Theatre Review: Factory & Selfconscious Productions/We Keep Coming Back

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

Factory & Selfconscious Productions/We Keep Coming Back co-created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Nov. 14 to Nov. 25. Tickets available at 416.504.9971 or factorytheatre.ca.

 We Keep Coming Back is a chaotic production that is also absolutely compelling. As proof of the interest that the play generates, after every performance there is a discussion with the cast, and the night I attended, every member of the audience stayed for the talk.

The play is essentially a docudrama that is (mostly) true – their brackets, not mine. Co-creators Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley are drawn to the stories of real people as raw material for theatre, and these real people usually end up in the performance, even though they have no stage experience. Such is the case of We Keep Coming Back.

 As a point of background, Rubenfeld and his mother, Mary Berchard, have a difficult relationship. Berchard is the child of Holocaust survivors. Rubenfeld had the idea that if the two of them went to Poland and visited the birthplaces of her parents, this trip into family history might help bring mother and son closer together. They found Katka Reszke, their translator and guide for the trip, through a Google search, and we see her job interview via Skype. Thus the cast of We Keep Coming Back includes Rubenfeld, Berchard and Reszke, with mother and son tied together by a rope. Director Stanley does not appear in the play, but went along on the trip as cameraperson, archivist, and buffer between mother and son.

The performance itself is a mad scramble propelled by Rubenfeld’s frenetic energy. The other two are far more low key. Apparently there is no written script, the structure being a series of scenes that they perform together. Designer Trevor Schwellnus has created a bombardment of projections that include maps, diagrams, photographs, movies and drawings, many of which the cast write upon for further explanation. Several times Rubenfeld runs to fetch a ladder so he can reach the high places of the projections. A bed detaches to create two seats so it can become a car or a living area. The performance always seems to be in motion.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The plot, such as it is, goes off on many tangents, because, I surmise, there was so much the co-creators wanted to say. We of course get details of the actual trip to the two ancestral villages, as well as the harrowing pilgrimage to Auschwitz, which Berchard’s mother survived. Her father had managed to jump off one of the death trains and was found by the partisans.

An important subplot is about “generation unexpected” – present day Jews living in Poland. In many cases, such as Reszke’s family, their Jewishness was deliberately concealed and children were raised as Catholics, only to have the truth revealed in deathbed confessions. To Rubenfeld, “generation unexpected” is a revelation, including meeting the fetching Magda Koralewska from Poland at a Jewish conference in Montreal. His long-distance romance with Magda is a distraction from his commitments to his mother.

The dynamics between the three on-stage personalities is endlessly fascinating, as are their family histories. We also get philosophical discourse along the way, as well as culture clashes and stories of lives lived. Poland itself is given a kinder mantle, and we are told, for example, that there are more Poles honoured in Yad Vashem, Isreal’s Holocaust Museum, for saving Jews, than any other nation.

Rubenfeld comes across as a total jerk who is so self-absorbed in his own interpretation of events that he continually misses the bigger picture. During the post-performance discussion, he did explain that he and Stanley thought it was important to include his closed mind and constricted world view in the play. Berchard is sarcastic and funny, and castigates her son when she has to. She’s a charmer. Reszke functions as the conscience of the play, attempting to shake Rubenfeld out of his narrow vision. For a non-actor, she seems quite comfortable on the stage, as does Berchard.

Nonetheless, it is the tension and clash of ideas between Rubenfeld and the other two that provides the most food for thought. For example, in the forest near his grandmother’s village, there is large concrete slab that sits over a mass grave of 800 murdered Jews. A large tree has managed to grow through the concrete. For Rubenfeld, the dead Jews are fertilizer for the tree. The other two, and I’m sure the bulk of the audience, including myself, see that tree as something beautiful, as the triumph of life over death.

We Keep Coming Back is not a new play. It has been touring Canada and Poland for three years. Yet there are two sections that should be excised from the play forthwith, and it’s surprising that they are still there. At two points, the house lights come up and Rubenfeld asks the audience a specific question. The moments are awkward and embarrassing and add nothing to the performance. In fact, judging from some of the answers, audience members were irritated.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The first question is, should Rubenfeld use the trip to visit Magda, or should he remain committed to the promise he made to his mother that they would see Poland together. The second question is in questionable taste. Rubenfeld is arguing with Reszke about whose “Jewish” experience is more traumatic – Rubenfeld as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, or Reszke’s accidental discovery of her “fake Catholicism” and real Jewish identity? As one audience member sharply pointed out – “Should this be a win or lose situation?”

We Keep Coming Back raises significant questions about the past, present and future of Judaism and Poland, which makes the play a worthy theatrical experience. My companion and I certainly talked about the performance all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concert Preview: Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Introduction to Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Two extraordinary concerts are taking place at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Fri. Oct. 27 and Fri. Nov. 3, which marks the third incarnation of Unsound Toronto, the brainchild of Unsound Festival artistic director Mat Schulz and executive director Malgorzata (Gosia) Plysa, based in Krakow, Poland.

Those first two ground-breaking manifestations took place at the derelict Hearn Generating Station in 2015 and 2016 as part of the Luminato Festival. They created a sensation with their unique sound and light show that included experimental music and innovative visuals. The 2017 edition continues with the same sort of brilliant programming.

