Review: Fiddler on the Roof

(Canon Theatre: Toronto, December 22, 2009)

Producing a well-loved musical like Fiddler on the Roof must be an intimidating gamble: yes, you are going to have big crowds and a full theatre, but you are also going to have big expectations to fulfill! This particular production at the Canon Theatre in Toronto was uneven – the coin toss wobbled.

The show was directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes and featured Harvey Fierstein as the inimitable milkman, Tevye. Fierstein has an enviable list of credits which include stage, film, and television. He had a role in Mrs. Doubtfire (as the hairdresser, I’m told) and was the voice of Homer Simpson’s executive secretary on The Simpsons. He has written and performed in many of his own plays and received a plethora of prestigious awards. The programme lists Fierstein as only the second person in history to win Tonys in four different categories.

The character of Tevye is defined, however, by the classic achievement of Topol in the movie version of Fiddler. Regardless of his reputation and experience, Fierstein’s portrayal did not even come close. His lack of physical stature was my first impression. The large traditional stage of the Canon Theatre dwarfed him. His smallish presence was exacerbated by the distinguished height of Lazar Wolf and also by the full-bodied figure of Golde. Unfortunately, his voice did not compensate. That, potentially, could have made the difference. In fact, Fierstein’s voice consistently rose to a high-pitched cartoonish caricature, and, although that worked for some of the comedic lines, it was not balanced with the full, rich, masculine tone required to lend pathos and dignity to Tevye’s character.  When he dug for a gruff lower pitch, it was muffled. On occasion, the orchestra overpowered his singing. His dancing lacked energy and conviction. I was disappointed.

On the other hand (sly grin, here), there were a few stellar moments. The anguished exchange between Tevye and Chava when she informs her father that she is in love with Fyedka produced palpable silence in the theatre. Later, as Tevye dares to complain to God, his defiance is punctuated with tightly-coiled physicality. Alone on stage, assuming a grounded, wide-legged stance, pushing out his chest and ample belly, arms akimbo and fists clenched, Tevye faces the audience, but looks up. He is simultaneously puny and heroic. The confrontation had a Job-like credibility.

David Brummel played Lazar Wolf in this production. Unlike Fierstein’s, his voice commanded attention. He has also played the role of Tevye in five different productions. I would have loved to see and hear his version of the iconic milkman. His vocals were powerful and soared effortlessly to the stratosphere.    

The young people did very well. Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Perchik and Motel the Tailor performed admirably, particularly Motel, who was winsome as the shy and nervous suitor “sans matchmaker”. His Miracle of Miracles solo balanced a lovable geekiness with new-found virility in a very natural and unaffected way.  Golde and Yente, alas, were predictable and a lack of chemistry kept their dialogue stilted and the humour forced. And the fiddler on the roof himself?  Just right, a nimble and engaging jester.

The staging of the play, like the acting, was uneven. A couple of scenes reached the zenith and others fell flat. The best scene was the Sabbath Prayer. Twilight falls. Tevye and Golde and their family and guests light the menorah and start to sing the blessing. Darkness envelops the stage until you see only their faces in the halo of candlelight. Then, on various levels, with just the hint of roofs and chimneys hanging in the air, the homes of other Jewish families are slowly revealed.

Successively, the faithful also light their candles and join in the singing. The close-knit community of Anatevka is tenderly evoked in the flickering flames that illuminate each family at prayer. It was mesmerizing, like walking up a mountain road at night and peering into all the glowing windows to witness the same holy scene over and over. As perfect a moment as any I have experienced in a staged performance.

I thought of this masterful scene later when Tevye and his Jewish family and friends are evicted from Anatevka. Only five cast members sing Anatevka, the plaintive and haunting lament about the loss of one’s homeplace … Tevye, Golde, Yente, and two others. It felt utterly wrong. Here was the perfect moment to showcase that whole community again, to highlight the depth of the injustice, not to just a few individuals, but to an entire village. I expected to hear many voices gathered in mourning, a swelling of grief. Instead, the potential of this scene to parallel the Sabbath Prayer scene was ignored.  Stripped of communal significance, both the scene and the song fizzled.

