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.

Advertisements

The Devil went down to Old Montreal in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie

chasse-galerie-01
Nicole Power, Kat Letwin, Hunter Cardinal, Tyrone Savage, Michael Cox, Tess Benger, Shaina Silver-Baird, Ghazal Azarbad & Alicia Toner in Chasse-Galerie – photo by John Gundy

Soulpepper opened the Kabin/Storefront Theatre production of Chasse-Galerie to a delighted full house at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District last night. With book adapted by director Tyrone Savage, assisted by Janet Laine-Green; music and lyrics by musical director James Smith; and choreography by Ashleigh Powell, Chasse-Galerie is a big fun, immersive, multimedia adventure that twists, turns and entertains.

When we enter the theatre, we find ourselves in the Flying Canoe pub on New Year’s Eve, greeted by members of the band/cast and availed of bar service – when our narrator Lucy (Ghazal Azarbad) emerges to tell us a tale of the Chasse-Galerie, a folk tale of a wild hunt in which those caught up in its path join the hunt forever.

On another New Year’s Eve, four coureuses des bois (i.e., female lumberjacks) are cold, exhausted and nearly out of whiskey. Alex (Tess Benger) longs to see her sweetheart, the lovely golden-haired fiddle player Jaune; Lea (Nicole Power) misses her red-headed whiskey maker Michel-Paul; coincidentally, so does Michelle (Kat Letwin); and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird) doesn’t have someone special, but pines for music and romance. Fondly remembering their favourite Old Montreal pub, The Flying Canoe, the four women are dying for a road trip. There’s just one problem: it’s a three-day trek.

Enter Damien (Tyrone Savage), disguised as a weary frozen stranger, who offers them a way to get their wish and travel to the pub in hours. But his magic comes with conditions and a price: they must not swear or touch a cross, and they must be back by dawn. If not, their souls belong to him.

The women agree to his terms and travel by magic flying canoe to Old Montreal; convinced they’ll be fine as long as they don’t drink – especially Michelle, who has the biggest potty mouth of them all. Alex sets off in search of Jaune (Alicia Toner), and Michelle finds the lusty Michel-Paul (Michael Cox) before Lea does. And Toba becomes smitten with the bashful band leader Francois (James Smith), who is equally taken with her and gives her a fiddle lesson. Meanwhile, Lea meets a handsome cowboy who speaks in Shakespearian verse (the angel Uriel in disguise, played by Hunter Cardinal). To ensure that he reaps those four souls, Damien enlists Lucy’s assistance to foil our four heroines at every turn.

All hell breaks loose in the pub and dawn is fast approaching. When all seems lost, Toba challenges Damien to a fiddle duel to save her friends. And you won’t believe what happens next!

Incorporating animation, puppetry, songs and folk dance – not to mention a butt load of Québécois swears, including a very catchy audience participation tune at the end of Act I – Chasse-Galerie is one big fun musical ride of adventure and friendship, featuring performances from an outstanding multi-talented cast. Everyone sings and everyone plays an instrument (in Smith’s case, more than one); the excellent band is rounded out by Justin Han (drums) and Jason O’Brien (bass).

Benger’s Alex is sweet and pious; she may be a virgin, but Alex is full of fierce passion and love for her Jaune. Letwin is hilariously irreverent as Michelle; hard-drinking and a master at cursing there’s a soft gooey centre beneath that tough exterior. Power’s bespectacled Lea is the level-headed brains of the group; and when she finds herself struggling with the prospect of lost love, she gets some unique advice from Uriel about what to do about her love triangle situation. Silver-Baird’s Toba is the peacemaker of the group; not expecting to find love at The Flying Canoe, she is put in the difficult position of choosing between her dream and making it home on time to save her own soul and those of her friends.

Savage is deliciously diabolical as Damien; comic and compelling, Damien’s dead serious when it comes to this deal – and he needs these souls as much as the four women want to keep them. Azarbad is cabaret sexy and delightfully mischievous as Lucy; our storytelling host and Damien’s right-hand minion, she excels at manipulation and even gets on a bit of romancin’ of her own.

