Rich, rambunctious and exhaustingly affective, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story is a klezmer-folk tale that grows progressively bleak yet paradoxically upbeat as the story moves on.
Staged almost entirely in a shipping crate and inspired by the experiences of playwright Hannah Moscovitch‘s grandparents, it follows two Romanian Jewish refugees who meet on the early-20th century threshold of Halifax, Canada, fleeing persecution in their homeland.
Chaim (Dani Oore) is as intractably earnest as Chiya (Mary Fay Coady) is amusingly dour. One sports a rash; the other a cough. Neither are contagious as border authorities suspect, but the young lives of both are already afflicted by terrible loss.
It is not easy for either to settle in this new, cold land. Prejudice hounds them. Misfortunes, too. Traumatic memory lies coiled in the everyday.
Chaim, whose whole family was massacred in a pogrom, imagines trauma as a fracture or crack. In their new lives and bumpy marriage, these fissures can without warning split open, exhuming their horrors and threatening to engulf identity and hope.
Inevitably, fresh cracks appear, too.
Looking in from the sidelines is Ben Caplan, a “theatrical animal” according to director Christian Barry, best known as a contemporary folk-rock singer-songwriter.
Rumpled in a plum-coloured suit, peeping with warm, playful eyes through spectacles and a supernova of beard, Caplan is the audience’s saviour, in a sense. A metafictional figure billed as ‘The Wanderer’, literally on the other side of the crate’s fourth wall, he watches along with us as the plot’s gloom rolls in with seemingly implacable force. Then, at intervals, he interrupts, offering two of the best coping mechanisms that any culture can offer: music and humour.
The humour is distinctively Jewish: self-aware and worldly, jovial and matter-of-fact, and sprinkled with intelligent smut.
For instance, when the couple finally get it on, we are offered an abundantly inventive bag of euphemisms for their conjugal milestone, from “cleaning the cobwebs with the womb broom” to “adult naptime”.
Or, when the audience has sunk into a sombre reverie after some particularly harrowing revelation, Caplan ribs us on how silent we’ve got. Yet, after setting us up to examine our reactions, he orchestrates another, sharper twist – reminding us that while laughter is a vital release from despair, its function is not to diminish or dismiss:
“It’s just fiction, right? This is just a story.” A beat. “That’s a lie.”
Caplan – whose starring role here comes after a 10-year hiatus from the stage – does more than carry off this clever script with spirited aplomb. Accompanied by the two actors on violin, clarinet and backup vocals, plus a drummer and accordionist, he also lends a magnificently growly, sonorous voice.
With all but two songs co-written by himself and Barry (husband of Moscovitch), and many drawn from Caplan’s 2018 album of the same name, the music gives Old Stock a vitality absent (but perhaps not wanting) in other parts of the play.
With the exception of the Caplan, who hops from stage right to left in-between scenes, a profound leadenness marks the movements on stage. Chiya occupies the right side of the crate interior, Chaim the left, and throughout they only step a few paces apiece.
The crate is also set back on the stage, so leaving what seems like a vast black tract separating audience and action. With the actors thus boxed into this potent symbol of ceaseless, freighted movement – which nonetheless has all the interior appearances of a comfortable home – one relates to them across a strangely aching gulf.
Perhaps this was the intention: to induce melancholy, or challenge empathy. Still: it did restrict perspective in the literal sense. While I imagined Chaim’s high, quavering voice was matched by a sweetly sad expression, I couldn’t be sure, as I only ever saw a slice of cheek and a bit of nose.
It was also a surprise to me at the end when a drummer emerged. I hadn’t even realised he was tucked inside the crate’s left corner, seated as I was flush left in Belvoir St Theatre, and musically deaf as I am.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story has its Australian premiere in this year’s Sydney Festival, arriving from Canada festooned with an impressive array of awards and acclaim. It is a joyous addition to the program from theatre company 2b, examining with great compassion the richness of new cultures, the compromises that must be made in living together, the residue of trauma in diasporic refugee communities, and how this trauma contends with the tenacity of human spirit and the miracle of love.
As Barry shared at a UTS Big Thinking talk the following day, the play’s title comes from a quote of Tory leader Stephen Harper during Canada’s 2015 election.
Observing dogwhistle politics and statistics-stoked fear-mongering driving the discourse, Barry was compelled to “consider the question of immigration through a human lens, not a political one.” Quite by coincidence, Barry’s wife – the playwright – came across a piece of her paternal family history around the same time. From there, Old Stock sprang into life.
Must it be said? It shall be said. Given the extent to which our own political leaders on both sides seek to negate the humanity of the Other seeking safe haven in dark times, it is also perhaps an important story for Australian audiences to see too.
“I made it! You made it!” Caplan rejoices at the play’s end. Then: “Others are not so lucky.”
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story also plays the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, January 29-February 2