 The community does receive a nod at the conclusion of the play as the villagers gather for a trek around the stage on their way to their new homes. No doubt the symbolic trundling around the bare stage was intended to be melancholy, but it was a bare-bones scene that lacked sympathetic cohesiveness. The opportunity in the previous scene to remind the audience of the deep connectedness of these friends and neighbours has been wasted.  The villagers wander in single file, isolated not only from one another, but also from the audience. Had they held hands, or embraced and clung to one another, reluctant to part, there would have been more emotional depth to the circling. As it was, it was a strangely detached denouement. The scene was saved, in the end, only by the fiddler, who added a note of grace with his stylized prancing behind the caravan, playing familiar strains to bless the disparate journeys of these refugees.

Not only the fiddler’s lively mincing, but all of the choreography and dancing in the play deserves praise. It was top-notch, entertaining when it needed to be, but thoughtful, too. In the bar scene, as Tevye and Lazar Wolf and their friends celebrate the “match” with a traditional Jewish dance, they are soon joined by the Russian soldiers who ply their Cossack acrobatics in and around and through the Jewish dancers. What starts off as  seriously competitive male strutting evolves into a dizzying whirl of high energy dance cooperation. The heady melding of the two dance styles brings smiles to the faces of the participants, both Jewish and Russian. A dynamic harmony is achieved on stage for a brief moment. This dazzling dance sequence manages to portray the relative stability of Anatevka before the imminent pogrom and also offers an exuberantly hopeful vignette, suggesting that perhaps someday, somewhere, this joyous plaiting of differences might indeed be a reality and not just a temporary playful accident.

The dancing at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel was equally compelling. The bottle dancers were the best I have ever seen. With their long-tailed jackets and tall top hats accentuating every linear movement, the dancers achieved balletic precision – symmetrical, fluid and stunningly elegant.

The unevenness of the production shows up again, though, in the fight scene during the wedding reception. A few Russians run onstage, presumably to wreak havoc, but there are altogether too few of them, they are not easily identifiable by uniform or costume, and the action is skimpy and poorly executed. A couple of tables are overturned, Perchik is scarcely roughed up, and, in a few seconds, it is all over. What? A politically correct skirmish – no violence, no harm, no foul? This trifling scuffle diminished the play’s historicity. I expected a far more brutal and believable attack. It should have been a shocker, the thin-skinned status quo of Anatevka ripped away in an instant, its racist loathsome underbelly exposed to all. But it was barely a barroom brawl.

The story of Tevye, the Everyman believer, is one that resonates deeply with people of faith. And the story of Tevye, the little guy, downtrodden, but not defeated, still speaks to the lowly.  I will gladly take any opportunity to re-live his narrative, to hear his music, to marvel at his dancing, and witness the vibrancy of his faith and life. The standing ovation goes to the original author, Sholem Aleichem, who gave Tevye (and us) a voice for all time. 

So, those are some of my reactions, for what they are worth… a ruble, a shekel, a wooden nickel.  You decide.

 To Mr. Feirstein, probably not worth a fig.   🙂

Cathy’s Christmas Carol

(Another true story… Christmas Eve, 1980)

Every family has a favourite Christmas story that each year is fondly taken out of its wrappings, embellished and cherished. Our family’s best Christmas includes a dramatic rescue in a blizzard and a happy ending.

 The setting is Ontario in 1980. The story begins with two sisters, both pregnant for the first time. It is Christmas Eve, a time when the Boer family never fails to gather on the family farm to exchange gifts, enjoy home-baked goodies, and celebrate God’s goodness. The sisters have been anxiously consulting by phone throughout the day for the weather does not look promising. In fact, there is really no doubt that a full-scale blizzard has descended. However, neither sister has ever missed a Christmas Eve on the farm and the very thought seems unendurable. A more “gezellig” (cozy) time is really not to be had throughout the year.

The plot thickens when the respective husbands thankfully return home from work and quite logically refuse to travel anywhere else in the gale. Bitter tears are shed, imprecations are muttered under cover of mustache, and lengthy discussions held over the phone as to snow, wind, visibility and the contrary male and female dispositions regarding family traditions.

Pregnancy prevails. A call to the farm alerts the family as to the plan. It is decided that it would be wise to travel in two cars and stick together. Hampers filled with presents are loaded into the cars as well as an assortment of mitts, blankets and shovels. Although there are only seven miles to traverse, an hour passes as the lonely vehicles inch their way against the fury. Further tears are shed and angry words more audibly uttered. About a quarter of a mile from the destination, the first car slides ever so gently into the ditch. The trailblazers are rescued and pile into the second car, hampers and all.

