Alon Nashman’s generosity shines through in Hirsch, at Stratford’s Studio Theatre.
HIRSCH created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, directed by Thompson (Stratford Festival). At the Studio Theatre, Stratford. Runs to September 14; see stratfordshakespearefestival.com for details. $30-$70. 1-800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN
If you don't know anything about director John Hirsch (1930-1989) before seeing the extraordinary one-man show created by actor Alon Nashman and director Paul Thompson, you'll know a great deal about him by the end of the evening.
You'll also care for this passionate, caustic, insightful man, a Hungarian refugee to Canada who became artistic director of the Stratford Festival and an internationally celebrated man of the theatre.
The power of the production, though, comes not just from the storytelling but also from the way Nashman fills the Studio with his adept, heartfelt performance as Hirsch and others in his life.
The actor not only recreates Hirsch but also steps outside that role to become himself, an actor who reveals the way that the director affected his life and career. Always a generous artist, Nashman never shies away from providing personal details about both men's lives. The two even argue about the nature of the play they're in and whether it's right to create such a work.
Moving kaleidoscopically through Hirsch's life, the play traces the love he had for his family and their deaths during the Holocaust, defined by a chilling, near-silent scream that recurs throughout the show.
But there are celebratory moments, too, among them Hirsch's creation of world-class theatre in the "wilderness" of Winnipeg, triumphs at the Stratford Festival, establishment-shaking work as head of CBC's English-television drama, his masterful production of the Yiddish classic The Dybbuk - there's a superb evocation of its central scene of demonic possession, with help from Gillian Gallow's design and Itai Erdal's lighting - and successes abroad.
Using as props the cart from Brecht's Mother Courage (another triumphant Hirsch production), a battered suitcase and a single-bulb ghost light (traditionally placed onstage when other theatre lights are dark), Nashman moves us through Hirsch's tumultuous life, using Yiddish songs, conversations with actors and surprising observations on various plays; he sees The Tempest's Caliban, for instance, as a lover rather than a monster.
Thompson and Nashman view Hirsch as an outsider on a number of levels; he was Hungarian, gay, Jewish and an artist. Being the "other" helped to define his work and his relationships, and the production doesn't ignore Hirsch's anger and sharp tongue. At one point, when he's running the Manitoba Theatre Centre, he's referred to as "Winnipeg's most prickly prick."
The show's creators also don't shy away from mentioning the difficulty of running an arts organization as large and multifaceted as the Stratford Festival; there's poignancy as well as venom in Hirsch's confrontation with the festival board he had ostracized.
But the impression we're left with is of Hirsch the artist, who saw the stage as hallowed ground on which to create magic, as he did in productions of King Lear, The Tempest and a never-bettered staging of The Three Sisters. Nashman recounts his own encounter, visceral and metaphoric, with the tradition-laden Festival Theatre stage, and we see that he shares with Hirsch the same passion for what wonderful possibilities can be conjured on it.
You won't find a more fitting demonstration of that enchantment than a scene near the end of the play, when the older Hirsch has an experience that transports him back to his childhood. Time evaporates, memories light the stage and we are part of that special communion that theatre can evoke for artist and audience.