Family legacy, identity & repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews

Rebecca Applebaum, Kristopher Turner & Daniel Krantz in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

We’re all invited to crash at Jonah and Liam’s as we pay our last respects to their grandfather in the Koffler Centre of the Arts’ production of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Michèle Lonsdale-Smith. Bad Jews opened last night in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace.

Set in an shoe box-sized NYC studio apartment, which Jonah (Daniel Krantz) and Liam’s (Kristopher Turner) parents bought so they could have a place to stay in their building during the funeral, Bad Jews takes us on an emotional journey as we get a taste of the repressed anger, hidden resentments, judgements and expectations of this family. The apartment becomes a physical representation of the claustrophobic, everyone in everyone else’s business that is the family dynamic—especially potent among this group of 20-somethings, who are in the midst of establishing their own lives and identities while they navigate parental, cultural and religious expectations.

We first meet Jonah, lounging on a double air mattress in his dress shirt, boxers and yarmulke, playing video games. The brothers’ cousin Daphna (Rebecca Applebaum) has been staying with him on the pull-out couch. It’s just after the funeral and there is a quiet, exhausted atmosphere as Daphna hangs up their clothes and attempts conversation. She’s pissed that Liam missed the funeral; he was in Aspen with his girlfriend, lost his phone and didn’t get the message in time, and is due that night, girlfriend in tow. There’s something of their grandfather’s that Daphna desperately wants; a precious family heirloom, a piece of jewellery given to their grandfather by his father and kept safely hidden during the Holocaust. She wants Jonah’s blessing; he doesn’t want it, but he’s unwilling to take sides and wants nothing to do with the decision.

When Liam arrives with his non-Jewish girlfriend Melody (Julia Vally), Jonah learns that not only does Liam want the treasured family heirloom, he’s already got it. Both Daphna and Liam have very good reasons for wanting the necklace; and both have very different approaches and perceptions toward their family’s Jewish traditions and faith. Coupled with perceptions of entitlement, family loyalty and being a ‘good’ Jew, things get ugly between them pretty fast. It’s clear these two already don’t like each other and the battle over their grandfather’s jewelry is steeped in long-term, ongoing resentment. Melody tries to act as mediator, but ultimately can’t break through—no wonder, as she’s just been introduced to the family and has no idea about the history behind the verbal savagery she’s witnessing. In the end, we’re left with just Jonah and Daphna again—only now, the tone and atmosphere of their conversation is quite different. And further revelations emerge after the cathartic blow-out.

Lovely work from the cast in this claustrophobic and caustic dark comedy. As director Lonsdale-Smith pointed out during the post-show talkback, anger is motivated by fear; the fear of letting people go, death, identity, how we may take a different path from our parents—and these characters are angry. Krantz does a beautiful job with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Jonah’s complexity and inner conflict. Jonah gives the impression of being checked out and disinterested, and perhaps even not as smart as his older brother and cousin, but he’s aware and listening—and he feels things more deeply than you might think as he struggles with his grief. Applebaum, who identifies as mixed race (half Asian, raised Jewish), used her lived experience to bring scope to her laser-focused performance as the sharply intellectual, self-righteous Daphna. A super observant Jew, and a Vassar student bound for Israel, rabbinical school and the army, Daphna is always looking for a debate, if not an outright fight. Constantly on the lookout for fault in others, Daphna’s devotion is of the holier than thou, selectively fundamentalist variety—but much of this is a shield for a deeply wounded, lonely soul.

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Rebecca Applebaum, Julia Vally & Kristopher Turner in Bad Jews—photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner brings a ferocity and intellectual vigour to Liam, who’s chosen a more secular path and even changed his name. The eldest son of a well-off family, there’s more than a whiff of entitlement about Liam, and his anger is vicious when it erupts; however, his wish to mirror a gift their grandfather made to their grandmother reveals the depth of his love and appreciation for family and for Melody. Vally gives a great sense of firmness and strength to the sweet-natured, genuinely good Melody. A former opera student who loves music, but in the end decided that career path wasn’t for her, Melody is an administrator at a non-profit organization—helping others is in her blood, but she can’t seem to help Liam’s family issue. How could she?