 The inevitable climax occurs only minutes later. The hapless quartet is stranded as the car becomes hopelessly stuck in a waist-high drift. Feeling inestimably foolish, the sisters apologize for their stubbornness and the four actually share a forgiving laugh at their predicament. It is decided that the men will wade to the farm and get the tractor.

 The denouement is unexpectedly provided by “deus ex machina” in the form of a worried dad who has taken the tractor out for a check. Once safely towed to the farm, the errant pilgrims are warmly welcomed with hot water bottles and fervent remonstrances about travelling in a doubly pregnant condition in such inclement weather.

An especially poignant time ensues, sharing gifts and old stories as the whole family appreciates again the simple pleasure of being safely all together. The storm necessitates a sleepover and in the morning there is no possible way to plow through the lane and country roads to attend church. And so, for one last time before becoming mothers themselves, the sisters could bask in the glow of being children in their parents’ home on Christmas morning.

Postscript:

This photo shows the guys entering the mudroom after the epic trek. Dad is barely visible behind my husband, Mark (with beard). My brother-in-law, Harry, is taking off his hat. My brother Tony is also pictured.

Edith-Ann doesn’t look old enough to be married, much less pregnant. She is wearing the red turtleneck. Teresa, the youngest sister, has a ponytail. I am wearing the purple plaid maternity blouse. I think my hair is sufficient evidence of the previous evening’s maelstrom! We are playing the game of Life on Christmas morning! A memory we will always cherish.

“Survivor” Garden

(Wrote this in August, 2009)

Gardening in my own backyard continues to scare the heck out of me. Four latest incidents of terror:

For some reason that I can’t remember, I was exiting the house backwards out of my patio doors. I heard a drone that seemed like it was right behind me. In my mind it had to be a bumblebee or a hummingbird, so I whipped around to see what it was, and to beat a hasty retreat in some other direction. How humiliating to realize that it was the neighbour’s weed-whacker. I can’t explain why it sounded like it was right at my ear. Something about the garden matrix, I’m guessing.
 
I have explained my fear of birds in a previous post. But, to refresh your memory, I experience uncontrollable panic if a bird flies too close to me. So my dear husband had to move our birdfeeder away from the patio. It was attracting too many blue jays. The cardinals and mourning doves would scatter wildly when the jays dove in to establish their turn at the feeder. Often the dim-witted mourning doves would fly straight at me in their terror. Mutual hysteria would result.
 
So Mark moved the feeder to the back of the property. I was pleased. I could still enjoy all the bird antics from a safe distance. The birdfeeder now hangs above the new “corral” enclosure Mark made to hide our trash bins. What I keep forgetting is that mourning doves are groundfeeders. Last night I nonchalantly ambled to the shed to get my watering can, noticing that all was quiet at the feeder. But, as I took one step further, a half-dozen doves noisily took flight. I hadn’t seen them, of course. They were on the ground behind the fence. Once again, instant terror. In a nano-second I was crouching and assessing my escape route, shoulders pulled up to protect my vulnerable head. Picture a cross between a rabbit and a turtle, legs ready to bound away, neck shrunk into my trunk, eyes rolled back in fear. Mark howled as he watched the whole ridiculous scene from the patio. 
 
It gets even more ludicrous. As I am cutting the grass today, rather proud of the swashbuckling energetic figure I must cut as I vigorously push my mower, the only grandma on the street who doesn’t ride a lawn tractor, I see movement out of the corner of my eye. Wings. I tense up. It’s a monarch butterfly. I glance around. Thankfully, no one saw my cowardly shiver. Granted, that meant no one was there to admire my industry, either… 
 
The last jumpy moment happened tonight as I walked by one of my hanging baskets on the patio and a trailing vine grazed my hair. I did catch my breath in momentary gasp, then relaxed as I realized it was just a plant. I think I can be excused for this bit of anxiety, though. Last week at my friend Harmene’s cottage, a grasshopper the size of a dill pickle and about that colour landed on my head. No lie. Before I had time to scream, my sister Teresa screamed for me. “It’s a grasshopper! On your head!” Naturally, I was in mid-air by that point, jumping like a grasshopper myself in an agony of fear, Harmene’s lovely designer lawnchair flying backwards. The grasshopper, and not a little one, but a honking giant mutant grasshopper, had violently extricated itself out of a spider web just above me. Not quite sure why Teresa didn’t warn me in time. That matrix effect again, I suppose.
 
