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Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin: So, Nu? A Festival of New Winnipeg Jewish Plays

By Jane Enkin, March 16, 2016



What if you could save the lives of fifty children?

What if in saving them you put your own life at risk?

What if you could save the life of one child?

What if in saving her you put your own life and the lives of others at risk?

Two readings in the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s So, Nu? A Festival of New Winnipeg Jewish Plays explored the lives of rescuers during the Holocaust.



The Festival features two other works, with all performances at the Berney Theatre.

The Boy Genius, a reading of a play by Sara Arenson

Thursday, March 17, 8 pm – a family story about a girl who lives “in the shadow of her brother, the pet project of their high-powered father.”

Shiksa, by Cairn Moore

Last performance Saturday, March 19, 8 pm – “When Zack’s parents discover he is living with a ‘shiksa,’ he must choose between the love of his parents and the love of his life.”



I attended two readings of new scripts in development.



The Girl Beneath My Feet, by Leigh-Anne Kehler, is extraordinary and beautiful in its powerful approach to emotional experience and moral self-exploration. 



Mena is a teenager in Nazi Germany in 1944, confronted with the opportunity and the burden of protecting, with her mother, one young Jewish girl. Mena deals with multiple influences at once. She responds to all of them in the course of the brief play: her own caring, compassionate parents; her boyfriend who wants to transcend his physical disability and serve the Nazi regime; teachers and Youth League leaders bent on indoctrination; classmates and neighbours who escalate their humiliating taunts; and the horrifying pressures of wartime poverty, violence and the ever-present fear of “a knock at the door.”


Mena deals with all of this in a convincing teenage voice, with her angry moments and petty ones, her shyness, her pride, her unthinking repetition of unconscious prejudices – “It’s not cruelty, it’s common sense!” --and her growing consciousness of the realities around her.



Kehler’s strong skills as a storyteller are crucial to the play, since most of the disturbing action happens offstage and is vividly retold by the characters.



The adult audience in attendance on Tuesday night was moved and excited by the play, but it is wonderful that this play is geared toward high school audiences.  Author Kehler and director and dramaturge Mariam Bernstein will continue to develop the nuanced script.


Miranda Baran, as Mena, gave a gripping performance that stayed at a tense pitch the whole time, over a wide emotional and intellectual range.  Jan Skene, as Mena’s mother, showed great tenderness, grief, frustration yet constant support.  Aaron Pridham was charming as Mena’s love-struck, patriotic boyfriend, holding our sympathy as he gave in to Mena’s assertiveness and then to his horrible army superiors.



Sheltered, by Alix Sobler, directed by dramaturge Ann Hodges, was also presented as a play reading.



Sheltered is based on the true story of Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, an American Jewish couple who brought Jewish children out of Europe in 1939.  Sobler has created fictional characters to bring out the drama of the Kraus’ experience.



The first act is bracingly, painfully funny.  Eleanor and Gilbert have invited their friends Roberta and Martin Blum to dinner.  With attempts at hearty jokes, truly awkward pauses and some sweet attempts to reach out to one another, the two couples gradually reveal more about themselves and their relationships as we learn as well about the mission Eleanor and Gilbert are planning.



Toby Hughes was terrific as the blustering, abrasive Martin. Although they are presented in a completely individual and fascinating way, many stereotypes are embodied in the character -- he is a Jewish immigrant desperate to be an assimilated all-American guy. He is sentimentally attached to his own family back in Europe, he is appalled at the thought, hinted at amusingly in the script, that his daughter might go out with non-Jewish boys, but he is offended by any behaviour that seems too noticeably Jewish.  Martin has chilling things to say about current events in Europe as “their affair.”



Gilbert, played sweetly by Dave Brown, is a gentle, steadfast man.  He remains low-key throughout. We only gradually learn that he is not just prophetic about prospects for a war that will draw in the USA and devastate Europe – he has Washington connections and inside information.



Eleanor, played with tension and grace by Paula Potosky, is a character written with many emotional layers, a person who is deceptive and possibly self-deceptive, trying in difficult situations to be both open-hearted and self-protective.



The devastating, rich character of Roberta was played with detailed beauty by Gwendolyn Collins.  Practically every sentence she speaks reveals a new emotional colour or a new piece of information – Roberta is judgemental and severely judged, weak and resourceful, caring and too worn to care…a fascinating, fragile character. With Collin’s affecting performance, all kinds of images come to mind – a flickering flame that sometimes flares up, for example, a wounded deer, a fluttering bird.



At intermission, I felt excited to experience such an entertaining entryway into challenging thoughts and connections.  One of the play’s many themes concerns the question, “Do you want to know what’s really going on?  If you know, what will you do?” Sheltered is, in fact, a highly intellectual undertaking, with overlapping explorations of motherhood, personal risk versus personal safety, and incredibly difficult choices.  There are effective repeated motifs, including the need to “select” children to save, with its echoes of Nazi “selection.”  



The second act of Sheltered, unfortunately, falls flat.  Without the fascinating Blums, Sobler tries unsuccessfully to build drama with Eleanor, Gilbert and a European mother, Hani (played with restraint by Collins.)  Too much dialogue consists of characters telling each other things they both already know, especially disappointing after the subtle revelations of Act 1. The characters bicker, commiserate, challenge and support one another, but they didn’t reach me.



Artistic Director Ari Weinberg writes: “The So Nu Festival is a renewal of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s commitment to serve as a hub of creation and development for local theatre artists. Over twenty Winnipeg artists have been contracted for the festival. The plays were selected based on their fresh and insightful perspective on the Jewish experience, furthering WJT’s mission to produce new Canadian works and displaying the wealth of talent this city has to offer.”



I enjoy play readings, and I hope they will be a significant part of WJT’s programming in the years to come.  The writers, directors and performers make so much happen without the support of set, lighting, even blocking.  We experience acting – people onstage listening and responding to one another, responding to their audience, creating characters we care about and wonder about, and helping us wonder… What would we do?


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