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Jane Enkin

 
Jane Enkin Reviews We Keep Coming Back

March 3, 2018

We Keep Coming Back

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley

Berney Theatre, March 6-11, 2018

 

There are still a few days to catch an amazing, unusual theatre experience.

 

We Keep Coming Back is an exploration of the construction of memory and the opportunities for renewal in a place of destruction. The place, in this case, is Jewish Poland.

 

The play centres around a trip to the home towns of Winnipeg-born creator Michael Rosenfeld's survivor grandparents. Rosenfeld narrates the story and plays himself, explaining that he wanted to transcend his difficult relationship with his mother by travelling with her to the old country. He wonders if perhaps her detachment from her parents' roots, the displacement of her parents – her father to a partisan group, her mother to a concentration camp, both eventually to Canada – is at the heart of the disconnect between mother and son.

 

In an extraordinary, passionate performance, Rosenfeld's mother Mary Berchard plays herself – arguing with Michael, dismissing him as untrustworthy (a failing he readily admits), compromising with him, laughing and crying with him.

 

The two of them went to Poland expecting to confront terrible images of the past, and these were plentiful. They also hoped for some contact with the romanticized life Mary's parents lived before the war, but this proved to be more elusive.

 

In some ways, the play presented a familiar picture of a North American Jewish family. There were heart-warming moments, shocking shouting matches, lots of hand-waving, and terrific laughs for the very enthusiastic audience.

 

What made this more than a memory play about the Holocaust was Rosenfeld's explosive, ecstatic response when he learned about the contemporary Jewish community in Poland. He heard about it the first time at a conference in Canada in a talk by Magda Koralewska. He immediately fell for her – they married and now live in Poland.

 

Magda is an important offstage presence in the play, as is Rosenfeld's artistic collaborator, Sarah Garton Stanley, the director of the play. Another delightful character who often pops up in the retelling is Michael's grandmother, whose deadpan humour brightens many scenes.

 

A third, important onstage character is Katzka Reske, a young Polish Jewish film maker, enticed and cajoled by Mary and Michael to document their trip. She is a brilliant presence on stage, cool, sometimes brittle, sometimes warmly emotional, keenly intelligent. While Reske and Berchard often stated in the script that they are non-actors, both performances are rich and varied. Katzka shared her thoughts with the audience in Polish, with surtitles, and spoke fluent English with Michael and Mary. Her feelings and ideas are complex and vivid, even though, as the script emphasized, her life experience is harder for a North American audience to understand. In the talk back session, she pointed out that even jokes are different in Poland – what might leave a North American audience cold has them rolling in the aisles in Poland.

 

The wonderful performances are greatly enhanced by the technical design of the play. The backdrop functions both as a screen and a huge chalkboard. The performers draw a huge map of Berchard's father's town. Projections include photos of lost family members, Reske's video footage from the trip, and a home movie from years ago, while often the action on stage is projected as well, allowing us to see the performers from more than one perspective.

 

This play explores many intriguing questions, among them the following:

Why do North American Jews visit Poland? Are North American Jews, those whose parents or grandparents were born in Poland, themselves Polish?

Why do non-Jewish Poles put effort into preserving and sharing Jewi

 
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