Monday, July 13, 2015

Osip Mandelshtam

Amphitheatre Presents


by Rafi Aaron

July 1-12, Anshei Minsk Synagogue, 10 St. Andrew Street, Toronto Fringe Frestival, 2015

from Osip Mandelshtam’s ‘The Age

to look you in the eye,
and weld the vertebrae
of century to century,
with blood? Creating blood
pours out of mortal things:
only the parasitic shudder,
when the new world sings…

And new buds will swell, intact,
the green shoots engage,
but your spine is cracked
my beautiful, pitiful, age.
And grimacing dumbly, you writhe,
look back, feebly, with cruel jaws,
a creature, once supple and lithe,
at the tracks left by your paw
production photos by Amir Gavriely

Honouring what she refers to as the “Ortho shul” tradition of orthodox synagogues, director Jennifer H. Capraru  has taken a small fringe show and turned it into a complex spectacle of meta-theatrical elements that enchant the eye, warm the heart, and shed light upon the connections between Stalinist tactics and current global concerns around privacy and the rights of the artist.

Nicole Wilson as Nadia Mandelshtam, & Omar Hady as Osip Mandelshtam

In Rafi Aaron’s beautifully poetic play Mandelshtam a very young woman takes centre stage and enchants the audience with her precocity through a brief introductory speech that sets the tone for an hour of delicately drawn scenes that bring the subject to light in a way that reminds spectators of the power that poetry and art in general can wield within a profoundly troubled state. The audience is immediately engaged by the introductory claim that there will be no direct physical contact between men and women during the play. Although this may initially strike some as unsettling and cumbersome, it quickly becomes, in the hands of a skilled director, a powerful aspect of a play honoring both history and human intimacy. One is reminded of Anna Deveare-Smith’s transcribed/performed testimonies from Fires In the Mirror as an example of the ways in which particular orthodox Jewish traditions can be adapted in order to make the experience even more dramatic and enlightening.

Simple puppets behind a backlit screen – touching and yet not actually touching - a fragile string of lights passed between a man and a woman, and a final circle of light on a floor inscribed with poetry along the circumference, give the overall mise en scene an almost childlike quality that allows the actors to take full power over the word - and to play with those words in brilliant and moving tableaus.
                             Bruce Beaton as Aleksandr, with Omar Hady

Capraru and Aaron have been blessed with a cast who grasp all of the nuances of the poetic script and the essential physicality of the director’s interpretation. Bruce Beaton, as the poet’s friend and colleague Aleksandr, exemplifies this as he skillfully interprets long poetic sentences in a sometimes clipped, sometimes drawn out rhythm that allows the words, like poetry, to wash over us without losing any of the meaning or intensity. He gives contemporary, poetically inflected dialogue a sense of naturalistically rendered Shakespearean tones that simultaneously sooth, inform and dramatize. The other performers match his skill for subtle renditions of complex, at times metaphoric turns. The entire ensemble excels as they execute dance-like gestures that move them in and out of the simple circular playing space located in the basement of Anshei Minsk Synagogue in the heart of Kensington Market.

Nicole Wilson as Nadia Mandelshtam portrays the poet’s wife and comrade with an emotional honesty that attests to the actual character’s drive to memorize her husband’s work in the face of destructive politically charged censorship. Pieces of paper move about the stage in a resonant manner as one is constantly reminded that particular waves of history can drown the artist’s words if there are no witnesses who can take those words and move them into future generations of spectators and practitioners. Tatjana Corniq as fellow poet Anna Akhmatova brings further power to the overall theme of protecting the poet’s work and life, and has an especially powerful scene as she seamlessly self-accompanies on the accordion - circling the playing space as she delicately recites a tribute to Mandelshtam’s work through the playwright’s beautifully rendered narrative gaze that reveals Nadia Mandelshtam attempts to piece together Osip’s fraught legacy.
Tatjana Corniq as Anna Akhmatova, with Omar Hady

Osip Mandelshtam, played by Omar Hady, is brought to life with physical agility and poetic exuberance. Hady never misses a beat in a relentless and moving tribute to the artist’s belief in how personal politics often become integral to the poem. His physicality and his fervor are matched by two performers who must constantly remind him of everything that is at stake, giving the overall script a timeless quality regarding the powerful position of women within major political struggles.


My seat at the corner of a circle, beside a frequently illuminated puppet screen, gave me a very special and enlightening perspective. I could see the stage manager manipulate the puppets while the back stage actor sat in a chair and recited the puppet lines. Capraru added the puppets to the show, as well as the simple inventive string of lights that added intimacy without breaking the Ortho shul tradition. These touches gave the script added and highly effective layers of theatricality. As a single audience member unintentionally allowed to watch the mechanics of this approach, I felt the script come alive in complicated ways that could be developed in a larger production. Further use of dance like movement, evocative back lighting for the puppetry, and simple lighting gestures throughout, coupled with elements of the exposed back stage goings on could move this hour long show into a full length inter-disciplinary piece highlighting many art forms as connective tissue to the primary art of the poet that inhabits the script.  

More of Mandelshtam’s actual poetry, interspersed with work from Akhmatova, could flesh out the poetic plot lines. And the life of the poet did seem at times overly condensed to fit the hour long requirements of the fringe festival. And yet sixty minutes, in the hands of a sensitive playwright attuned to the arduous journey of his subject, mixed with the insights of a brilliant director who knows how to make poetic dialogue come alive through physicality and direct, simple stage business, rendered this tribute to a highly gifted and highly politicized poet a very special moment that reveals the power of theatre and the power of words.   

for more information on the life & work of Osip Mandelshtam go to:

for informaiton on the work of Rafi Aaron go to:

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