences on the line,” he said.

“We’re trying to avoid the possibility that they would walk out of the theatre and go, ‘That was a lovely presentation,’ and then go back to their lives.”

Or, as Barry put it, Caplan’s “wanderer” character “grabs the audience by the lapels and pulls them a little deeper into the story … and he’s not afraid to use a few well-placed, playful profanities if that’s what’s required to get the audience’s attention.”

Immersed in a story about how crossing borders can mean life or death, the creators acknowledge that the amount of travelling they’ve done with Old Stock puts mobility and immigration in a new light.

“Our level of privilege is apparent to us in the ease with which we are able to cross borders. There have been a few staggered, very minor, inconveniences and those have only highlighted the relative ease with which we are able to cross international boundaries,” Caplan said.

“And I think we have a responsibility as artists and as people of privilege to take advantage of that to push people’s buttons and to make them think.”

To Moscovitch, Old Stock coming home to Toronto has a resonance with this autobiographical story that she’s eager to experience.

“In a way, it’s a love letter to Canada, so when I show it to Canadians it’s like I’m showing us our story.”

Old Stock: A Refugee Musical is at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Ave., until May 26. See tarragontheatre.com for information.
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