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.
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.
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.