Hannah Moscovitch has a rare gift for portraying sincere, nuanced relationships. To watch her characters on stage is to live their moments of pain, joy, and intimacy along with them. In her best works, the connection between characters leads the story, with social commentary powerfully rounding out the edges. In Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, presented by 2b Theatre (Halifax) at the National Arts Centre, she flips the formula and tries to let social commentary take the lead. The result is a messy and overall jarring show made up of various parts that are incongruous with each other, both in style and substance.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story presents the story of Moscovitch’s great-grandparents Chaim and Chaya, two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania and religious persecution, who find each other and start a new life in Canada. The story is narrated mostly through song by singer-songwriter Ben Caplan, who created the piece along with Moscovitch and director/songwriter Christian Barry, and is told through a mixture of styles, including musical storytelling, standup comedy, and action.
The set is composed of a shipping container with two platforms laden with memorabilia of life, both old world and new, from which Caplan sings and talks. The rest of the action is framed by and happens within the container. The set is both lush and sparse and its multi-layered setting is complemented by Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry’s effectively evocative lighting.
As is expected, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is at its strongest when it focuses on the relationship between Chaya and Chaim and showcase their vulnerability and growth as characters. Their relationship starts off far from ideal and there are moments when Coady and Da Costa do a great job of conveying the distance the ghosts of their pasts create between them, as well as the slow process of learning to trust and growing in affection for each other. Their longing – for a child, for safety, for love – is just as overwhelming as their cautious joy in finding a future and joy in each other.
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between in the almost hour and a half long production, and their emotional crescendos are undermined by narration and songs that are too far removed from the heart of the story. Caplan is a force to be reckoned with, bringing warmth, energy, and charm to his performance. However, even his beautiful voice cannot hide a text that’s overwrought and tries too hard to tell, instead of show, its relevance, or that the connection between the songs and story is often tenuous at best. Additionally, while Coady and Da Costa both have great moments, their portrayal of Chaim and Chaya is so wooden and deliberate in the first half of the show that they came off as more stereotypes than living people.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story attempts to be all things to all people – a lewd comedy, a sentimental story, a musical, a stand-up comedy – which creates a jumble which prevents the audience from properly connecting to any of its parts, let alone the show as a whole. The text is too heavy-handed with metaphors and doesn’t trust its audience to form the connection between past and present on their own. It spends too much time explaining the jokes and ensuring to punctuate each serious moment with a laugh. This is accompanied by awkward attempts to convince of its edginess by swearing and constantly using euphemisms for sex. We get it and the 12-year-old in us is titillated and a little bit scandalized; the rest of us are cringing and bored with yesterday’s taboo.
Any of these various parts would have been fine on their own. The problem is that the show tries too hard to push them together without working hard enough on a seamless transition between them that it ends up resembling Frankenstein’s monster – a mess of messages and styles that drag on much longer than the sweet and important story at its core.
The story of immigration is not only important right now, during these increasingly chaotic times; it is the very fabric with which Canada has weaved its identity. It deserves stories that speak to a shared human experience- after all, most of us are searching for the same safety and love as Chaim and Chaya. By focusing so much on diversity of content and by burdening itself with cumbersome explanations, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story loses focus and muddles its message.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story runs at the National Arts Centre until October 27, 2019, in the Babs Asper Theatre.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.