Family, blood & sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews

Maaor Ziv, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Luis Fernandes, Theresa Tova, Anne van Leeuwen, G. Kyle Shields & Stephen Joffe in Tough Jews—photo by John Gundy

Leave the gun. Take the kugel.

Storefront Theatre is back, this time partnering with The Spadina Avenue Gang to mount the world premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s Tough Jews, directed by Storefront founder/co-artistic director Benjamin Blais and running at Kensington Hall in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

Tough Jews was Albert’s graduate project about a family of Toronto Jewish gangsters; and, although it’s set in the late 20s and early 30s, the play speaks to issues of anti-Semitic and anti-immigration/refugee sentiments that are relevant today, especially given the influence of the current administration to the south, and the rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims on both sides of the border.

Set in the basement speakeasy, downstairs from the family’s shop and home in Kensington Market, Act one opens in 1929 on Yom Kippur, 10 days before the stock market crash. Overseen by the widowed family matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), brothers Joe (Luis Fernandes) and Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) take care of the family business running booze downstairs, while Teddy (G. Kyle Shields) runs the legit business upstairs. Kid sister Rose (Maaor Ziv) and Ben’s American fiancée Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) watch from the sidelines. Downstairs business with Detroit’s Purple Gang goes south when hothead cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe) interrupts negotiations. This prompts Ben to come up with an idea to get Rose’s dope-dealing boyfriend Harry (who we never see), to get in on the action; despite the family’s disapproval of Harry, Ben hopes to placate the Purple Gang with new, hard-to-get product.

Act two jumps ahead four years to 1933, a couple of months after Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and shortly after the Christie Pits riot. Joe and Marge have been living in Florida, but his business was hit hard by the Depression, and he’s returned home to Toronto. Ben has also just come home, just released from jail; and Rose has a three-year-old and some serious domestic issues at her house. Teddy has taken over the speakeasy in the interim, but is now using it as a hide-out after his involvement in the Christie Pits riot.

Family secrets emerge throughout; and serious, changing situations prompt some equally drastic decision-making and choices. How far will a marginalized, oppressed and desperate people go in order to survive?

Stellar work from the entire cast in this immersive theatrical experience where the audience has a fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Tova is hard as nails, hilarious and heartbreaking as Ida, who recalls in sharp, painful detail the oppression of her homeland and the hardship of an ocean crossing. The dreams of a better life destroyed by hate and oppression in a new country, Ida takes charge with pragmatism, grit and wry wit; and with a laser focus on turning the family’s fortunes around. Fernandes gives oldest brother Joe a nice balance of calculating professional and protective man of the house. Dog tired and struggling to keep the family business afloat, Joe must also manage the less than friendly relationship between Marge and his family.

Bigwood-Mallin brings a great sense of spark and ambition to Ben; the only one who really wants to be a gangster, Ben is genuinely excited to expand the business, make connections in the U.S. and make more money. Shields does a marvelous job with Teddy’s arc; as the bookish, observant kid brother, Teddy is torn between being a good man and seeing their legitimate family business survive, and the struggle to survive in a harsh, unfair world that leaves his family few options. By Act Two, he’s grown up a lot in those four years; a changed man, he sees what’s going on in Germany—and how prejudice and hate know no boundaries—and it sickens him.

Ziv’s Rose is an irreverent spitfire; an independent-minded and often neglected member of the family, Rose does her best to make a life for herself, but finds new challenges outside the safety of the family nest. Van Leeuwen brings a regal edge to the platinum blond, leggy Marge; a dancer when Joe first met her, she’s now set on becoming a respectable wife and looking forward to enjoying the good things in life. Unable to stomach Joe’s family business, however, she retaliates by putting on airs. Joffe gives Ziggie a menacing, lost boy edge. Taken in by his aunt Ida as a child, Ziggie’s grown up into a dangerous punk with some serious anger and impulse control issues; and his choices make him a liability to the family.

With big shouts to the design team Adam Belanger (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes), Angela McQueen (makeup) and Miquelon Rodriguez (sound) for their work on the evocative, immersive environment; and to fight director Simon Fon, and co-stage managers Justine Cargo and Andrea Miller. Throughout the production, corpses will be played by Kyle Bailey, Daniel Briere, Gabriel Hamilton and David Lapsley. The bartender makes a mean Manhattan, with the good Jack Daniels.

Family, blood and sins of the father in the compelling, darkly funny Tough Jews.

Tough Jews continues at Kensington Hall till April 16 (enter through the back alley—follow the sandwich board sign); full schedule and advance tix available online]. Book in advance for this one, folks; it’s a popular company and there’s a lot of well-deserved buzz about this show—not to mention the intimate venue. Warning: Show contains gun shots and smoking (herbal cigarettes).

In the meantime, check out Brittany Kay’s In the Greenroom blog interview with playwright Michael Ross Albert and actor G. Kyle Shields, with director Benjamin Blais dropping by.

Ribald, rustic taste of the wrath of love in Rarely Pure Theatre’s As You Like It

From the lobby of Storefront Theatre, you can hear the haunting, lyrical and hypnotic sounds of layered FX guitar music. Inside the theatre space, the minimalist set is woodsy, sparse, cold. Branches hang from the ceiling and short sticks of trees sprout from the floor, cradled in snow drifts at the base. Tree stumps, hay bales and driftwood add to the rustic atmosphere. This is the world of Rarely Pure Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, directed by Rosanna Saracino.

