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Theatre Reviews Review: Michael Rubenfeld’s We Keep Coming Back explodes the divide between reality and performance

Michael Rubenfeld and Mary Berchard star in We Keep Coming Back.

We Keep Coming Back

Written by: Michael Rubenfeld

Directed by: Sarah Garton Stanley

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Venue: Mainspace Theatre

Presented by: Factory Theatre

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For the 11 million Ashkenazi Jews in the world, about half of whom live in North America, a visit to Eastern Europe can be fraught with conflicting feeling. For those of us who lost family in the Holocaust – as the vast majority of European Jewry did – a trip to Poland and Auschwitz might occupy a hazy distinction between crucial rite and agonizing obligation. This is the subject of actor/playwright Michael Rubenfeld’s very personal We Keep Coming Back, which opened at Toronto’s Factory Theatre on Thursday night.

As an artist, Rubenfeld is interested in exploding the divide between reality and performance; his 2009 The Book of Judith used his friendship with a quadriplegic woman to question his own prejudices about disability. In We Keep Coming Back, he has brought things even closer to home and put his own mother, Mary Berchard, on stage. Berchard was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Sweden after her parents survived Auschwitz. When Rubenfeld suggests they travel to Poland to visit the towns where his grandparents grew up, Berchard initially refuses. Rubenfeld insists that things have improved for Jews in Poland, but his mother is unconvinced. “Things could get worse,” she says.

Michael Rubenfeld and Katka Reszke.

Diaspora misconceptions about Polish collaborators, Polish war guilt and the current state of Polish Jewry are at the heart of this 90-minute production that immerses us in a touching mother-son adventure. Berchard has no training as an actor, nor does Katke Reske, a Polish filmmaker and academic who was employed as a translator on the trip and plays herself. Director Sarah Garton Stanley distills what is charming and refreshing about these unglossed performances and makes it part of her big-picture approach. The devices are bared on stage, and the production can feel like a multimedia presentation as much as a work of theatre. Digital images are captured in real time and projected on an upstage wall that also serves as a computer screen, a blackboard and a display for video footage of the team’s tour of Poland.

The material is most gripping when it stays true to its sense of “realness.” As a performer, Rubenfeld earns our trust immediately; he’s honest to a fault and we’re effortlessly primed to follow him anywhere. The presence of a real relationship on stage is both absorbing and discomfiting, and the best content comes when the action and dialogue are left to their own devices. Berchard can be entertainingly cynical, but when a video scene has Rubenfeld confess that their first day of in-depth research in Poland might have been spent in the wrong town, she’s endearingly cool about it all. We get a glimpse of the tenderness between them.

Because we witness the real parts, our instincts are honed for when the content becomes forced. Minor conflicts seem tacked on to give the story dramatic shape; both Reske and Berchard become annoyed with Rubenfeld for reasons that feel unmerited. The idea that Rubenfeld is fetishizing his own sense of inherited trauma, rather than staying open-minded to the experience, is telegraphed rather than developed. Little arguments about tone and etiquette feel strained, and there are some dramatic dead zones in which the campiness goes into overdrive, such as a mother-son duet about Santa Claus.

The play is most interesting when it’s able to interrogate the idea of inherited trauma – of what this is and whether it exacerbates a certain kind of tribalism. To what degree is claiming our grandparents’ trauma as our own akin to privileging our own with special empathy? Rubenfeld has a profound emotional experience as he walks around his grandmother’s house in southern Poland only to discover that the experience is specious – isn’t his grandmother’s house at all. Reske speaks at length about her own discovery of her Jewishness and how this informed her identity in post-Communist Poland. At one point, the house lights are raised and Rubenfeld asks the audience to weigh in on whose “trauma” is worse: growing up the grandchild of Holocaust survivors in Winnipeg or growing up ignorant of your Jewish origins to begin with? If the audience is tempted to see this suffering contest between two jet-setting, middle-class artist/researchers unironically, they won’t succeed. Stanley cleverly juxtaposes the scene with a video of a Polish man who, in very simple language, provides a moving invective against tribal thought.

There’s interesting material here – about family, memory and how quick we are to see our own experiences as subtle and variegated while dismissing those of others in broad strokes. If the production did away with certain belaboured bits of drama and followed the course of its own realist design, it could make for stimulating theatre.

We Keep Coming Back continues at Factory Theatre until Nov. 25.

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