Inconnu pushes boundaries with critically acclaimed Bad Jews

What: Bad Jews
Where: Theatre Inconnu, 1923 Fernwood Rd.
When: Opens tonight, continues to March 5
Tickets: $14 regular, $10 seniors/ students/unwaged. Available in advance via www.ticketrocket.co or 250-590-6291

Theatre Inconnu, the plucky little Fernwood company, has forged a reputation for risk-taking theatre.

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Recent offerings include Mark Bartlett’s Cock (a gay man wrestles with his sexual identity), David Harrower’s Blackbird (about a woman who had sex with a man as a 12-year-old) and Murray Gold’s Kafka the Musical (yes, a musical about Franz Kafka).

Add to this Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews (2013), opening at Theatre Inconnu tonight.

The provocatively titled black comedy, which is the young American dramatist’s first produced play, is a critically acclaimed hit. It succeeded off-Broadway and is having its second run in London’s West End.

In Victoria, Bad Jews is directed by Matthew McLaren. The 26-year-old is thrilled Theatre Inconnu artistic director Clayton Jevne offered him the job.

A recent University of Victoria theatre graduate, McLaren served as assistant director on two previous Theatre Inconnu shows. This is the first time he has been in the director’s chair, though.

“This is the first fully professional thing I’ve done,” he said.

“It’s super exciting.”

In the great American tradition of Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill, Bad Jews is a dark evisceration of the souls of dysfunctional families.

There are gut-wrenching moments; however, this play delves deeper into the comical side of familial conflict.

It’s about an uber-devout young Jewish woman, Daphna, who stays with her cousin Jonah while attending a family funeral. She clashes with Jonah’s brother, Liam, who arrives with his shiksa girlfriend, Melody. The conversation becomes most heated when Daphna and Liam discuss who should inherit a gold medallion that belonged to the departed, a Holocaust survivor.

McLaren is a theatre enthusiast who co-founded and contributes to The Marble Theatre Review, a Victoria website devoted to theatre coverage. At UVic, he tried acting before settling on writing and directing studies. These days, to support himself, McLaren works as an usher and concession clerk at Imax Victoria.

But theatre direction is where his heart truly lies.

McLaren says maintaining the momentum in Bad Jews is key to its success.

“What has to happen in the play, to make it fly, is that it can’t let up steam. It’s got to flow,” he said.

Bad Jews is partly an examination of what it means to be a Jew today. McLaren’s not a Jew.

Nor is anyone in the Victoria cast: Casey Austin, Simon Basch, Michael Bell and Kat Taddei.

With that in mind, McLaren spoke to a Jewish member of Theatre Inconnu’s board, soliciting advice on the significance of religious references in the script. He and the cast also attended a service at Congregation Emanu-El.

McLaren also arranged post-show talk-back sessions with members of Victoria’s Jewish community tonight, Feb. 23 and March 5.

He said he has been careful not to make a shtick out of the play’s New York/Jewish context.

In particular, McLaren wanted to avoid clichéd portrayals that would result in a “nightmare version of this play with klezmer music playing.”

Another potential pitfall, said McLaren, is the long speeches in Bad Jews. If actors aren’t careful, these might come off as didactic utterances of unlikable characters.

“The trick is, you’ve got to get what’s underneath them, which is what they’re saying about how their family is slowly disintegrating,” McLaren said. “This show is about the heart. Where is the love, underneath the anger?”

Theatre Inconnu is a small, black-box theatre, allowing little space for experimentation. Despite this, Bad Jews’ young director has played with the space by introducing a thrust stage around which theatregoers are seated.

“So,” McLaren said with a smile, “we’ve put the audience in this family’s nightmare.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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