This is the absolute truth of my outdoor life. Stay tuned for tales about Teresa who is phobic about bees and my other sister Edith-Ann who dissolves at the sight of a spider.

Universal Donor

(A true story)

I gave blood this past Monday, my seventh donation. They love to see me come… I’m Type O-, the universal donor. Everyone can take my blood! My lifetime goal is to give blood 100 times. I started late, but if I stay healthy, it’s do-able.

Giving blood is an emotional experience for me. I always wanted to be a blood donor, but a busy life got in the way. When I retired, I vowed to follow in my dad’s footsteps and be a regular donor. I was about eight perhaps, when he received his red and white lapel pin for ten donations. I was so proud. Decades later, when Dad needed a transfusion as a cancer patient, the blood was there because of other donors. I was so grateful. Now I have the chance to pay it forward.  

Canadian Blood Services does a tremendous job of making blood donation feel like a significant civic contribution. Their commercials on television are very effective. Some clips spotlight individuals who have received blood transfusions. A smiling face turns directly to the camera to say a sincere “thank you.” Another commercial focuses on an ordinary guy wearing a shirt with one sleeve cut off above the elbow. He says that as a kid he always wanted to be a hero, like Superman, and save lives. Then he smiles broadly and says, “Now, I just save lives… I give blood.”

My blood donation took place, appropriately enough, at the New Life Pentecostal Church in Petrolia. When I registered in the gym, the receptionist welcomed me warmly, and booked my next two appointments. She thanked me for coming and then directed me to the next station. A nurse verified my identification, pricked my finger, and tested my iron level. She gave me some literature and a questionnaire. She thanked me for my willingness to donate blood and sent me to a table to fill out my form.

The first time I filled out the questionnaire, it was rather daunting. Lots of questions about where I had travelled, whether I had ever had any of several strange illnesses ending in “sis”, and whether I had ever worked with monkeys. The little monkeys in my classrooms didn’t count. I’ve done this now a few times, though, so I zipped through the paperwork.

Another nurse motioned me into a privacy booth, took my temperature and my blood pressure, and asked me all the embarrassing sex questions. “Have you ever traded sex for drugs or money?” “Have you ever had sex with someone who has been in prison?” Now that I am an old hand at being a blood donor, in addition to just being old, I hardly even blush at the long list of sex questions. She thanked me for taking the time to give blood today and then led me to my stretcher and instructed me to lie down.

A blond middle-aged nurse with aqua eye shadow and pink lip gloss introduced herself. You notice these things when you are lying on your back and you can’t see much else other than the ceiling. She thanked me for volunteering to give blood today. She complimented my earrings and praised my bravery because I watched her inject the needle in my arm. When my super O- negative blood was flowing well, she turned her attention to the young man beside me.

She thanked him for coming out to give blood, and asked what he was going to do with the rest of the day. He said he was a part-time student at The University of Western Ontario and he had to write an essay about the welfare system in Canada and Kenya. This was interesting, so I listened in while I was staring at the rafters.

There was a brief silence as she poked him. He must have looked away because they shared a chuckle and he admitted, “I don’t like needles much.”

“I guess you don’t have any tattoos, then?” she joked.

“Yeah, actually, I do,” he said. “I have one on my back. My dad and I got them together. It’s our family crest. It kinda hurt, but not too bad. At least it’s not a stupid skull or something I’ll be embarrassed about when I get old.”

My nurse got pretty excited about this. “Believe it or not, my mom just got a tattoo for her birthday. She just turned 65! We wouldn’t believe she would do it, she’s so refined! She got a crown tattooed on her back because her nickname is Queen Irene. Now she goes to the seniors’ dances with a dress cut low in the back, so her tattoo will show.” They laughed. “I remember when she would say tattoos were for low-lifes, you know, like prisoners and sailors, and not for people like us! But now tattoos are fashionable, so she changed her mind! I’m thinking of getting one, too, just a little one, like a butterfly on my foot, or something.”

