The Canada Scene Festival at the National Arts Centre (NAC) has been a highlight of this summer in Ottawa. Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, the festival presented a wide selection of first class music, theatre, dance and visual arts productions by Canadians from across the country.
As a music lover, I attended some wonderful Canada Scene concerts at the NAC. But the absolute highlight, for me, was the magnificent production of “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story,” a musical theatre piece created by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who grew up in Ottawa, singer-songwriter Ben Caplan and director Christian Barry of the Halifax-based 2b theatre company.
As the show opens, we meet Caplan as The Wanderer, the play’s narrator, a constant presence who sings the songs (most of which Caplan co-wrote with director Barry), tells stories, jokes with the audience, dances, and even puts on a tallit to perform a wedding. Caplan, bearded like an Old World Chasid, is larger than life on stage playing The Wanderer with seemingly wild abandon – like a cross between Tevye and Tom Waits. While Caplan is definitely the star and always on stage, he also fades into the background when necessary.
“Old Stock” tells the story of Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, Chaim and Chaya, Jewish refugees fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms. Fresh off the boat in 1908, Chaim, 19, who had lost his family in a pogrom, and Chaya, already a widow at 24, meet briefly in a line to see the doctor at Pier 2 in Halifax (the forerunner to Pier 21), the entry point to Canada for immigrants and refugees from Europe at the time. Chaim was sent to the line because he had a rash and typhus had to be ruled out before he could be admitted into the country. Chaya was there because of a cough that, she insisted, was not tuberculosis.
The story picks up again in Montreal. Chaim, who was smitten with the cynical Chaya at first meeting, arranges a match with her through her father, and we see their hard life unfold in early-20th century Montreal. Although “Old Stock” is often very funny, it is a refugees’ story filled with great tragedy (and, ultimately, joy).
In addition to Caplan, there are four other musicians on stage including clarinetist Chris Weatherstone, violinist Mary Fay Coady, Graham Scott on accordion and keyboard, and Ottawa-based drummer Jamie Kronick. The songs and music – encompassing klezmer, folk, cabaret, rock, and even free jazz styles – are central to the play and are brilliantly performed by Caplan, who adds his banjo and guitar playing to several of the numbers, and the band.
As key musicians, Weatherstone and Coady sit with the band while playing music. But they also stand up and move to the centre of the set as the central characters of Chaim (Weatherstone) and Chaya (Coady). Their constant transitions from musicians to actors are seamless – thanks, no doubt, to Barry’s direction.
Based on the lives of Hannah Moscovitch’s paternal great-grandparents, “Old Stock” is a specifically Jewish story that many of us can relate to. My own grandparents arrived in Canada from Eastern Europe in that same era. It is also a universal story will resonate with the successive waves of refugees and immigrants (and their children and grandchildren) who have continued to arrive in Canada over the 109 years since Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch got off the boat in Halifax.
The production was brilliantly staged and the play – which made me both laugh and cry – reminded me to appreciate the sacrifices and hard lives of my own ancestors.
The four-performance run of “Old Stock” at the NAC’s Azrieli Studio was all too brief. Chatting with Caplan at the opening night reception, I told him that I hoped the show would return to Ottawa for a longer run. He said discussions were underway to, hopefully, make that happen. I’m certainly anxious to see it again.
A warning though, “Old Stock” has mature themes and is not suitable for young children or those offended by profane language and/or frank references to sexuality.