Review: Inventive, engaging and hopeful, Old Stock opens up the immigrants’ story

Ben Caplan plays The Wanderer in Old Stock. Photo: Stoo Metz photography

You may never look at a shipping container the same way after seeing Old Stock. Starring Halifax singer-songwriter-actor Ben Caplan, a luxuriantly bearded lad with a grand voice and a remarkable flair for entertaining, the music-play hybrid opens with a closed shipping container at centre stage.

As blandly anonymous on the exterior as any container, this one swings opens to reveal a four-piece band and the intimate story of two early-20th-century Jewish refugees who fled from Romania to Canada – refugees who are played by a couple of the musicians.

When the show’s over, the container doors close and your own life goes on, richer for what you’ve seen and heard. It’s a wonderful conceit for a set, this shipping container from who knows where. Designed by Louisa Adamson, Christian Barry and Andrew Cull, it suggests everything from foreign shores to life’s transience to the search for a permanent home, all themes in this smartly textured show.

Caplan is our narrator. He remains outside the container, commenting on but never interacting with what’s happening inside. His outsized character – he sings, he dances; one minute carnival barker and the next a cantor — is named simply The Wanderer and he fulfills the archetypal role associated with that name, observing a world of which he’s at once part and not part. Often funny, The Wanderer is a frequently unreliable narrator whose job it is, in part, to use indirection to help us find the way.

The story is that of Chaim (Chris Weatherstone) and Chaya (Mary Fay Coady).  Fresh off the boat at Pier 21 in Halifax – once Canada’s equivalent of America’s Ellis Island – the two meet when he’s 19 and she’s 24. They each carry deep scars from the anti-Semitism that drove them from their home but manage to work out a marriage that grows in strength as they carve out a life for themselves in Montreal. There are some exceedingly dark passages about their respective backgrounds, told with spellbinding conviction by Weatherstone and Coady and given perspective by The Wanderer’s commentaries.

Written by playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who based Old Stock on the story of her paternal family, and with songs by Caplan and Barry (who also directs), the storyline shifts backward and forward in time and from place to place. The effect is one of a tale that’s at once rooted in particulars but universal, and that strategy draws us in. “It’s about immigrants … Jewish refugees. Hopefully you’ll see something of yourself,” says The Wanderer at the outset. Gripping from beginning to end and with themes of family, alienation and love stitching it together, it would be impossible not to see something of yourself in the tale.

The music, while much of it is klezmer-influenced, also shifts ground, from folky ballads to near-chaotic jazz lines. In that and other ways, Old Stock is a bit like The Man from God Knows Where, American singer-songwriter Tom Russell’s estimable 1999 immigrant song cycle. If you know the album, you may also spot similarities between The Outcast, the outrageous character portrayed by the late Dave Van Ronk on the record, and The Wanderer in his wilder moments.

(On opening night, there was a poor balance between instruments and voices, such that the songs’ lyrics were sometimes inaudible. That was a shame because the lyrics that were audible were by turns clever, hilarious and evocative.)

You’ll find other echoes – deliberate or otherwise — in the show. That includes its title, which presumably references former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s use of the term “old-stock Canadians” during a federal election debate in 2015. Harper was widely castigated for using the term, which seemed to be part and parcel of a politics of division.

This show, in keeping with much of the theatre presented at Canada Scene, is about division. But like those others, it’s also about survival in the face of divisive forces and the potential for healing and unity. It gives hope, which we need these days and which The Wanderer, despite his jaded side, would doubtless applaud.

Old Stock is a 2b theatre company (Halifax, N.S.) production, co-produced by the NAC. It was reviewed Thursday. In the Azrieli Studio (NAC) until July 15. Tickets:

Share Post
Written by

Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.