ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD by Brenley Charkow (Harley Dog/Next Stage). At Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst). January 10 at 9:30 pm, January 11 and 18 at 4:30 pm, January 12 and 15 at 9 pm, January 13 at 6:45 pm, January 17 at 7 pm, January 19 at 2:30 pm. 416-966-1062. See listing. Rating: NNN
On The Other Side Of The World looks at a Jewish community most know nothing about: the families that fled Hitler's Germany in the late 30s to the only place that would take European Jews without visas, Shanghai.
Life in that city was a major cultural and social shock for them, a key point in Brenley Charkow's ambitious, epic, atmospheric production, inspired by the many stories the writer/director discovered when she researched the community.
She tells it as a memory play for Ursula (Ashleigh Hendry), who spent nearly a decade of her teen years in Shanghai along with her parents, Irene (Debra Hale) and Martin (Nicholas Rice), and various others she meets there.
The 14-member cast plays several dozen roles, from fearful immigrants to friendly Chinese, sneering Japanese (they themselves are often in combat with the Chinese) and manipulative Russians. Scott Penner's vivid set - three multi-use screens and poles laden with pots, baskets and red lanterns that suggest the Shanghai markets - and striking costumes help us navigate this world, as does Siobhan Sleath's lighting and composer Bryce Kulak's live music, a blend of eastern and western sounds.
At times, though, the script feels like too much material has been included. We rush from one scene to another, meet another set of characters, watch problems develop and then (sometimes) get solved as Hitler gains power, the Second World War begins, the Shanghai Jews are declared stateless citizens and the Japanese get involved in the battle.
The result is a show that introduces the audience to a rarely told part of history but doesn't often go into narrative depth or involve us emotionally in the lives of the people we meet. Ursula has a character arc, but her parents are less well represented.
Some episodes, though, resonate more powerfully than others. The arrival in Shanghai captures the assault on the senses felt by the Jewish refugees, while the later establishment of a Jewish ghetto in the city uncomfortably echoes what was happening back in Europe. At times, Ursula's cramped living quarters suggest the Anne Frank household in Amsterdam.
The back story of two men (Dov Mickelson and Jordan Kanner) who for a while share an apartment with Ursula's family is moving, and her encounter with an Oxford-educated Buddhist priest (Dale Yim) has sweetness and warmth.
Martin's business partnership with Mr. Yung (Ray Jacildo) is a charming and comic vignette, as is a performance of The Merry Widow and several scenes involving Ursula's "adopted" family, one that includes a trio of concubines (Phoebe Hu, Susan Lock and Eunjung Nam).
As a script in development, On The Other Side Of The World offers much to enjoy and admire. By the time Ursula moves into a new era with her family, friends and memories, viewers can't help but admire her tenacity and development in a strange land that became, for a time, an unexpected home.