The extremely talented and raucous young cast digs into this charming, but chilly, pastoral comedy with gusto – the passion, love and hate have equal bite in this tale of betrayal, loss, love and redemption. Stand-outs include Christina Bryson as Rosalind (also assistant producer), who gives a lovely turn as the young woman who must disguise herself as a boy even as she grapples with the conflicting emotions of mourning for a father banished and revelling in the pangs of new love. Katie Ribout’s Cecilia is adorably sweet and loyal as Rosalind’s cousin/BFF, herself struggling with harsh circumstance of a father who’s usurped her uncle and subsequently banished Rosalind, forcing her to choose her friend over her father. Spenser Robson (also Co-Artistic Director and Producer) does a nice job of balancing Orlando’s passion and strength of conviction over his own family situation and his tongue-tied, lovelorn response to Rosalind. Benjamin Blais is roaring good fun as the bawdy, wise Fool Touchstone, and Michael Hogan is deliciously maudlin and philosophical as the anomie-filled, aimless courtier Jacques.

This is love, hard and chilly, but also tender and hot – much like Ganymed’s portrayal of Rosalind. All in all, a ribald and rustic taste of the wrath of love.

Take a look at the As You Like It trailer, featuring Christina Bryson, Katie Ribout and Ben Blais.

As You Like It continues its run at Storefront Theatre until January 26.

Absurd family tragedy in The Goat

WARNING: This post contains adult language and content.

Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (subtitled: Notes Towards A Definition of Tragedy) is one absurd, darkly funny, mind-fuck of a play. And if you hadn’t been aware of the play’s subject before arriving at the theatre, you sure as hell get the idea when you receive the program. The cover is a veritable Kama Sutra of man/goat lovin’ illustrations. I went to see Atic Productions’ run of The Goat, directed by Carter West, at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space last night.

On entering the theatre space, you see a set composed of white pedestals, each with an empty plate frame – plates are set at the top of the show when the cast sets the stage, the family home – and a pair of white column/lintel entrances, the lintels askew atop uneven columns. Bringing to mind ancient Greek architecture. The pre-show music is a mix of love songs throughout the decades. Love and tragedy are coming.

Martin (Tim Walker) and Stevie (Rosemary Doyle) are a well-off, well-matched and happily married 40-something couple. Their sweet and handsome 17-year-old son Billy (Ben Hayward) has recently come out as gay, and they’re being pretty cool about it. Their domestic bliss is shattered when Martin reveals to his best friend Ross (Benjamin Blais) that he’s been having an affair – with a goat named Sylvia – a confidence that Ross proceeds to share with Stevie in a letter. You can imagine the family discussion that arises from this revelation.

What is interesting about this play is that Martin and Stevie, in addition to being very intelligent, open-minded people, have the sort of relationship in which they can actually have a discussion about Martin’s unusual infidelity – as painful and enraging as it is for Stevie. As the audience, we are presented with the notion and left to our own judgements – about bestiality and adultery, and even unintentional, spontaneous moments of incest and pederasty. Ross is the sole voice of conservative convention in the play, passing harsh judgement on anything beyond a well-hidden affair with another human, preferably of the opposite sex. And yet his hypocrisy shows as he coaxes the details of Martin’s affair with Sylvia – and despite his protestations and crying moral foul, he takes the taboo scenario in with a sense of scandalized glee.

The play is about 100 minutes long with no intermission and the actors – especially the family members – are taken on a physical and emotional roller coaster ride. Martin and Stevie are fun, affectionate and easy in their relationship – and love each other so big – and the hurt of Martin’s affair crashes so hard that every plate in the room lays broken in the end even as Stevie herself crumbles to the floor in agony. Even young Billy, who tries to intervene and is especially protective of his mother, is reduced to a balling mess after Ross returns to poke the wasp’s nest he’s already kicked at.

Walker is lovely as Martin, a good-humoured, gentle and loving man struggling with the onset of middle age and tormented by his desire for Sylvia. He has great chemistry with Doyle, who brings a funny, smart and sexy Stevie – loyal in love but fierce in betrayal. You really believe that Martin and Stevie have a big love for each other. You also believe that Martin really loves Sylvia too – an extremely painful truth for both Martin and Stevie. Hayward is adorably smart-ass as the teenager Billy, an intelligent and good-natured kid who is aware of just how cool his folks are – and he loves them both a lot. He brings a nice sense of Billy’s conflicted feelings  – torn between the child’s response of running away and the man’s response of stepping in to protect his mother. Blais gives us a nice combination of humour and cynicism as Ross, a character who’s really the outsider in this grouping, espousing a socially moralistic attitude towards fidelity and honour – but it’s all okay if you don’t get caught. Except one must stay within one’s own species with an age-appropriate partner and opposite sex is best. Really strong performances all around – you’re constantly wondering what will happen next. What will he/she do now?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Goat has a very short run at the Tarragon Extra Space – it closes tomorrow afternoon (Sunday, June 24). There are still a few chances left to see it, though, with matinées today and tomorrow at 2:30 p.m., and an evening show tonight at 8:00 p.m.

For more info, visit Atic Productions at: http://aticproductions.com/