Created by Christian Barry, Ben Caplan, and Hannah Moscovitch. Directed by Christian Barry. A 2B Theatre Company production, presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Touchstone Theatre, and UBC Theatre and Film. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Friday, January 24. Continues until January 30
It’s more than the sum of its parts, but Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is also less than what it might have been—and similar dualities and contradictions run through the entire show.
Old Stock’s subtitle is apt: this musical tells the true story of Chaim and Chaya, Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who meet, in 1908, in Halifax’s squalid immigrant processing centre, Pier 21. They’re survivors: we quickly learn that his whole family has been slaughtered during one of the pogroms that prefigured the Holocaust, while her husband and infant child perished on a gruelling overland trek out of Romania.
The two are played by Eric Da Costa and Shaina Silver-Baird, who are musicians as well as actors: he performs on clarinet, saxophone, and flute in the powerful on-stage band; she’s a keeningly effective violinist. Da Costa brings simple, moving awe and humility to Chaim, who hopes only for a new life free from horror. Chaya’s role is more static—and, I think, underwritten—but Silver-Baird can say with a glance or a smile what the text only implies. Their courtship is halting, awkward, cursed by ghosts, and tender.
That tenderness, however, is underscored by writer Hannah Moscovitch’s entirely justifiable anger at anti-Semitism. Her script takes its title and its subtext from Stephen Harper’s slickly bigoted 2015 campaign reference to “old-stock Canadians”, a coded call for whites to reject multiculturalism in favour of the patriarchal, corporate status quo.
The rage here is embodied by singer and bandleader Ben Caplan, as a carny-chronicler-narrator-shaman called the Wanderer, whose outsized presence tends to obliterate Chaya and Chaim’s pain and growth, reducing the two protagonists to illustrative stereotypes. He shouts a lot, sometimes through a bullhorn; dances maniacally in theatricalized Ashkenazi garb; and makes the mistake of thinking that outrage, in the 21st century, is effectively conveyed by swearing. And yet he also provides Old Stock’s one truly transcendent moment: donning a tallith, or fringed prayer shawl, he sings a cantorial melody that’s so gorgeous I could have listened to it all night. It’s powerful magic—and seems, in the context of the script, to have convinced God to spare Chaim and Chaya’s young son, Sam, from a fever death.
After that, things quickly gallop to a conclusion. Chaim and Chaya have more children; those kids grow up, go to war, go to university, and continue the line; the elders die. Early incidences of anti-Semitism in Canada are apparently overcome, and little is said about bigotry’s 21st-century resurgence. There’s also no attempt to link the experience of Jewish refugees to more recent influxes of Tamils, Somalis, and Syrians, which is puzzling.
But maybe not all art has to contain a teachable moment. Maybe honouring the ancestors is enough.