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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A chilling look at mad atrocity planned with rational boardroom expediency – Heretofore Productions’ staged reading of Conspiracy

Conspiracy p 1--Final 15I went to see Heretofore Productions’ marvelous staged reading of Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy at Grace Church on-the-Hill (300 Lonsdale Road) last night, the first of a two-night run. Co-produced by Leeman Kessler and Danielle Capretti, and co-directed by Capretti and Vivian Hisey, this is an adaptation of Mandel’s film Conspiracy, a documentary-like look at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where a group of high-ranking Nazi officials decide on the details of their Final Solution.

With the audience set up around the conference table, we literally get a fly-on-the-wall look at the proceedings – made all the more chilling by how ordinary the meeting looks on the surface as we witness the disturbing discussion about the fate of 11 million people.

The use of a mixed cast, with female actors playing some of the parts, drives home the humanity of the people attending this meeting – however unthinkable the subject. Seeing these characters in modern-day corporate costuming (co-director/actor Danielle Capretti pointed out during the talkback that red costume highlights, such as a handkerchief, denoted SS officials), one gets the feeling that one could be observing any corporate or government boardroom meeting; despite the horrible topic at hand, the conference is very much about business. Here, we see madness and power enacted under a thin veil of rationality, practicality and legal reasoning – but it’s important to not demonize these people. Viewing these men as monsters distances them from ourselves in such a way as to deny that this kind of meeting could happen anytime, anywhere. They could be anyone. The Catholic and Lutheran churches would turn a blind eye, and the Nazis had already seen ample evidence of international rejection of Jewish refugees. The sense that there is plenty of culpability to go around provides an easy rationale for the Nazis’ undertaking.

Language is sharpened to a polite point, its lethal intent civilized by euphemism. “The Jewish question” or “problem.” “Evacuate.” “Process.” Legal terminology is used to define and debate who is a Jew and who is German. Statistics on mortality by various means are casually noted – and mined for the most efficient and expedient methodology, with a nod to the Americans for their “ingenious” assembly line innovation. And, with the iron grip of the SS in charge of the discussion, it gradually dawns on you that the conference is a mere formality – all has been decided and all that is required from attendees is obedience.

Kessler, Capretti and Hisey have an impressive ensemble of actors for this run, including, in order of appearance:
Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann – Marisa King
Dr. Josef Bühler – Danielle Capretti
Major Dr. Rudolf Lange – Gregory Corkum
Brig. Gen. Dr. K. E. Schöngarth – Gabriel DiFabio
Dr. Georg Leibbrandt – Olivia Jon
Dist. Leader Dr. Alfred Meyer – Alan Page
U-Sec. Of State Martin Luther – Jeremy Henson
Sec. Of State Erich Neumann – Manda Whitney
Sec. Of State Dr. W. Stuckart – Janice Hansen
Major General Otto Hofmann – Christopher Kelk
Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger – Vivian Hisey
Brig. Gen. Gerhard Klopfer – Neil Kulin
Brig. Gen. Dr. Roland Freisler – Jen Ashby
Maj. General Heinrich Müller – Rob Schock
General Reinhard Heydrich – Will van der Zyl
Stenographer – Emily Hisey Bowden
Guard – Heather Chaytor

Each actor does an excellent job of finding the humanity in his/her character – again, it’s important to not view these men as demons, but as people. Ordinary people doing abhorrent things. Otherwise, we learn nothing. Political and power play infighting abound. While Stuckart (the architect of the Nuremburg Laws) is more concerned with the legal implications of their decision and nervous bureaucrat Neumann is worried about workforce issues, Kritzinger (the only one to express remorse in the end) is the only one who seems to have a modicum of conscience; and both Stuckart and Kritzinger are bullied by Heydrich to acquiesce to the plan. And we have Luther to thank for what we know of this meeting. Against orders, he kept his transcript and it was found in the aftermath of the war.

Allen Kaeja of Kaeja d’Dance, the son of an Auschwitz survivor who has choreographed several pieces about the Holocaust, hosted the post-reading talk-back, and shared the moving and incredible story of his dad’s experience and how he escaped.

During the talkback, the point about the importance of the characters being portrayed as human came up several times. No one is immune to being in a position to make horrific decisions, particularly in a culture of fear, in this case presided over by Heydrich and the SS, who were not above bullying or threatening other officials, and willing to do the killing that average soldiers lacked the stomach for (a morale problem pointed out by Lange during the meeting). The matter of fact, almost casual tone of this terrible conference discussion is made all the more tragic by how human these men are, highlighted by Hofmann becoming momentarily ill and Kritzinger being visibly sick at heart at the end of the meeting.

The issue of intent also came up – an audience member mentioned that the actions of this group of men went beyond discrimination, but to selling their souls for power. Actor Janice Hansen called to mind the classic psychology experiment in which subjects were instructed to administer electric shocks to an unseen person, who they could hear reacting in pain. Subjects who continued to give the shocks weren’t evil, they just weren’t able to disobey or say no. We need to believe that ordinary people can do terrible things.

Heretofore Productions’ Conspiracy is a chilling look at mad atrocity planned with rational boardroom expediency and legal debate.

You have one more chance to catch this very brief run of this excellent staged reading: tonight (Fri, Nov 21) at 7 p.m. Admission is free and there will be another post-performance talkback tonight.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post included incomplete/incorrect information on the producing and directing teams; this has since been corrected.