Stage Left: Old Stock refugee tale a good bet at Belfry’s Spark; Ballet B.C. review

Adrian Chamberlain mugshot generic

Created by Halifax’s 2b theatre company, the much-ballyhooed Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story lives up to its hype (it was nominated for six Drama Desk Awards in New York). If you can still snag a ticket for this show, playing in the Belfry Theatre’s Spark Festival through Sunday, I’d recommend going. It is superb theatre.

Old Stock is about two young Jews fleeing Romania for Canada in 1908. Chaim (Dani Oore) is a puppy-dog-like 19-year-old whose family was slaughtered in a pogrom.

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Chaya, 24, (Mary Fay Coady) is also escaping — but with her extended family. While she’s luckier than Chaim, the deaths of Chaya’s husband and baby have left her cynical and damaged.

The star of this 80-minute story-theatre play is the narrator. The “Wanderer,” wonderfully played by Ben Caplan, is a hyper-theatrical uber-mensch in a purple jacket and top hat.

Prowling like a ringmaster, Caplan growls songs in a Tom Waits/Leonard Cohen-style and illuminates the darkened stage like a 100,000-watt klieg light. His timbre and phrasing are terrific — grittily soulful and wonderfully controlled. His spoken delivery is equally musical.

The songs are outrageous and wryly funny, à la Weill/Brecht, delving into sex, religion, struggle, tragedy and triumph. Most are penned by Caplan and director Christian Barry.

The latter is married to playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who co-wrote the show — Old Stock is the true story of her great-grandparents.

Backing Caplan is a fine klezmer quartet in which Moore and Coady double on woodwinds and fiddle. The show is cleverly contained in a shipping container that looks like a cross between an opium den and a tenement flat.

Old Stock pulls no punches. The slaughter of Chaim’s family is described in horrific detail. The shock of this is leavened by black humour and Caplan periodically popping his head through the fourth wall. At one point, he cheekily asks us if we’re questioning our decision to see this “depressing show.” We are not.

“Old Stock” is a reference to the offensive yet lingering notion that Canadians of European (usually British) descent enjoy privileged status. As Jews in Canada, Chaim and Chaya need not fear being murdered, but they are still discriminated against.

The show’s theme — that humanity is precious regardless of race — is especially timely given the current political climate. It’s an earnest message, yet Old Stock somehow avoids didacticism.

We’re simultaneously charmed and yanked off balance by the production’s strangeness and grittiness, its anarchical humour — and above all, its great humanity. Unforgettably, Old Stock pays homage to the life-affirming vitality and tenacity human beings can display in the face of unspeakable calamity.

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Vancouver director/playwright Anita Rochon attempts a bold experiment with her Spark show Pathetic Fallacy. Her notion is to avoid a leaving a carbon footprint. To manage this, she has guest actors play her, that is, the character of Anita Rochon.

On paper at least, the metatheatrical concept is rather clever, given Pathetic Fallacy is an examination of weather calamities caused by climate change brought about by polluting humans. In scattershot fashion, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are breezily discussed. So are TV meteorologists, landscape painting (there’s an interesting analysis of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna) and the Weather Girls (remember It’s Raining Men?).

Rochon is primarily interested in a question posed repeatedly in Pathetic Fallacy: How can we humans reconcile living on the planet knowing our very existence damages it?

On Thursday night, Victoria actor Brian Linds was the guest actor playing Rochon. Her character is also represented in pre-taped video and via a live phone call made to Linds at the end.

Rochon, the past winner of a Siminovitch Protégé Prize, subverts theatrical convention in a sharply provocative way. I’m not convinced it works well as theatre. The guest actor, superimposed on video footage via green-screen technology, really has little to do.

The most compelling aspects of Pathetic Fallacy, which is a bit of a mishmash, are Rochon’s pre-recorded video offerings. While her bold approach to theatre-making is admirable, the results ultimately disappoint. The show’s final performance is tonight.

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Ballet B.C., hosted by Dance Victoria, offered two worthwhile evenings of dance at the Royal Theatre last weekend.

The clear standout was Beginning After, set by choreographer Cayetano Soto to two operatic works by Handel: Giulio Cesare and Arianna in Creta. Eleven dancers in leather-look mesh bodysuits and white leotards jerked themselves about like marionettes.

This exaggerated, robotic style recalled pop-and-lock hip-hop dance. Pas de deux sections in particular were dispatched with an intense precision that complemented the music’s simple Teutonic grandiosity.

Near the end of Beginning After, a lone couple danced without music. We heard them pant audibly — it was like witnessing the inner workings of a well-tuned machine. Overall, Beginning After juxtaposes human primitivism and geometrical orderliness in a fashion both powerful and breathtaking.

Ballet B.C.’s artistic director, Emily Molnar, collaborated with company members in choreographing To this day. The 30-minute dance is set to the music of guitarist Jimi Hendrix, specifically, his versions of Born Under a Bad Sign, Voodoo Chile Blues and Once I Had a Woman.

Using Hendrix’s music seems like a great idea — however, the results were mixed. The work exuded a buoyant energy and a sense of free-form improvisation. Yet overall, To this day came off as incohesive and not particularly tied to the music.

Rounding off the program was Petite Ceremonie. Created by Medhi Walerski, it’s set to a dog’s breakfast of music: everything from Vivaldi’s Winter to a Benny Goodman rendition of Blue Moon.

It began, strikingly, with a line of dancers — men in suits and women in black cocktail dresses — carefully placing one foot over the other, back and forth. The effect was rather like people anxiously standing in line for a public bathroom.

Elsewhere, a man danced athletically while a woman watched, as though he was performing tricks.

There’s quirky humour throughout. During a social dance segment, performed to Blue Moon, the dancers babble nonsense merrily. Elsewhere, a man juggles white balls while lecturing on male-female relationships. Petite Ceremonie was intriguing and expertly danced.

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