Ultimately, as Turner mentioned toward the end of the talkback, this is a play about family—the history, the love, and intellectual and emotional dynamic that twists and turns across generations and through time. And nothing brings out the good, bad and the ugly like family, especially during meaningful, emotionally fraught family gatherings.

Family legacy, identity and repressed anger released in the sharply funny, biting Bad Jews.

Bad Jews continues in the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace until June 4; get your advance tix online via the show page or through Eventbrite. Advance booking recommended; it’s an intimate venue, fitting with the cramped space of an NYC studio apartment.

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SummerWorks: Sharing stories to create a new story in deeply moving & playful Trace

HERO-Trace1_72dpi-620x500I attended last night’s opening of Theatre Gargantua’s/Vertical City’s SummerWorks production of Trace at Artscape Youngplace – and left the space both elated and breathless.

Described as a “ghost telling,” Trace – directed by Bruce Barton, who co-created the piece with performers Martin Julien and Michelle Polak – is a unique experience in both the use of the space, and in the relationship between actors and audience. There is no separation between playing space and audience space, and audience members are invited – very gently and respectfully – to assist in creating the story.

Starting with the introductory installation in the cloakroom section of a former classroom (Artscape Youngplace was built from a decommissioned elementary school), the audience takes in a collection of objects, remembrances – many from childhood – as the performers gaze out the window in the adjoining room. Hooks hang from the divider wall of the cloakroom, at small child height; we are also invited to place our bags in the cubbies on the other side, out in the main room of the space. There is a first day of school feeling about this.

Out in the main room, there are table and floor lamps placed around the floor, with several chairs among the lamps. The window that Polak gazes out of has water cascading down it – it’s raining in her world. Julien’s focus is out another window, toward an adjoining outer wall of the building. The chalkboard has text from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein written in cursive, with a small section erased for a game of hangman. Polak will eventually invite several of us to pick a letter, and we gradually decipher the message.

Anecdotes of childhood memory – risks taken, first crushes – intermingle with ghost stories and stories shared by audience members, references and citations from literature, music and childhood games to create the story. The room starts as a blank slate and we all bring what we have into it – and into the story that emerges therein. Sometimes, truth is the biggest dare. Trace will never be performed the same way twice.

At various points during the performance, I stood, sat on a chair and on the floor – and it was on the floor that I felt the most child-like, with that story time feeling. The experience moved me to laughter and tears – and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in that place with Julien and Polak.

With shouts to the design team for the magical, out of time and space environment: Heather Nicol (installation), Michael Spence and Bruce Barton (set), and Lyon Smith (sound).

Trace is a deeply moving, playful and remarkable piece of art and performance work.

The show continues at Artscape Youngplace until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for dates/times.

SummerWorks: Vibrant & edgy graphic design for performing arts in PROMO exhibit

promo_colour-620x500In between plays, I stopped by Artscape Youngplace last night for a SummerWorks Special Presentation Series exhibit: PROMO, an exhibit of graphic design work for the performing arts.

Co-curated by Michael Rubenstein and Natasha Mytnowych, PROMO features the work of:
Doublenaut
Roxanne Ignatius
Jonathan Kitchen (Light Up The Sky)
Tad Michalak
Monnet Design
Kilby Smith-McGregor
Soulpepper Theatre Company design, curated by Jacob Whibley

Here are some of my favourites from the exhibit:

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Necessary Angel 2009-10 season, by Kilby Smith-McGregor
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Glen Hansard concert, by Matt McCracken at Doublenaut
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This Is What Happens Next, part of Necessary Angel’s 2009-10 season, by Kilby Smith-McGregor
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Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 2010-11 designs, by Jonathan Kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was also very cool to see Artscape Youngplace up and running. It was still under construction (in an old elementary school) when I moved out of the ‘hood a little over a year ago – and I have to admit, it made me feel a bit homesick – and even a bit envious – that the neighbourhood has this great space.

Check PROMO out, up on the second floor hallway of Artscape Youngplace, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The opening reception is tonight (Sat, Aug 9) from 5 to 7 p.m.