Stratford Festival in Canada showcases plays and programs with Jewish identities, subjects, contents and participants.
By Suzanne Chessler
Featured photo by Chris Young/Stratford Festival
Plays with Jewish content, performers with Jewish identity, and programs with Jewish subjects and participants hold a strong presence at this year’s Stratford Festival.
The season, which runs into the start of November, has been supplemented with activities, including concerts, to enhance the ideas and overall experiences linked to the productions.
Two plays — Nathan the Wise (through Oct. 11) and Birds of a Kind (through Oct. 13) — were scheduled to be complementary in exploring religious divides. Both deal with romances involving couples of different heritages.
The first play, written to take place during the third crusade in Jerusalem, is being staged with time and universe adjustments as a Jewish woman falls in love with a Christian man.
The second play, centered on the romance of an Arab-American woman and a Jewish man, is established as completely modern while exploring family secrets.
To further link the plays, the same actors appear in both.
“Nathan the Wise challenges us on a number of different levels,” says director Birgit Schreyer Duarte, who has been an assistant director and translator at the Ontario-based festival.
“We will be challenged by watching … actions between religious leaders and thinkers, and we’ll find, in some ways, not that much has changed. Its action lies in speech.
“All three religious groups (Jewish, Christian and Islam) and their representatives have heated debates and discourse, and we are invited to follow these conversations and form our own opinions.”
Nathan the Wise, taking audiences back to the 12th century, was written in the 18th century by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and recently translated by Edward Kemp. In developing the production, Duarte used costuming and props to establish a universe not purely historical or contemporary.
In defining what makes Nathan so wise, the playwright has worked with dialogue that compares the concept of wise to the concept of clever. The director cast Nathan with a female performer to stress that wisdom is also found in females.
“This is a play that will invite us to think and interrogate our own assumptions,” explains Duarte, whose production will be supplemented with a lobby talk by human rights consultant Len Rudner on Aug. 30. “With funny moments, we factor in joy to showcase the skills of characters. We want audiences to enjoy the thinking process.”
Part of that thinking process related to the plays extends through discussions: “The Jewish Perspectives on Peace” (June 26); “The Generative Power of Conflict” (June 29); “Three Faiths, Two Nations, One Land” (Aug. 25); and “Reconciling Religion” (Sept. 25).
Duarte, who began her work with the actors by having them discuss their own views of the issues, believes it is very healthy to consider everybody else’s position, personal leanings and convictions.
Little Shop Actor
Gabi Epstein, a longtime Stratford fan before joining the company this season, brings a lighthearted tone by taking the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors (through Nov. 2) with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken.
“Audrey is such an iconic role in musical theater,” Epstein says. “I love playing her because she’s so opposite me in a play that [ultimately explores] real issues and real people and what we would do for love. I think that’s why people can relate to it so much.”
Epstein’s favorite song in the sci-fi comedy with a bloodthirsty plant is “Somewhere That’s Green” because it represents universal goals and dreams.
Epstein, born and raised in Toronto, realized she wanted a stage career as she sat in Stratford audiences with family. Her entry into entertainment came with appearances in choirs and community theaters. She went to an arts school in her teens and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from McGill University in Montreal.
It took a couple of auditions before being chosen for this Stratford season.
“I’m also in Billy Elliot (through Nov. 3),” says Epstein, whose brother Jake appeared in a Chicago production of the musical. “I play one of the women of the town. This play also is a big song-and-dance, rock ’n roll musical with a lot of heart.”
Epstein, who teaches singing privately, has drawn on her Jewish heritage through productions for the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and roles in Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof, the introduction to her fiancé, Jeremy Lapalme.
In addition to performing the songs of Ashman and Menken, she has done some concerts with songs by other Jewish notables, including Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen.
“Little Shop of Horrors has a little bit of Yiddish,” says the 30ish actress, a member of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto. “There’s also a klezmer feel to the ‘Mushnik and Son’ song.”
As the Epstein family attends this year’s Stratford Festival, they will have the chance to watch productions showcasing the creativity of other Jewish writers — The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Front Page by Ben Hecht with Charles MacArthur.
David Goldbloom, also a devoted Stratford fan, has established a career as a psychiatrist who speaks about mental health before many groups, but his terms as board chair and Senate member of the festival have placed him before stage-connected audiences.
This season, Goldbloom brings in three longtime personal friends for separate conversations to supplement the fictional productions: Michael Bromwich (July 28), a high-profile lawyer looking into police corruption and representing Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings; Harold Koh (Oct. 6), author of The Trump Administration and International Law; and Wade Davis (date to be announced), a National Geographic explorer-writer.
“The beauty of Shakespeare is always the ability to find universal themes that permeate his work,” says Goldbloom, a University of Toronto psychiatry professor and senior medical adviser at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospitals.
“The universal themes make it the reason these plays endure for more than 400 years and keep lending themselves to new interpretation in the context of the times.
“I can promise audiences that through the course of these three conversations, there will be paths drawn back to the plays that people came to Stratford to see,” says the member of the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.
As Stratford addresses the issues of religious differences through its productions and programs, Goldbloom reacts to these topics and appreciates the opportunities to watch them enacted on stage and explored through associated discussions.
“I think we’re living in a time of heightened awareness of differences for good and for bad,” he says. “We’ve seen around the world a rise in anti-Semitism, and we’ve seen a rise around the world in Islamophobia.
“The stage provides a very powerful pulpit for addressing issues. Our hope is that the playbill stimulates the kind of necessary discussion around important issues. It is not simply light entertainment.”
For information about programming at the Stratford Festival, including productions of Shakespeare’s Othello, Henry VIII and The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as Private Lives, The Neverending Story and Mother’s Daughter — call (800) 567-1600 or go to stratfordfestival.ca.