Theater J’s ‘Old Stock’ takes the immigrant saga to Canada

Ben Caplan as The Wanderer. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography

We Jews are wanderers. It’s both an intergenerational curse and survival mechanism. That trunks, satchels and suitcases have always been at the ready, for us to pick up and flee from danger, when life-threatening antisemitism rears its head.

The Canadian musical “Old Stock” leans into the particularly Eastern European Ashkenazi propensity for emigration in the wake of brutally murderous pogroms in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The musical drama channels itinerant Jewish roots by drawing on the music of our ancestors — klezmer — often featuring a band of traveling musicians on violin, clarinet, accordion and, in this production, an added drumkit.

“Old Stock,” playing at Theater J at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center through Sept. 25, comes to Washington from Nova Scotia’s 2B theatre, where it premiered in 2017. Based on a piecemeal family history of playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s Romanian-born grandparents, who fled, separately, to Canada following a pogrom, the work blends cabaret, klezmer and an O. Henry-esque love story.

Created collaboratively by Moscovitch; her husband and the play’s director, Christian Barry; and singer/songwriter/guitarist Ben Caplan, the work toggles between the Old World and new, hearkening back to grand- and great-grandparents’ half-told memories, but also capturing the 21st century mores with its forward-thinking gaze.

As The Wanderer, Caplan says: “It’s about immigrants, and Jews … and refugees, 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.”

The imposing set, a tractor-sized Russian-red shipping container fills the Goldman Theater’s stage, while the audience takes seats beneath twinkling party lights. Opening up like a music box or dollhouse, the container reveals a playing space, packed with a quartet of musicians. Bushy bearded Caplan serves as the klezmer band’s badchan, or emcee, in his colorfully boho top hat and tails. He sings through gritted teeth in gravelly voice a ballad of his wandering: “I have a home … it’s just in an inconvenient place.” Later he channels a sweeter, even cantorial voice, along with a Dylanesque troubadour.

The Wanderer narrates this “Refugee Love Story,” in both wry and sinister ways. Finally, he breaks the fourth wall, gruffly addressing the audience: “You made it! Others were not so lucky.” In storytelling mode, he introduces Chaim and Chaya, who meet for the first time in 1908 in an Ellis Island-like immigration center in Halifax. Chaim is alone, having lost his family back in Romania at the hands of antisemitic mobs. Chaya reports her whole family has made the journey.

Chaim is effusive, clearly smitten; Chaya, laconic, enigmatically reserved. The mismatched couple marries and builds a life together in Montreal, although not without painful episodes. Throughout, Shaina Silver-Baird as Chaya, accompanies on violin while Eric Da Costa plays woodwinds — clarinet, saxophone and flute. They sing as well, to one another, and in internal monologues as they reflect on their separate pasts — losing or leaving loved-ones behind to build life anew across the ocean in Canada.

And not all goes smoothy in their new home. The title refers to the Canadian phrase “old stock,” referring to European immigrants who had been settled in Canada for multiple generations, as opposed to the newly migrated Jewish and other immigrants of the era.

The klezmer music threaded through the 85-minute intermission-less play is more than the simple happy freilachs most people associate with the Yiddish-inflected music. Klezmer, a bit of a portmanteau word, derives from klei and zamir — vessels and song. Thus, klezmer music —frequently played by musicians traveling from shtetl to shtetl carrying their instruments — represents “vessels of song.” It is the music of a people, carried from place to place, bridging the cultural divides, while preserving connections to the past. In taking this journey, klezmer, too, is an immigrant or refugee, adapting and adopting to each new locale, each new generation.

Caplan and Barry composed the majority of the music in “Old Stock” — save for the popular wedding song “Od Yishama” by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the ballad-like “Traveler’s Curse” and “Happy People.” But none of the music represents or sounds exactly like old-school klezmer from the early 20th century, save, of course, for the insistent use of the minor key. The composers draw influences from as disparate genres as rock and roll, country, punk, folk-rock, even a nod or two to Canadian Jewish troubadour Leonard Cohen.

Additionally, the writers rarely use a Yiddish phrase or word, yet they maintain the earthy vernacular in their almost wholly English script. That includes at least a few from George Carlin’s seven dirty words list. The earthiness of Yiddish vernacular, makes epithets like drek and shtup, sound less “dirty” on stage than hearing them in English.

“Old Stock” tackles an age-old tale of migration with sensitivity and wry moments of humor. Intertwined with this tale of finding home in a new world, is another equally heartfelt story of learning to love fully. But there’s nothing old-fashioned about this klezmer-infused musical. The fresh approach the creators have taken in staging, storytelling and music composition that sounds simultaneously edgy and timeless makes this one of the strongest Theater J productions on its stage in recent years.

“Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” by 2B theatre company, through Sept. 25. Theater J at the Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington. Tickets $44-$84. Call 202-777-3210
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