|Ben Caplan in "Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story."|
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story
Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Christian Barry and Ben Caplan
Playing at the Babs Asper Theatre – National Arts Centre (Ottawa) until October 27
As I mentioned in my review of Ben Caplan’s CD, Old Stock, “one of the most magnificent productions I’ve seen in recent years was “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story,” a play co-created by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who grew up in Ottawa, singer-songwriter Ben Caplan and director Christian Barry, which tells the story of Hannah’s great-grandparents who fled antisemitism in Romania in 1908 for Canada.
I first saw the play during its first NAC run in 2017 and saw it again last night on opening night. My opinion on the show is unchanged so much of this review is adapted – with minor changes – from a column I wrote for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin after seeing the show then.
“Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” is a musical theatre piece created by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, singer-songwriter Ben Caplan and director Christian Barry of the Halifax-based 2b theatre company.
As the show opens, we meet Ben as The Wanderer, the play’s narrator, a constant presence who sings the songs (most of which Caplan co-wrote with director Barry), tells stories, jokes with the audience, dances, and even puts on a tallit to perform a wedding. Caplan, bearded like an old world hasid, is larger than life on stage playing The Wanderer with seemingly wild abandon – like a cross between Tevye and Tom Waits. While Ben is definitely the star and always on stage, he also fades into the background when necessary.
“Old Stock” tells the story of Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, Chaim and Chaya, Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic pogroms. Fresh off the boat in 1908, Chaim, 19, who had lost his family in a pogrom, and Chaya, already a widow at 24, meet briefly in a line to see the doctor at Pier 2 in Halifax (the forerunner to Pier 21), the entry point to Canada for immigrants and refugees from Europe at the time. Chaim was sent to the line because he had a rash and typhus had to be ruled out before he could be admitted into the country. Chaya was there because of a cough that, she insisted, was not tuberculosis.
The story picks up again in Montreal. Chaim, who was smitten with the cynical Chaya at first meeting, arranges a match with her through her father, and we see their hard life unfold in early-20th century Montreal. Although “Old Stock” is often very funny, it is a refugees’ story filled with great tragedy (and, ultimately, joy).
In addition to Ben, there are four other musicians on stage including clarinetist Eric Da Costa, violinist Mary Fay Coady, Kelsey McNulty on accordion and keyboard, and drummer Jeff Kingsbury. The songs and music – encompassing klezmer, folk, cabaret, rock, and even free jazz styles – are central to the play and are brilliantly performed by Ben, who adds his banjo, harmonica and guitar playing to several of the numbers, and the band.
As key musicians, Eric Da Costa and Mary Fay Coady sit with the band while playing music. But they also stand up and move to the centre of the set as the central characters of Chaim (Eric) and Chaya (Mary Fay). Their constant transitions from musicians to actors are seamless – thanks, no doubt, to Christian Barry’s direction.
Based on the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s paternal great-grandparents, “Old Stock” is a specifically Jewish story that many of us can relate to. My own grandparents arrived in Canada from Eastern Europe in that same era. It is also a universal story will resonate with the successive waves of refugees and immigrants (and their children and grandchildren) – of many religions, races and places of origin – who have continued to arrive in Canada over the 111 years since Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch got off the boat in Halifax.
The production was brilliantly staged and the play – which made me both laugh and cry – reminded me to appreciate the sacrifices and hard lives of my own ancestors. The show is a must-see – don’t miss it!
A warning though, “Old Stock” has mature themes and may not be suitable for young children or those offended by profane language and/or frank references to sexuality.