With huge shouts to the design team for this remarkable, immersive environment: Lindsay Dagger Junkin (set and props), John Leberg (scenic magic), Holly Lloyd (costumes), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Andre Stankovic (sound) and Daniel Briere (projection and puppetry).

The Devil went down to Old Montreal. A singin’, dancin’, whiskey drinkin’ helluva good time in the foot stompin’, magical Chasse-Galerie.

Chasse-Galerie continues the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. it won’t be there forever though – so what are you waiting for?

Update (Nov 17): The run of Chasse-Galerie has been extended, with new shows just added:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 29 – 8:00pm
  • Wednesday, Nov. 30 – 8:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 7:00pm
  • Thursday, Dec. 1 – 10:30pm

Get a sneak peek in the behind-the-scenes video:

Love, death and the magic of the theatre in wistful, otherworldly then, then.

Jonathan Walls & Nicholas Surges in then, then. - photo by Jonathan Harvey
Jonathan Walls & Nicholas Surges in then, then. – photo by Jonathan Harvey

A community theatre becomes more than an artistic refuge in Messy Kween Collective’s premiere of Kyle Capstick’s then, then. – directed by Evan Harkai and running at Majlis Art Garden (163 Walnut Avenue).

Part indoors/part outdoors, Majlis Art Garden is a magical place all on its own – and it’s been transformed into a community theatre space for then, then., with audience placed along two sides of the playing area (onstage and off) and the house tented along the sides with white silky fabric, reminiscent of a parachute, and a protective tarp above. The sounds of Billie Holiday fill the space during the pre-show, as our eyes adjust to the fading natural light around us.

As then, then. unfolds, a rehearsal for a new play about a pair of star-crossed lovers becomes a backdrop for personal exploration and revelations as the players practice their craft and explore their inner demons and desires amidst the intermittent, menacing noise of aircraft above. The vintage pop music and sounds of planes overhead (identified as “friendly” or “enemy”), coupled with the costuming (40s for the actors within the play, using Elizabethan costumes for the play they’re rehearsing) give a WWII flavour, but there’s an otherworldly, alternate universe quality to the play that defies time and place. The effect is a curious combination of disorienting and fascinating, and places the focus on the characters, and their memories and responses to events they witness and in which they participate.

Lovely work from the cast in this raw, visceral work – each tapping into his/her vulnerability to bring heart-on-sleeve emotions to the fore. As the company’s director Jack, Jamie Johnson gives a kind, gentle performance; extremely protective of the group, especially his young nephew and ward Brian, Jack soldiers on despite feeling his age as he struggles with his own fears – of safety and of being too old for love. Madeleine Brown is adorably rambunctious as the bright, imaginative, plane-loving Brian; he notices and understands things beyond his years, and reveals them with the earnest frankness of a child. Karie Richards gives a compelling performance as Miriam, a woman of a certain age, and intimidating in her seriousness and professionalism; possessing of a quick, wry wit, she doesn’t suffer fools (or ingenues) gladly, and she has the haunted edge of loss about her, concealing a big heart. Is it just her youth she mourns or is there something else?

Michelle Lewis is lovely as the ingenue Abigail; playful, even coquettish, she is a girl on the verge of womanhood, full of spunk and longing, with an enormous curiosity about love and death. As the young male lead Chris, Jonathan Walls brings a great sense of inner conflict and frustration; undone over a stage kiss that misses the mark, he struggles with a heaviness he can’t put his finger on – and one gets the feeling that he’ll jump out of his skin if he can’t sort things out. As Paul, Nicholas Surges gives us a nuanced performance as a young man who takes in a lot as he watches from the wings; he feels much and uses his sharp, mocking sense of humour to cover his feelings – and it appears he’s secretly in love with one of his colleagues.

With shouts to the designers: Johnny Cann (sound and lighting) and Lindsay Dagger Junkin (costumes) for their beautiful work in creating this world.

Love, death and the magic of the theatre as a company of players mines emotion to uncover individual tragedies in the wistful, otherworldly then, then.

then, then. continues at Majlis Art Garden until September 27; click here for advance tickets.

Photography by Jonathan Harvey