“Yeah,” agreed my neighbour, “they’re pretty popular now. All the basketball players and celebrities have them.”

It didn’t appear that I was going to learn any more about the welfare system in Canada and Kenya. When I had finished giving my pint, the nurse smoothed a band-aid on my arm, told me what to do if I start bleeding or feeling sick, thanked me again, and asked me to stop at the refreshment table. They like you to stay for a few minutes to make sure you are not feeling faint before you drive home. A cheery volunteer, wearing a red apron decorated with a flock of colourful service pins, thanked me for giving blood today and stamped my card with the date. She brought me a coffee and a Peek Frean shortbread cookie and called me “dear.”

So you’re probably wondering by now, And what is so emotional about all this?

Well, blood is a central symbol of my Christian faith. At the Lord’s Table, we “eat his body, drink his blood” as one song puts it.  Stated that baldly, it sounds barbaric, even to my ears. I can almost sympathize with the Romans for thinking the early Christians were closet cannibals.

I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, far from the dynamic stained glass of Roman Catholicism, or the hyperbole of dramatic fundamentalist preachers. I never really gave this blood imagery much thought. I blithely sang the old favourites about Jesus who “interposed His precious blood,” whose “blood can cleanse each spot,” and who washed me “in the blood.” In fact, I rarely saw blood in my own life except for the odd cut or scrape. Abstraction nicely sanitized the blood right out of my spiritual life, too.

That all changed when I saw the movie, The Passion of Christ. This is not a movie review, so I won’t go into a critique on its merits as a film. What did impact me most powerfully, though, was the scene where Jesus was whipped. I didn’t want to watch it. Visual images tend to imprint themselves irrevocably on my brain. I usually avert my eyes when I see violence and gore on TV, but I had this spontaneous idea, rational or not, that if Jesus could endure a flogging for my sake, the least I could do was steel myself to watch in wordless acknowledgement. A kind of penance, for so carelessly glossing over his agony throughout all my years as a Christian.

The verse “through his stripes we are healed” has now been viscerally and forever clarified. The nail-studded “flagellum” scored horrific stripes on Jesus’s writhing shoulders and back. As the lashes continued, the stripes devolved into a jagged grid, gaping darkly through the spurting blood. Then a crimson lava flowed down his trunk and legs. The blood pool left spreading in the courtyard at the end of the scene strained credulity. How could someone who had lost that much blood even survive long enough to be crucified? I didn’t weep, like some audience members around me, but I was deeply affected.

A long time ago I saved an article by a medical doctor detailing the trauma of a scourging. I went back to check the facts. His graphic description supports the movie’s portrayal of this event.

The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only.  Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and vein of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue.  (. (THE CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST FROM A MEDICAL POINT OF VIEW by C. Truman Davis, MD, M. S.)

Later, when the crown of thorns is pressed into Jesus’s scalp by the jeering soldiers and the robe is torn from his lacerated body, more blood flows. Mel Gibson got one thing right. There was a river of blood.

That’s why I get emotional when I give blood. I can no longer pretend that it didn’t cost Jesus all that much to save me. I can no longer ignore the excruciating price tag of my sin-encrusted soul. I can no longer avert my eyes.

Every time my own dark red blood slips out of my body through a skinny antiseptic tube, that rich O- blood that everyone can use, I witness again that bloody sacrifice. I see Jesus. I don’t see an abstract salvation boxed in doctrine and creed and church attendance and favourite hymns. I see the materiality of sliced flesh and ripped sinew, a physical body shuddering in paroxysms of pain. Blood spurting like a fountain, flowing like a river. Sufficient. For the needy in Canada and Kenya and for low-lifes like me.

I hope that my blood will help someone in a medical emergency. It does feel good, even heroic, to think that my gift might save a life. I know my dad would be proud to be remembered in this way.

But there’s another reason why it’s good for me to donate blood. Because it’s there, at New Life Pentecostal Church, that I am reminded about the only right response when someone gives blood. “Thank you.” Over and over again. “Thank you for coming out to give blood today.” “Thank you for your donation.”

Dear Lord Christ, thank you. May the evidence of my gratitude be your name tattoed over every inch of my life and a multitude of service pins emblazoned on my days.