Tough Jews is exciting and immersive theatre

TOUGH JEWS by Michael Ross Albert (Storefront Theatre/The Spadina Avenue Gang). At Kensington Hall (56K Kensington). Runs to Apr 16..


TOUGH JEWS by Michael Ross Albert (Storefront Theatre/The Spadina Avenue Gang). At Kensington Hall (56K Kensington). Runs to Apr 16. Pwyc-$25. thestorefronttheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Down the alley behind Kensington Hall theres a door, and when you walk through it youre transported back in time to a 1920s speakeasy. Exciting and immersive, Tough Jews is really, as one of its characters might say, the cats pyjamas.

The action and theres much of it unfolds in two acts set entirely in a Kensington Market basement. The house belongs to matriarch Ida (Theresa Tova), who fled Eastern European pogroms schlepping along her children Joe (Luis Fernandes), Ben (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) and Rose (Maaor Ziv). Ida had another son, Teddy (G. Kyle Shields), after settling in Toronto and before the demise of her husband.

Nineteen-year-old Teddy runs the familys hat shop, but thats a cover for their real business as gangsters, assisted by cousin Ziggie (Stephen Joffe). The play begins with a hot deal about to go down, but Ziggies impulsive behaviour in front of Joes fiancee Marge (Anne van Leeuwen) no less causes everything to go haywire.

Playwright Michael Ross Albert has created a rich script filled with antagonism, violence, period-specific phrases and some Yiddish for added flavour. A yearning for a better life pervades each scene, with Teddy shouldering the burden of the familys hope. Albert conveys much through unexpected details, particularly in the stronger first act. For example, Idas reluctance to allow her boys to fast on Yom Kippur stems from the poverty she endured in the old country. The storyline lags a bit in Depression-era Act two, but the resolution is still wrenching.

The play includes a multitude of strong performances. Tovas resolute matriarch controls the room with just a look, and Joffe explodes with hot-tempered swagger in each of his scenes. Every actor finds a unique way to express real humanity beneath the thuggery.

As the Storefront Arts Initiatives founder and director, Benjamin Blais has become masterful at placing immense stories on tiny stages. Fight scenes and fast-paced dialogue often overlap like a musical fugue, but Blais brings order and focus to the onstage cacophony.

This play is unapologetically local, a refreshing rarity on Toronto stages. Joe has to bury a body all the way up past Eglinton, theres talk about neighbourhood streets and the Christie Pits riot overshadows the second act.

Equal parts funny and violent, the production resists nostalgia and whimsy. To its credit, Tough Jews never goes soft.

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