Stage Door Review 2019

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Apr 28, 2019

✭✭✭

created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan & Christian Barry, directed by Christian Barry

Tarragon Theatre, Toronto

April 24-May 26, 2019

Caplan: “Those that keep their eyes upon the heavens

Are ones that wind up face down in the mud”

2b theatre’s Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, now playing at the Tarragon theatre, arrives in Toronto as its last stop on a tour that began after the show premiered in Halifax in 2017. It has played in Edinburgh and New York, toured Britain, toured the Netherlands, and visited Australia, California and BC. It’s futile to suggest that a show that has met with success is severely flawed but that is exactly the impression it made on its opening night. Knowing nothing of the show’s background, I could not help thinking what a moving show Old Stock would be if only someone would remove or at least minimize Ben Caplan’s role as the obnoxious narrator. This will never happen, as I have since discovered, because Caplan is not merely the co-creator of the show Hannah Moscovitch and Christian Barry but the originator of the show’s concept of the stories of Jewish refugees to Canada interspersed with his own songs.

Halifax-based singer-songwriter Ben Caplan was inspired to create his third album Old Stock and the musical that uses some of its songs by the phrase “old stock Canadians” that Stephen Harper used in a national debate during his failed re-election bid in 2015. The attempt to set present Canadians, most of whom are descended from immigrants, against people seeking to immigrate to Canada struck many people then as illogical and divisive. Since then anti-immigration rhetoric and actions have only become worse in countries all around the world. A musical that would humanize refugees and underscore their desire to find a safe haven in the world simply to live a normal life could not have been more important in 2017 and has only gained in importance now.

Caplan and Halifax’s 2b theatre company were looking for this musical and it appeared when the prolific, multi-award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch discovered that her own great-grandparents were refugees who had passed through Pier 21 in Halifax in 1908. Caplan’s stipulation from the first was that his songs should be able to stand alone separate from the narrative, but this stipulation, as it turns out, is one of the central flaws of the show. 

Caplan’s loud, abrasive, expletive-filled narration and klezmer-influenced songs clash in every way with the sensitivity and nuance of Moscovitch’s portrayal of her great-grandparents meeting and struggles in trying to make a new life for themselves in Canada. Just as we begin to relish the personal and psychological difficulties of two displaced Romanian Jews, Chaim (Dani Oore) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady), Caplan’s narrator, The Wanderer (as in Wandering Jew) bursts in to destroy the mood with a song, comments or both that have nothing to do with what we have seen. The musical feels like two completely different shows that have randomly been shuffled together. Only when Caplan takes on the role of the rabbi singing “Od Yishama” at the wedding of Chaim and Chaya do the the two shows have any real, poignant point of contact. 

Caplan has a large, resonant voice which he prefers to skew towards its gravelly lower range than to its purer upper range. The sound design team of which Caplan and Barry are a part, does nothing to dial down the volume of Caplan’s speech and song to match those of Chaim and Chaya. As a result the legendary figure he nominally plays comes across as annoyingly overloud and abrasive right from the start. His songs except for “Lullaby” and “What Love Can Heartbreak Allow?” are relentlessly cynical and the master of ceremonies role he adopts is so pleased with himself he doesn’t seem to need our approval and soon becomes tedious. After Chaim and Chaya are married and contemplate having a child – joyous thought for him but painful for her – Caplan’s narrator breaks the mood by reciting an extraordinarily long list of phrases for having sex, meant, one supposes, to work the audience into fits of laughter, but at least in Toronto, made one wish he would realize we got his point and would move past such self-congratulatory indulgence.

Caplan’s approach to his role contrasts completely with those of Oore and Coady toward theirs. Dani Oore plays Chaim with such delicacy we root for him from the very beginning. He brings out the loneliness and shyness of Chaim but also suggests a man burdened with profound sadness who barely dares to hope that someone like Chaya might come to love him. 

For her part Mary Fay Coady gives Chaya a worldly air and seems to look on Chaim with a mingling of amusement and pity. Chaya has been married before and is a widow. Moscovitch draws us into the story of these two refugees because she gives Chaim two tasks. First he must convince Chaya to marry him and second, and more difficult, he must win Chaya’s love that she has already pledged to her dead husband. Coady shows us that Chaya stands aloof from Chaim so long not because she’s toying with him but because she is conflicted about her loyalties and fears getting hurt yet again. 

In Coady’s hands Chaya’s seemingly satirical view of Chaim is enough to keep the refugees’ story from sentimentality. The story does not need the raucous, foul-mouthed humour of The Wanderer for that or any other purpose. We don’t even need Caplan’s singing since Oore and Coady are so amazingly talented that they not only play musical instruments with panache – Oore winds, Coady the violin – but sing as well. The instrumental interludes played by Oore, Coady and two other musicians – Graham Scott on keyboards and Jamie Kronick on drums – are so lovely on their own that we resent it every time when Caplan chimes in with the studied growl of his voice.

The show’s design by Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry is exceedingly clever. The concept is that the Wanderer now travels in a modern shipping container. This opens up to reveal what looks like a cosy living room crammed full, however, with the two musicians and their instruments plus Oore and Coady. Caplan, for some reason, is free to roam the wide space in front of the container.

Old Stock mentions the irony that these Jewish refugees have fled pogroms in Eastern Europe only to encounter anti-semitic attitudes in Canada, but none of the creators explore this side of the topic fully. The story of Chaim and Chaya is so moving that Caplan’s attempt to force sardonic humour into the situation is counterproductive. Since the world refugee crisis and the nativist response to it are only worsening they are nothing to laugh at no matter how cynically.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) Ben Caplan as The Wanderer, © Stoo Metz; Dani Oore as Chaim and Mary Fay Coady as Chaya, © Graeme Braidwood; Ben Caplan as The Wanderer, © Stoo Metz.

For tickets, visit www.tarragontheatre.com.