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

Preview: Moving modern LGBT take on classic star-crossed lovers in Romeo and (her) Juliet

romeoandjuliet_2-e1406699122751
Leslie McBay (Romeo) & Krystina Bojanowski (Juliet)

Headstrong Collective and Urban Bard took us to the Church of Shakespeare at Bloor Street United Church last night – literally and figuratively – in their preview performance of Romeo and (her) Juliet, directed by Urban Bard A.D. Scott Emerson Moyle, and produced by Headstrong Collective co-founders/producers/actors Melanie Hrymak and Leslie McBay.

Outside the sanctuary, on opposite sides of the doors, are tables with photographs of Tybalt (Hrymak) and Mercutio (Max Tepper), with accompanying guest books and condolence cards. Inside, front and centre, there is a poster-sized photograph of Romeo (McBay) and Juliet (Krystina Bojanowski), an image captured at their wedding. The play is set during a memorial service, and in Friar Laurence’s (Lisa Karen Cox) memory of events from the previous week.

This is a moving, modern-day, queer interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the lovers are both women, as are Benvolio (Clare Blackwood) and Friar Laurence (Cox), while Nurse is Capulet’s male assistant (Shawn Ahmed, who also plays Sgt. Prince, a community liaison officer). Mrs. Capulet (Siobhan Richardson, also doing double duty as fight director) is Capulet’s (Geoffrey Whynot) second wife, with the up and coming Paris (Adrian Shepherd) their prime choice for a son-in-law. The one-line character descriptions in the program read like Facebook status points and the cast reflects the diverse culture of Toronto – and the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues is as much about the one percent vs. the 99 percent as it is about family feud.

McBay and Bojanowski are lovely as the ill-fated teen lovers; McBay’s Romeo is a sensitive romantic, with a melancholy edge and soft butch swagger, and Bojanowski’s Juliet is bright and sweet, unspoiled by her privileged life and looking forward to a sense of independence while away at university. Blackwood and Tepper give strong – and often comic – performances as Romeo’s BFFs: the streetwise and protective Benvolio (Blackwood) and party boy Fool Mercutio (Tepper). Hrymak’s Tybalt is nicely nuanced – haughty and proud, but not without conscience in her drive to defend her family’s reputation. Whynot carries Capulet’s alpha male power well, his angry outbursts hinting at the potential for physical violence; Richardson’s Mrs. Capulet, step-mother to Juliet, is a compelling contradiction of chilly Rosedale matron whose emotions run deep and intense. Cox does a beautiful job as Laurence, the supportive community cleric, as well as mentor and friend to Romeo – caught in the middle of a family war and desperately trying to resolve it. Doing double acting duty, Ahmed is the picture of efficiency and warmth as Nurse, and equally supportive, but at the end of his patience, as Sgt. Prince; and Adrian Shepherd gives us a perfectly coiffed and well-mannered Paris, with a hint of bad boy beneath the golden boy exterior, and a nice turn as the wary street-dwelling drug dealer who begrudgingly sells Romeo the deadly poison.

The site-specific venue works incredibly well for this production of Shakespeare’s timeless classic tale of star-crossed love – and the 90-minute abridged version of the script hits all the important plot points and sweet spots the audience needs to become immersed in the story. In the end, are bereft and grieving – including the audience.

With shouts to composer Stephen Joffe for the moving atmospheric soundtrack; and stage manager Christina Abes for keeping things running smoothly and at a good pace in the complex, multi-level playing space.

Headstrong Collective/Urban Bard production of Romeo and (her) Juliet is a powerful contemporary urban interpretation, beautifully staged and truthfully acted. Go see this.

Romeo and (her) Juliet opens tomorrow night (Fri, Sept 5) and runs until Sept 20 at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor Street West at Huron); entrance is on the Bloor St. side, around the middle of the building. You can purchase tickets at the door 30 minutes before the show or online here. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time; the show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.