Halloween High (Oct. 27) features live music with dance and film. The program opens with a screening of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi thriller and cult film, Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, based on Michel Faber’s unsettling futuristic 2000 novel. Academy Award-nominated composer Mica Levi’s original soundtrack is played live by the Unsound Toronto Ensemble led by rising star Canadian conductor Evan Mitchell. The second part features revered American electronica musician Jlin playing her original score for Autobiography Edits, a new dance piece by acclaimed British choreographer Wayne McGregor, associate artist at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The movement is inspired by McGregor’s DNA and the sequencing of his own genome.

Halloween Hangover (Nov. 3) is all about international, cutting edge new music and mind-blowing visual technology. Poland’s legendary Ksiezyc (which means “Moon”) kick-starts the evening. The five-member experimental group performs a mysterious and haunting combination of ancient Slavic music, minimalism and psychedelia soundscapes using a bizarre mix of instruments and vocals. American Emmy Award-winning composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (from the Austin, Texas-based band SURVIVE) perform their eerie, original, synthesized music written for the hit Netflix TV series, Stranger Things. This sequence includes a specially commissioned lighting installation /stage design/video projection environment created by acclaimed German visual artists MFO (a.k.a. Marcel Weber) and Theresa Baumgartner. Influential German minimalist techno artist, Wolfgang Voigt, closes the concert with GAS, his unique ambient symphonic score inspired by the dark forests of his homeland.

The Interview

Unsound executive director Gosia Plysa was reached in Krakow, Poland via Skype.

What’s the background of the Unsound Festival?

It began as a small annual new music festival in Krakow founded by Australian writer Mat Schulz and a friend in 2003. The emphasis was on electronic music, a keen interest of Mat’s, which was virtually unknown in Poland. It sort of had a DIY ethos. I came on board as a volunteer in 2006. At that time everyone was a volunteer. In 2008 we got extra funding which meant we could grow the festival to include smaller touring versions we call Dislocations. We also were able to establish cultural exchanges, co-presentations, and satellite festivals all over the world. Our big international breakthrough was the incredible success of Unsound New York in 2010. Besides the yearly flagship festival in Krakow, this year Unsound is taking place in Toronto, Adelaide and London.

Where did the name “Unsound” come from? I think it’s really clever given what the festival entails.

I’m not sure. I think it was suggested by Mat’s brother in Australia.

How did Unsound move beyond being just an avant-garde, electronica music festival?

The heart of Unsound has always been artistic risk-taking and experimentation, so it was a natural outgrowth to connect new music with other art forms. We began by setting up collaborative projects, even putting people together from diverse geo-political backgrounds. We see Unsound as facilitating creative collaboration. We love pushing artists into new formats, and doing things for the first time. For example, musician Jlin had never composed music for dance before working with choreographer Wayne McGregor.

The piece that McGregor recently premiered at Sadler’s Wells is called Autobiography. What is Autobiography Edits that’s being performed in Toronto?

It’s a condensed touring version of the piece using less dancers, but it still captures the intense essence of the original. Jlin’s driving rhythms underscore the restless movement that represents the continual evolution of the human body.

Unsound is now also known for an eclectic range of new music, as well as state of the art visual technology – in other words, eye and ear grabbing light and sound shows.

That’s true. We are very conscious of the development of contemporary music and what new sounds are coming from the latest technology. Unsound concerts can feature electronica, acoustic instruments, improv jazz, club music.

One of your earlier concerts took place in a Polish salt mine. Your first two events here in Toronto transformed the Hearn Generating Station into a mind-boggling audio/visual palace. Now you’re performing in the traditional seated Bluma Appel Theatre. Does a traditional venue cramp Unsound’s style?

 We certainly love adapting challenging spaces and creating new environments in abandoned post-industrial venues. By the same token, we also like to play with putting unexpected sounds in traditional theatres. Each context has validity, and our aim for both is to attract new and different audiences.

How important is the home crowd to an Unsound concert?

 Very. For each satellite festival, we connect with the local scene, like the musicians making up the Unsound Toronto Ensemble accompanying the film Under the Skin. Everywhere we go, we are building networks.

I know that each Unsound festival you present, whether at home or abroad, is built around a theme. This Unsound Toronto is clearly inspired by Halloween.

 Both line-ups convey Halloween in different ways. They’re both dark or even spooky, but sit together in unexpected combinations. Halloween High includes Under The Skin, a sci-fi/horror film which has an utterly mesmerizing score by Mica Levi. The double bill also features a show by Jlin – one of the most hyped electronic musicians of the year – with dancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Together they perform Autobiography Edits – a work that tonally, I think, will intersect with Under The Skin in an interesting way, but will leave the audience on a high.

Halloween Hangover features synth musicians Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein playing live music from the hit horror TV series Stranger Things, which very clearly fits the Halloween vibe. The second season will even be launched on Netflix for Halloween! Alongside this is an A/V show from legendary German electronic composer GAS who plays ambient music, often with a deeply submerged techno beat, while the visuals take the audience through dark, almost hallucinatory forests. It’s a very intense experience. Also on the line-up is the Polish band Ksiezyc, channelling ancient Slavic music to create a show that is very otherworldly, even mystical. This is a powerful trio of shows that I think will leave audiences with a mix of contrasting and vivid impressions.

Finally, how would you compare the two concerts?

The second evening is darker – more mellow and mystical. The sounds reflect horror and witching.

Unsound Toronto is presented by Unsound, Civic Theatres Toronto, and the Luminato Festival.

(For tickets to Unsound Toronto: Call 1-855-872-7669 or visit http://bit.ly/UnsoundTix.)