Brave play explores
Birthmark delivers a compelling vision for peace and social justice
By Janis Kirshner
Neurotic Zionism. It’s a new discipline. I started out in Occupational Zionism, but I’m lousy in math; hard to calculate the daily casualties.
‘You’ve probably already covered that chapter in Terrorism 401. You must have aced your lab tests and field research.’
The news is brimming with articles about youth radicalization. Wrapping the topic in a human, family story, playwright Stephen Orlov’s newest work uses black comedy to cross the cultural divide between Canada’s Jewish and Palestinian diaspora communities. MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) presents Teesri Duniya Theatre’s world premiere of Birthmark from November 3 to 18.
Set primarily in Montreal, this brave play, directed by Liz Valdez and Michelle Soicher, gets people asking themselves the ongoing hard questions about the Middle East. Continuing their mandate to encourage dialogue, Teesri Duniya Theatre will hold a talkback with invited guests after a number of performances.
Told with poignancy and dark humour, Birthmark challenges mainstream depictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking place on the eve of Donald Trump’s incendiary presidency, two families, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, anxiously await the fate of their children drawn to youth radicalization, fundamentalism and war.
‘… playwright Stephen Orlov’s newest work uses black comedy to cross the cultural divide between Canada’s Jewish and Palestinian diaspora communities.’
Jewish writer David Stein tries desperately to sabotage his son Nelson’s plan to quit McGill and join an ultra-Orthodox Israeli settlement in the West Bank by revealing a family secret about Jamila Hassan, a Palestinian teacher. Jamila’s adopted daughter Karima suddenly disappears from UQAM on a mysterious political mission abroad, provoking a CSIS investigation. Both single parents must reluctantly ally to help save each other’s only child from life-or-death scenarios that drive us to ponder the essence of our common humanity. Birthmark delivers a compelling vision for peace and social justice.
Making up the talented, culturally diverse cast including Jewish and Palestinian actors is Dalia Charafeddine, Patrick Keeler, Howard Rosenstein, Stephen Spreekmeester and Natalie Tannous.
Raised on biblical stories of how his Jewish ancestors fought oppression, and marked by childhood fears about the Holocaust, playwright Stephen Orlov began to ask himself why Jews, who had founded the state of Israel to end their oppression, were now dispossessing another people that had lived there for centuries. For Orlov, politically charged plays must be delivered by characters portraying a range of human frailty and strength along the moral spectrum; characters in conflict true to their times, their place and their culture. “Cultural appropriation must be avoided, but if writers don’t dare to cross the cultural divide with diligence and mutual respect, we will fall short of our visionary goal. My job as a playwright is to tell stories that turn the political into the personal. And the more serious the theme, the more I rely on dark comedy and theatricality, at times surreal, to deliver it,” he said.
For Teesri Duniya Theatre Artistic Director Rahul Varma, there is no more pressing issue in Canada than to cultivate social harmony across the plethora of cultures that make Canada their home: “Despite the seemingly unending and complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, Birthmark offers a platform for dialogue where the Jewish and Arab Diaspora can turn the political conflict abroad into a peace initiative at home. It is a local Montreal story addressing a global theme.”
‘…if writers don’t dare to cross the cultural divide with diligence and mutual respect, we will fall short of our visionary goal.’
“The strength of theatre is how conflict affects people and families, allowing those affected to glean an emotional understanding of dense, political issues,” says co-director Michelle Soicher. She adds, “Nelson and Karima are filled with passion and idealism, as so many young people are. There is immense pressure on them to do something, to write the next chapter of their communities. They have a strong sense of their histories but they have to choose what their future looks like.”
Dalia Charafeddine, Canadian born to Lebanese-Palestinian parents, plays Karima. Birthmark speaks to her on a very personal level: “It is refreshing to see a story which depicts the humanity that is being suppressed and lost in the Israeli occupation, whether Palestinian, Jewish or Israeli. Politics forces us to be reduced to victims, enemies, oppressors… we must hold onto our compassion to create a more prosperous and peaceful future. I’m hoping audiences will now question what they read in the news before swallowing the information as truth.”
For set and costume designer Sabrina Miller, using the Israeli occupation as a backdrop to the parent-child story is gripping. Her set incorporates Ottoman and Byzantine shapes and architecture along with mosaics, jewel-tones and natural wood. She hand paints Arabic and Hebrew text onto the costumes. Sound designer Rehan Lalani chose instruments to represent each character’s heritage; blending and clashing for each scene. Eric Mongerson is the lighting designer and the stage manager is Elyse Quesnel.
Written by Stephen Orlov
Directed by Liz Valdez & Michelle Soicher
Saturday, November 3 to Sunday, November 18
Teesri Duniya Theatre at MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels)
3680 Jeanne-Mance, Montreal
Images: Jaclyn Turner
Janis Kirshner is a respected theatre publicist. She was also co-founder of TITTERS (a female sketch comedy duo) and has co-written and performed numerous hit shows at a number of Fringe Festivals including Montreal, Halifax and Seattle, as well as the Vancouver Int’l Comedy Festival. Janis spent years on the radio as a traffic reporter, entertainment reviewer, and host of open-line talk shows.