Theatre in London review

Reviewed by Kenneth Chisholm, March 27, 2009

Written and performed by Robyn Israel
Directed by Peter Busby

The Arts Project Theatre
March 24–28, 2009

In one manner of thinking, being Jewish can be as much like kayaking as fiddling on a roof. It requires a sense of balance to work through the rapids and having the strength to right yourself when your world has turned upside down as you proceed to your destination. This play is an amusing and intriguing look at religion, identity and relationships as one Jewish woman tells her story of her own journey through those realities.

In retrospect, watching this play again after My Name Is Rachel Corrie was a good idea. Whereas the former play is in part about a nominally Christian woman coming to Palestine, this one is about a Jewish-Canadian woman with her own experiences here. To that end, we are treated to an inspired monologue of the power of names and identity as evidenced by Ms. Israel’s surname, imposed on her immigrating grandfather by a bossy immigration agent who couldn’t be bothered to attempt to properly spell his name.

The play then moves on to the conflicts of prejudices and Jewish culture from both Robyn’s traditionalist mother and her gentile boyfriends who range from the honestly open minded, like one Buddhist man, to a dyslexic redneck biker who posted on the wrong online dating service. All the while, Israel approaches her stories with a well-balanced wit and insight that illustrates the realities of Jewish life with revealing eloquence.

To that end, Robyn Israel creates a vivid variety of characters using only a few props at most to carry the act. The finest example of this is her parents, with her mother being a classic kvetching mother with old-world attitudes that struggle to understand the modern world of her daughter while Robyn’s father is a easygoing soul who effortlessly undermines his wife’s bossiness with a laconic wit.

However, while the update and expansion of the play does modernize it in welcome ways, it is not flawless in some aspects. This includes trivial concerns like her not updating her joke complaint there are no Jewish female superheroines in comic books, when some quick research would have told her of such characters like Sabra, Fathom and Masada. More seriously is the thematic break she creates when she….[spoiler removed]. This dramatic misstep is not fatal to the play, but she does its theme no favours for that skewed perspective that creates a scene that’s more an overwrought lecture than drama.

Finally, I appreciate the minimalistic style of the play’s stagecraft that encourages the best imaginative performance for any actor. As such, Israel is able to smoothly shift from character to character with admirable ease with only a hat or a smock for instance. The hanging kayak is a special feature, an unavoidable symbol of Israel’s struggle of not just her own self identity, but her rebellion against stereotype through something so distinctively Canadian itself.

Being a woman who is an ethnic and/or religious minority can be challenge in any land, even in Canada. Robyn Israel has given a face and voice to that quiet struggle and created an entertaining play that just needs some research and a little more perspective.

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