The Russian Play

Shaw Festival playwright Hannah Moscovitch uses a mix of humor and tragedy, plus elements from her heritage in The Russian Play.

Featured photo by David Cooper

Canadian writer Hannah Moscovitch transplants her roots — with modifications — for theater audiences.

This season at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, her Eastern European heritage, passed down through her father, comes across in The Russian Play. A lunchtime one-act that tells the story of a 1920s flower girl falling in love with a gravedigger, the production has updated sequences.

Moscovitch, while exploring the thrills and dangers of love, has invented a way to tell timely political jokes as the production continues through Oct. 12.

“The play has tropes and stereotypes, and those have changed dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years,” says the playwright, who also devotes her creativity to television scripts and opera librettos.

“There’s a whole new relationship that America has with Russia, so I updated some of the references. Sonya, the flower girl, exists in the [past] but talks to the audience as though she’s in the modern era.

“If I were to talk about the Jewish sensibility of the piece, I would say that it’s funny. I like to make jokes about dark topics. Tragedy and comedy have a mix in life.”

A special bonus in the playwright’s first experience with the Shaw Festival is working with director Diana Donnelly, who, like Moscovitch, has Romanian Jewish ancestry. The two are close friends.

“I met Diana when we were attending the National Theatre School of Canada,” says the playwright, entering her 40s. “We grew up as artists together, and she spent most of her career as a performer at Shaw. She performed in one of my first plays, East of Berlin [about the life of a Nazi war criminal’s son].”

Although starting college with the idea of becoming an actress, Moscovitch soon found a better fit with writing. She majored in English at the University of Toronto before graduating from the National Theatre School.

“I’ve recently done projects very explicitly about Judaism,” says Moscovitch, who had a bat mitzvah, went on a March of the Living trip and spent time on a kibbutz when she was 18. “I did Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story about my grandparents coming to Canada as refugees from Romania in 1908.”

A very new initiative is The Secret Life of a Mother.

“It’s a confessional piece about pregnancy, miscarriage, labor and parenting,” she says.

“It’s my story, the most experimental piece I’ve done, and I talk about being Jewish quite a bit. One of the more moving parts of doing all this was that my dear friend Maev Beaty plays me.

“Maev is mostly at Stratford, but she took a break to play me. I talk about her in the show in the third person, and it forces her to reveal some of her own secrets. There’s a part where Elijah, my son, has just been born, and I sing the ‘Shema’ to him.

“The piece went out right after the synagogue shootings, and that scene was very moving. It was an odd concurrence of events, and I could hear people crying.”

Moscovitch, who lives in Halifax, is married to Christian Barry, a theater artistic director. Both are hockey fans and have traveled to Detroit for games. They hope to return when their 4-year-old son is a little older.

“Halifax has about 1,000 Jews, and I go to a Shabbos event every month or two with young Jewish families,” she says. “There’s nothing like having a son named Elijah to celebrate Passover.”

As Moscovitch works on upcoming projects, including TV shows in development since writing episodes of the spy series X Company, she can take inspiration from awards — the Windham-Campbell Prize presented by Yale, Gascon-Thomas Prize for Revitalizing Theatre and Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Canadian Play.

“I’m used to my projects being at new works theaters,” she says, “so it’s quite beautiful having my work put on beside George Bernard Shaw’s.”

The Russian Play runs through Oct. 12 during the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. See sidebar for complete play listing. For information, call (800) 511-7429 or go to

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Suzanne Chessler’s writing-editing career has spanned many years, and her articles have been featured in secular and religious publications across the state and around the country. There was a period of time when she maintained three regular columns in three different publications – one appearing weekly to spotlight metro volunteers, another appearing weekly to profile stage enthusiasts in community theater and a third appearing bimonthly to showcase upcoming arts programs. Besides doing general reporting, she has had continuing assignments involving health, monetary subjects and crime. Her award-winning work builds on majors in English-speech and journalism earned at Wayne State University, where instructors also were writers-editors on Detroit’s daily newspapers.