Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is a new musical by the trio of Hannah Moscovitch (“the wunderkind of Canadian theatre,” says the CBC); Moscovitch’s husband, Christian Barry (who also directs); and singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who also wrote most of the songs). A winner at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it’s now playing off Broadway through April 22.
Old Stock is the (mostly true) story of Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, two Jewish refugees who fled Romanian pogroms to arrive in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1908. (“A man and a woman leave a country full of wolves for a country full of … actual wolves,” drily explains the narrator/tour guide/troubadour/snarky sideline commentator, played by Caplan.)
This particular shtetl-escape story doesn’t offer up the bottle-dance-y spectacle of a Fiddler production or the sentimental pastel glow of a Chagall painting. It’s writ small and snarky. There are only two characters: Chaya Yankovitch (played by Mary Fay Coady, who also plays violin) and Chaim Moskovitch (played by Chris Weatherstone, who also plays woodwinds). They’re no Tzeitel and Motel, brimming with passion. They’re not even Tevye and Golde, gruff but loving. They seem utterly ill-matched, like two people from two different stories. Chaya is guarded and angry; Chaim is doggedly optimistic and passionate. As they find their way toward each other and toward parenthood—in poetic dialogue and in clever, witty, sometimes gorgeous songs—the play gains poignancy.
Caplan, Coady, and Weatherstone are joined on stage by Jamie Kronick on drums and Graham Scott on piano and accordion. Just five people. The set, too, is minimal: All the action takes place in and around a large shipping container, the kind of corrugated steel freight transport that has entirely too much resonance in Jewish history.
But the play doesn’t dwell, doesn’t luxuriate in sorrow. Like a new immigrant in a harsh and inhospitable new country, it moves along. Moscovitch’s writing is sometimes elegiac, sometimes foul-mouthed and hilarious. It revels in jarring juxtapositions. I can’t think of another play that contains both the El Maleh Rachamim prayer and the phrase “sooooo eminently fuckable.” (Weatherstone also brings forth amazing sex sounds from a clarinet.) There is an eye-opening litany of terms for heteronormative penetrative sex (“cleaning the cobwebs with the womb broom” was new to me), but also a lullaby (“Now Is the Quiet”) brimming with musical and lyrical beauty, and a complex love song (aptly called “Love Song”), sung in a round, teeming with heartbreak and loss.
The music really, really works. Alas, I had issues with Caplan as a performer. He growls like the demon offspring of Tom Waits and a Tuvan throat singer, mugs like Weird Al, and ha-cha-cha-chas like Dr. Teeth of the Electric Mayhem. (Man and Muppet both wear purple velvet top hats—what are the odds?) Caplan’s shtick sometimes sucks all the air out of the room. But Coady’s and Weatherstone’s performances keep Old Stock grounded in humanity. Both sing and play their instruments beautifully, and both have an angular beauty (Coady looks like Brie Larson with resting bitch face, and my colleague Rokhl Kafrissen rightly called Weatherstone “gorgeous, chiseled of jaw, super un-Jewy”). The play’s writing is stylized, but Coady and Weatherstone seem to inhabit their complicated, sometimes lost characters fully. I found the end of the show, a line traced from this difficult turn-of-the-century marriage to the present day, surprisingly moving.
After I saw the show, I asked Moscovitch whether she’d always been interested in her family history. “Not even a little bit,” she said with a laugh. But after her son was born in 2015, her family members in Toronto and Ottawa kept coming to visit her in Halifax, and she was desperately looking for tourist-y activities. She found Pier 21, Canada’s equivalent of the Ellis Island Museum. “There’s an office in the back, and my aunt Enid Moscovitch said, ‘Let’s look up our family!’ I got really into it—we found the names of the boats they came in on; we followed them for years through the census … and the people in the office are so helpful! We followed Chaim as he moved from factory work to the railways, and as his name shifted—Chaim went from Harry to Charles, and he vacillated between those names. We saw my grandfather Sam’s bar mitzvah on a registry, we saw war records … our minds were blown!”
The play was born out of Barry’s desire to work with Caplan, whose music he loved. “No one invited me into the project, and I said, ‘You should have me write it!’” Moscovitch said. They decided to address the refugee crisis after seeing that indelible photo of a little Syrian boy’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey. “Alan Kurdi’s family had been trying to come to Canada,” Moscovitch said. “He was a potential citizen of our country. His aunt lives here and was trying to big him over. And ‘old stock’ was a phrase used by our former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, talking about how [bogus] refugees were not entitled to be in our health care system. Only ‘old-stock Canadians.’ It felt like a dog whistle to racists. And it made me ask the question: Who is old stock? Are we old stock? Am I old stock if my family came here in 1908?” The trio continued mulling over how to address the topic in their work, until “one day my husband came running downstairs naked from the shower, yelling, ‘It’s about your family!’” Moscovitch recalled. “He put it together.”
Like American Jews, Canadian Jews experienced discrimination but also became part of the country’s larger culture. Between 1880 and 1930, Canada’s Jewish population grew to over 155,000. Old Stock’s program notes pointedly, “Over the next hundred years Canada would accept thousands of refugees escaping war and persecution from places such as Hungary, Chile, Uganda, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslavia. … Unfortunately, Islamophobia and xenophobic attitudes are still alive and well in Canada, making the transition even more difficult for refugees from these areas.”
Moscovitch observed, “Jews are kind of on a hate break in Canada right now. But I wanted to use my own story to ask questions. My son was born two months before Alan Kurdi drowned. Having your own child can make things not theoretical, but actual. That little boy was an actual child. He could have been my child.”
When Canada’s Conservative leadership was ousted and Justin Trudeau came into office, he invited thousands of refugees into Canada. (One was a Syrian violinist, Sari Alesh, who worked with Moscovitch and Barry on another project, a play about the Holocaust hero and children’s rights defender Janusz Korczak.) The lessons of regime change and of history weren’t lost on Moscovitch and Barry. “We thought, ‘We know from the inside what this story is.’” Moscovitch said. “’Let us not forget. Let us not forget that we are these people.’”
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