Theater review: “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” at Théâtre J

The Wanderer (Ben Caplan) in the J Theater presentation of “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan and Christian Barry. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

A dark, wondrous and unusual musical graces the J Theater at the Edlavitch DCJCC this month. “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” chronicles the relationship of two Romanian Jewish refugees in Canada between energetic klezmer music, a musical tradition of Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Created by Hannah Moscovitch (read our “A Quick 5” with Hannah Moscovitch here), Ben Caplan and Christian Barry (who also conducts), “Old Stock” is wrapped in the conceit of a traveling troupe of artists and explores where we let’s call home when that home forces us out. Don’t let the love story mislead you. This comedy turns dark with tales of violence, illness and loss. But crisp writing and catchy music make “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” a standout delight.

… A dark, wondrous and unusual musical… an uncommon delight.

The Wanderer, played by co-creator and co-composer Ben Caplan, tells “Old Stock” with the energy and booming voice of a showman. Opening the evening with the song “Traveller’s Curse”, he announces “I’ve been defamed as a wanderer/ I’m not/ I got a home, that’s just it/ It’s a place that disturbing right now.” The lovers, Chaya (Shaina Silver-Baird) and Chaim (Eric Da Costa), meet in Halifax, each quarantined by port authorities for suspected cases of typhus and tuberculosis respectively. At 24 and already a widow, Chaya arrived with more than a dozen relatives after a long journey from Romania to Russia and finally ending in Canada. Chaim, a clumsy and serious 19-year-old, arrives alone, his whole family lost in a pogrom. Although Chaim is immediately smitten with Chaya, the decades-long relationship unfolds with much turmoil, both because of the baggage of their past and the struggles of forging a new life in a new land.

In a tight 90-minute show filled with 10 songs, all performers serve as musicians: Ben Caplan on guitar and banjo; Shaina Silver-Baird on violin; Eric Da Cost on woodwinds (especially clarinet); with Graham Scott on keyboard and accordion and Jamie Kronick on drums, rounding out the sound. Ben Caplan and Christian Barry’s lyrics are shrewd and intelligent, especially in the upbeat and exuberant “The Truth Doesn’t Live in a Book” and quietly reflective in “What Love Can Heartbreak Allow.”

Set design by Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry packs the action into a small enclosed space similar to a trailer or train car, suggesting life on the road. It is opened for the performance and then re-wrapped at the end. String lights emanate from the stage, suspended above the audience like in a circus. Fairy lights and lace curtains decorate the warm glow of the caravan. Accessories are minimal – a few suitcases, a tea container and a wrapped cloth. In a life in motion, we manage.

The Wanderer’s costume, designed by Carly Beamish, begins as an absurd ringmaster outfit that includes a lavender jacket with burgundy trim, a ridiculous plume of feathers in the lapel, and a top hat. As the show progresses, the Wanderer sheds these trappings, replaced by a tallit – a prayer shawl. Both Chaya and Chaim wear the simple, conservative styles of the early 1900s, Chaya’s high-necked black blouse a sign of her continued mourning. Although the design dates back a hundred years, this refugee story speaks clearly today.

A powerful and original musical creation, “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” lightens a painful story with dark humor. The small cast generates a big sound in the klezmer score, while always returning to the dark nuances of transience and instability. Soon, the troop will be back on the road so go to Theater J while you can!

Duration: Approximately 90 minutes without intermission.

Notice: Teenagers and mature adults.

“Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story” runs through September 25, 2022 at Theater J, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For more information and tickets, click here. All Goldman Theater patrons are required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth. Masks are optional but encouraged in lobbies, hallways and other public spaces on Q Street and 16th Street.

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