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Theatre Reviews Hannah Moscovitch’s Old Stock is richly humorous, wildly entertaining and deeply moving

The splicing together of the controversial phrase 'old stock' – infamously used by Stephen Harper during the 2015 federal election – with 'refugee' acts like a rebuke to us-and-them thinking.

Title: Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Written by: Hannah Moscovitch

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Songs by: Ben Caplan and Christian Barry

Genre: Musical

Director: Christian Barry

Actors: Ben Caplan, Dani Oore, Mary Fay Coady

Company: 2b theatre

Venue: Tarragon Theatre

City: Toronto

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Year: Runs to Sunday, May 26

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Old-soul playwright Hannah Moscovitch has continually dipped into history for inspiration. She did it right from the beginning in such early work as her Stalin-era The Russian Play (getting a revival at the Shaw Festival this year) and as recently as last season’s pre-birth control drama What a Young Wife Ought to Know. It may have only been a matter of time, then, before she wrote a play about her own history – or, to be precise, that of her family.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, receiving its long-awaited Toronto premiere at Tarragon Theatre, dramatizes and musicalizes the meeting and marriage of Chaim and Chaya, two Romanian Jewish immigrants based on Moscovitch’s own paternal great-grandparents. And while it draws from the past, the title alone tells you how much it relates to the present.

That splicing together of the controversial phrase “old stock” – infamously used by Stephen Harper during the 2015 federal election – with “refugee” acts like a rebuke to us-and-them thinking. It’s enough to remind us that refugees have long been part of the bedrock of Canada’s population. Old Stock celebrates that fact by turning Chaim and Chaya’s story into a dark but lively klezmer revue filled with songs that speak both to their specific Jewish-immigrant experiences and to the universal ones of all refugees, then and now.

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Our host is the Wanderer, a.k.a. flamboyant singer-songwriter Ben Caplan, who bursts out of the play’s shipping-container set sporting a patriarch’s beard and a showman’s top hat. Sure enough, he’s part rowdy carnival barker, part rabbi, cracking rude jokes and dispensing wry wisdom in equal measure. He’s here to sing and narrate Chaya and Chaim’s tale, which begins in 1908 on a Halifax pier.

It’s there that 19-year-old Chaim takes a shine to 24-year-old Chaya as the two immigrants wait in line to be processed. He’s fresh from Romania and alone, his entire family having been slaughtered in a pogrom. She’s from Romania by way of Russia and has arrived with a large extended family. They’ve endured starvation and disease, and Chaya has already lost a husband to typhus.

Chaim, eager and optimistic, eventually wins over the wary, cynical Chaya when they meet again later, in Montreal. They marry, Chaim gets a good job working for the railway, and they start a family. Along the way, they encounter anti-Semitism in an early-20th-century Quebec where the newspapers rail against immigrants threatening the “old stock.” They also undergo personal strife in their marriage, until a near-tragedy brings them closer together.

Their simple tale is told by Moscovitch with wit, empathy and insight. It’s embellished by Caplan’s klezmer-infused songs, co-penned with the show’s director, Christian Barry, in which the Wanderer offers his pointed commentary. At times he’s bawdy, turning the Talmudic rules for a man’s “conjugal duties” into a litany of the countless comic metaphors for sex. At other times, his sarcasm gives way to growling anger – or to soothing lyricism. At the birth of Chaya and Chaim’s first child, he sings a beautiful lullaby in a raggedly tender style that recalls Tom Waits.

Caplan is backed by the four-member band of Dani Oore (reeds), Mary Fay Coady (violin), Graham Scott (keyboard and accordion) and Jamie Kronick (percussion). Oore and Coady also sing and double as Chaim and Chaya, respectively. They are utterly charming in the roles, Oore as a gentle, soulful-eyed Chaim, Coady as a laconic, ironic Chaya. The 90-minute show is performed inside that container set, designed by Barry and Louisa Adamson, which is both symbolic and pragmatic, being built to travel from town to town.

Old Stock is a guest production by Halifax’s 2b theatre – run by Barry, Moscovitch’s husband – and had its premiere in that city in 2017. The show is belatedly visiting the Tarragon, the playwright’s Toronto home base, in the middle of an ongoing tour that has already seen it play Edinburgh, New York, England, the Netherlands and Australia, not to mention various Canadian cities. Clearly it chimes with the current refugee crisis facing the world.

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When Chaim has harrowing flashbacks to the atrocities of the pogrom, they remind us of the trauma that many of today’s war refugees carry with them. And the xenophobia he endures as a Jew is no different from that being experienced by many Muslims today. But Moscovitch also presents the other side, acknowledging – albeit, questioning – the natural fear and suspicion that many people feel when strangers arrive unexpectedly at their door.

“We hope you can see something of yourself in it,” Caplan’s Wanderer tells us when he introduces Chaim and Chaya’s story. It seems impossible not to. Richly humorous, wildly entertaining and deeply moving, this is a show to touch refugee and old stock alike.

Old Stock continues to May 26. (tarragontheatre.com)

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