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Review: OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY at Theater J

Review: OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY at Theater J

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story plays at Theater J through September 25th.

With the 2022-2023 theater scene underway, Theater J has opted to lean into its themes of triumph, resilience, hope, and community. The season opener is presented in partnership with the Canadian Embassy, and celebrates the communities we hold on to, and the ones we find.

This season's opening production, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, is based on playwright Hannah Moscovitch's paternal family's journey from Romania to Canada in 1908, and the new life they built in their new land. Following Chaim, a young man who lost his family in the Pogroms, and Chaya, a young woman who lost her husband during her family's escape from Romania to Russia, Old Stock traces their stories as refugees and as a young couple, navigating the intricacies of finding one's place in the world and within the relationships that define us.

Originally produced by 2B theatre company, Old Stock premiered in 2017 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where its first scene takes place. The production, described as a "klezmer musical," has toured Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia, and it feels both fitting as a touring performance and as relevant now as it did five years ago. The show, boldly, refuses to play coy with this sense of relevance - right at the top, Ben Caplan, as the Wanderer, who serves as narrator for the performance, explains to the audience:

Okay, so this Yiddishkeit music thing we're doing. . .

It's about immigrants and Jews and it's about refugees and in particular Jewish refugees

But we hope you can see something of yourself in it. . .

[. . . .]

After all, we all come out of the same box.

Review: OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY at Theater J
The Wanderer (Ben Caplan) in Theater J's presentation of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry playing through September 25. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The production has a unique structure that manages to reflect the story's themes as well. The set (created by Louisa Adamson and Director Christian Barry) is a single piece: a large shipping container (or, I suppose, box) that opens to reveal the performers inside. It's transient, and could be anywhere, from anywhere, but the inside feels homey and familiar. In many ways, Old Stock is almost more of a musical performance with dialogue. The central focus is on the four musicians - Shaina Silver-Baird on violin and vocals; Eric Da Costa on an impressive range of woodwinds as well as vocals; Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion, and Jamie Kronick on percussion - with Silver-Baird and Da Costa stepping to the center for their scenes as Chaya and Chaim (respectively). But, while Chaim and Chaya's tale is the implied focus, what really drives the production is Caplan's musical numbers as The Wanderer. Caplan jovially dances around the stage and engages with the audience, leading clever, insightful renditions of the production's original songs (written, in large part, by Barry and Caplan himself; select songs were also written by Geoff Berner, Danny Rubenstein, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach). The songs, while connected to Chaya and Chaim's tale, go far beyond it; they examine the experiences of refugees in new homes, the struggles of finding your place in the world, how we consider truth, family, and love, especially in the face of adversity and loss. The songs could apply to Chaya and Chaim, or to refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan today, or even to people who have been comfortably stationary but have faced other hardships in their lives. But they're also often uplifting, often funny, and it's hard not to find them enchanting.

Old Stock, fascinatingly, manages to be simultaneously uniquely Jewish and heart-wrenchingly universal. Chaya and Chaim's refugee experience and the lasting impact of their trauma is something most cultures with similar histories can find achingly familiar. Moscovitch's script and Barry's direction beautifully capture the complexities of preserving one's past while facing the future, particularly in the context of starting over: not just in Canada after fleeing Pogroms in Romania, but starting over in love as well. Old Stock is billed as "A Refugee Love Story," but what's particularly striking about it is how that sentence can be read in more than one way. It's a story about refugees who fall in love, but it's also a love story to refugees.

Review: OLD STOCK: A REFUGEE LOVE STORY at Theater J
Chaim (Eric Da Costa) and Chaya (Shaina Silver-Baird) in Theater J's presentation of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry playing through September 25. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Enhancing that is the production team's care to highlight refugee causes and the work being done to support those in need. Both in speeches and in the program, information is provided about local, national, and international organizations working to aid refugees, and Theater J will be hosting special events aimed at highlighting refugee experiences and the work being done to support them.

Incidentally, I really only have one critique of this production: the title. "Old Stock," it's revealed in the show, was the phrase Canadian politicians employed to refer to "true" (read: white) Canadians in the face of what they considered a refugee invasion. The phrase is not only racist and antisemitic, but it also doesn't really fit with the story being told, even if that phrase was specifically weaponized against Canadians like Chaya and Chaim.

Overall, though, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is a beautiful, engaging piece that captures and highlights both refugee experiences and the human experience as a whole. After all, we all come out of the same box.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story plays at Theater J through September 25th. Tickets, accessibility information, and registration for talkbacks and panels on refugee support can be found on the Theater J website. Performance run time is approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

Please note that this production uses some crude language and references violent and traumatic events related to the Pogroms and loss/grief, as well as the use of a siren.

Photo credit for heading: The Wanderer (Ben Caplan) in Theater J's presentation of Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry playing through September 25. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

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From This Author - Rachael F. Goldberg

Rachael is a native New Yorker and life-long theatre devotee. She saw her first Broadway show, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” at age five, and has been hooked ever sinc... (read more about this author)


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