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Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – hilarious, devastating, political

by | Jan 25, 2020 | Review | 2 comments

2b theatre, Touchshtone and the Freddy Wood are co-presenting Old Stock at the PuSh Festival.

Ben Caplan summons superhuman energy in Old Stock (Photo by Fadi Acra)

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is equal parts outraged and outrageous, compassionate and hilarious — klezmer concert and play.

It’s a fictionalized account of the marriage of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s great grandparents, Chaim and Chaya, who met in Halifax in 1908. Both were refugees fleeing antisemitic pogroms in Romania. Chaim is the only surviving member of his immediate family and Chaya has suffered tragedies that are revealed later. The play’s moving central question, expressed in song, is “Where can I turn now that all my beginnings are burned? … What love can heartbreak allow?”

But don’t get me wrong; Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is also madly entertaining. Moscovitch mines the comedy of resilience. Ben Caplan, who created this piece with Moscovitch and director Christian Barry — writing a good deal of the music — stars as a narrator/klezmer musician called the Wanderer. Yes, Jews are God’s chosen people, the Wanderer tells us, “but chosen for what?” And, in the face of death, Eros asserts itself — often saucily. “Judaism is very enthusiastic about … fucking,” the Wanderer inform us. Later, trying not to be so explicit, he searches for euphemisms: “adult nap time … interior decorating … parking the big bus in tuna town.”

Caplan’s performance is as big as his beard, which is huge. Especially off the top, Caplan growls/sings his lyrics — kind of like Tom Waits but with a sweeter tone and bigger range — leaning so heavily into the dynamics that it’s like he’s possessed by the songs. And he dances like a fiend. Although I appreciate the skill of this performance, it’s so stylized that I also found it alienating off the top. But, as the evening deepens, so does the Wanderer’s emotional groove. In one of the passages that moved me most, Caplan sings prayers — with absolute simplicity and purity.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more charming performance than Eric Da Costa’s work as Chaim. When Chaim first meets Chaya, he’s 19 to her 24, and Da Costa’s Chaim is so smitten, so unabashed, so openhearted that I pretty much fell in love with him. When Chaya circles Chaim at their wedding, his gaze on her is as sweet as nectar. And there’s a dark passage in which Chaim listens as the Wanderer takes him into a flashback: the memory of discovering his family members after a pogrom. It’s devastating — partly because of Da Costa’s ability to stay present with it.

In comparison, Shaina Silver-Baird’s portrait of Chaya felt superficial to me at first, but it engaged me more and more as the evening progressed.

The story that Moscovitch tells is resonant on so many levels. Who hasn’t been damaged? Who hasn’t struggled to love?

And Old Stock is deliberately, flamingly political. The title, of course, refers to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s use of the term “old-stock Canadians” to fuel — in the views of many — anti-immigrant sentiment. There’s also a reference to Harper’s promise to create a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line, an even clearer attempt to capitalize on racism. I don’t think you could watch Old Stock without thinking of Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans religious symbols and disproportionately affects Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews. And then there are the Trump administration’s crimes against Latinx children and their families.

As the Wanderer says, “We all sometimes find ourselves knocking on the door hoping to be let in.”

In one of Old Stock’s recurring phrases, characters say, “May no more harm befall you.” Amen.

OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry. A 2b theatre production. Presented with Touchstone Theatre, UBC’s department of theatre and film, and the Push Festival as part of PuSh. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Friday, January 24.  Continues until January 30. Tickets.


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  1. mrransMartha

    A small quibble Colin. The “antisemitic violence” were a series of pogroms and should be named as such. My grandparents like most of the Jews who came to Canada at the turn of the last century came from a diversity of shtetls from what is now Lithuania down to what once was Yugoslavia. Entire Jewish communities were wiped out. We are talking about a major series of cataclysmic events not a singular act of “antisemitic violence”.

    • Colin Thomas

      Good point. Thanks, Martha. I don’t think that anyone would be left with the impression that there was a singular act, but I’ve made the change.


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