A Bintel Brief captures the
panorama of a bygone era
A touching, sometimes rollicking, epic of mass Jewish emigration at the Segal
By Byron Toben
Wow, what a big week this has been for plays with music!
Once at the newly renamed Sylvan Adams theatre (306 seats) within the Segal Centre complex brought us modern Irish rock music from Dublin in a tender love story.
Chorus Boy at the 440-seat Centaur main theatre wove traditional Black gospel and soul tunes into more modern harmonies in a layered coming of age tale.
And to top it off, the ultra audience-friendly A Bintel Brief rocked the place in the intimate Segal Centre studio (about 150 seats) in the touching, sometimes rollicking, epic of mass Jewish emigration to a new but not so golden land in the early years of the 20th century.
Wonderfully directed by Michelle Heisler, it features many bits by stalwarts Aron Gonshor and Sam Stein. The other members of this 18-strong cast… are all impressive, including the six wee ones.
Though sung and spoken in Yiddish, the English and French supertitles made it easy to follow.
In those days, before Twitter, before e-mail, before daily newspaper columns like sisters Ann Landers and Abby Van Buren, the main way for the immigrants to seek advice on their personal or group problems was to write a letter to the daily Yiddish language newspaper the Forverts. (Founded in 1897, it still exists as a monthly the Forward.) Answers were posted in the column A Bintel Brief.
In the 1970s, Abraham Schulman mined these letters into the script for this play.
It became the signature play for the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Montreal and now, on the 60th anniversary year of the DWYT founding, has renewed relevance in this age of mass displacements worldwide.
The fast moving action depicts adjustment to the New York competitive life, suits that don’t fit, beards shaved, names shortened, marriages made and marriages broken, the growth of vaudeville and much choreography and dancing about.
Wonderfully directed by Michelle Heisler, it features many bits by stalwarts Aron Gonshor and Sam Stein. The other members of this 18-strong cast (is that a co-incidence of the Jewish lucky number?) are all impressive, including the six wee ones.
A live four-strong band (piano, accordion, bass and drums) enhances the mood.
A scene of the difficulties of teaching English to a pupil audience of differently pronounced names was particularly amusing, as was Gonshor and Stein’s soft shoe and cane shuffle while spouting corny yet funny jokes.
A Bintel Brief runs at the Segal Centre studio space until October 21.
514 739-7944 or segalcentre.org
Images: Leslie Schachter
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.