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Essay By Hannah Moscovitch Summary Of Oliver

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Hannah Moscovitch, directed by Michael Rubenfeld /Natasha Myntowych

Factory Theatre, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

January 19-February 17, 2008

Factory Theatre has combined Hannah Moscovitch’s two acclaimed one-act plays into a double bill.  Both were hits at the Rhubarb! Festival and at SummerWorks, Essay in 2005 and The Russian Play in 2006.  Seen in order of writing the plays show a quantum leap in dramatic imagination from the good but rather obvious Essay to the complex contrasts of tone in The Russian Play.

Essay seems like a student play in more ways than one.  In terms of story, it is about a female first-year student Pixie (Claire Jenkins) discussing the female-centred topic for her essay with her “History of War” TA Jeffrey (Jordan Pettle).  In terms of attitude it has not brushed away the naïve notion that academics’ pursuits and behaviour are of the utmost importance.  To the outsider the play is a neat little satire on the burden gender politics has placed on course subject matter and on student-teacher relations in university.  The carefully politically correct Jeffrey comes into conflict with his patronizing professor (Richard Greenblatt) both over Pixie’s essay and over the general role of women in history only to find men’s exclusion of women in assessing history to repeat itself in miniature in his office.  All three parts are well cast and well played, with Greenblatt especially good at exuding self-satisfied pity that neither Jeffrey nor Pixie has a clue how to the play power games so vital in academia.

The Russian Play presents itself at first as a satire of Russian stories--“laughter followed by misery” according the comically cynical Narrator (Michelle Monteith).  Moscovitch’s daring experiment is, in fact, to intersperse the Narrator’s acerbic commentary with the touching, sensitively played scenes of her tale of the doomed love affair of a flower girl Aebovka (also Monteith) with the gravedigger Piotr (Aaron Willis).  We both laugh at the truth of the Narrator’s remarks about Russians and their vodka-sodden themes and are still drawn in to the story she mocks.  It is a fine achievement until it culminates in a trick ending that makes no sense of the central character.  What really sells the play is the extraordinary performance of Monteith as both cynic and innocent.  Beauty in song and dance adds to her accomplishment.  Willis and Shawn Campbell as factory owner both give fine, understated performances.  One can understand why Factory would have each play presented by people originally associated with it, but since each has the same cast requirements--one young male and female plus one older male--it would be theatrically more exciting to have the same three actors perform both plays.  While it seems the two plays may have been over-praised at the time, they are never less than entertaining and, in the case of The Russian Play, even moving.        

©Christopher Hoile

Note: A version of this review appeared in Eye Weekly 2008-01-24.

Photo: Claire Jenkins and Richard Greenblatt / Michelle Monteith and Shawn Campbell.

On November 4th, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau named a new cabinet composed of 15 women and 15 men. Asked to explain his approach to gender parity, he answered: “Because it’s 2015.”

This is a moment that Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch mentions early in our conversation. She has been following the Waking the Feminists movement that dominated arts news in Ireland in the latter part of the year and is keen to contribute her own experiences as a woman in what she calls “this strange profession of playwriting”.

In Canada, she says, “theatre is a minor art form”. As a colonial country, its theatre tradition is dominated by American and British voices. “The idea of a Canadian theatre really only came into being in the generation before mine.”

However, the odds of success within the professional playwriting community “are doubly stacked against a woman”. Moscovitch has little experience of any open discrimination “but when you see the statistics, and there has been research done on this in Canada, it is clear that if a woman’s name is on a play it is more likely to be rejected for development or production, or if you write a lead female character, your play is less likely be produced”.

Even so, she says, “it can be hard to calculate the actual impact on your own career. You just don’t know to what degree those statistics have impacted upon the production or rejection of your work, or whether, subconsciously, they have influenced your decisions when you are writing a play.”

Moscovitch thinks Trudeau’s commitment to gender parity is an important symbolic gesture. “It would be amazing if all the [mostly male] artistic directors at the big theatres in Canada made a similar commitment.

“If the tradition of playwriting is almost entirely a male one – and it is – it can be hard for young women to visualise themselves as playwrights. Maybe gender quotas are the way to go. It would certainly make a young woman feel [that future success] would not be exceptional or extraordinary.”

Performing arts

As a young woman growing up in Toronto, Moscovitch never saw playwriting as part of her future, although she had always been attracted to the theatre. She applied to study performing arts at college after she finished school but was rejected. A year later she tried again and was accepted as an acting student at the National Theatre School of Canada. “It turns out I had no aptitude for acting,” she says wryly.

However, when she took a mandatory course in playwriting, she found the creative control to be intoxicating. “I hadn’t thought about writing plays before, but once I started I realised I was probably always going to be a writer. And so because I was at an acting school, it happened that I was going to be a playwright.”

After graduation, Moscovitch moonlighted as a waitress in Toronto while staging her own work as part of the independent theatre scene. She established an immediate reputation for work that dealt with big political issues: Essay (2005) was about gender politics in a contemporary academic institution; The Russian Play was set in that country’s Stalinist era. It wasn’t long before her work was snapped up by established theatres, and she has been a resident writer at Tarragon Theatre, which specialises in new writing, for seven years.

In 2007 that theatre hosted the premiere of her first full-length play, East of Berlin, which examines the legacy of the Holocaust on the children of those who lived through it. She was quickly lauded as “an indie sensation”, a “wunderkind” and the “dark angel of Toronto theatre”. She was 29.

East of Berlin, which opens at Project Arts Centre in a new production by Brinkmanship Theatre, was inspired by the time Moscovitch spent at a kibbutz in Israel when she was 18. “There were 30 young people, English and American Jews, and one [young man] whose grandfather had murdered Jews during the war. He was doing penance for his family’s history, and his presence really stuck in my mind.”

Moscovitch was not intimidated by dealing with such a huge and potentially controversial topic. “I grew up in the era of Schindler’s List, the first wave of mainstream discussion [of the Holocaust], where people were not afraid to talk or make movies about it. It wasn’t a taboo subject any more and it was discussed a lot in my Hebrew school and at temple, and it was a very common sight to see people with numbers on their arms there.”

Moscovitch “has no direct lineage” to the atrocity; she “didn’t have any family that survived”. She was also raised in an atheist household, but the cultural aspects of Judaism were very important to her family, which is a blend of Ukrainian and Romanian on her father’s side, and Irish and English on her mother’s. Her parents were left-wing academics, and the secular nature of her household allowed Moscovitch to take a more objective view of her cultural history.

Jewishness, she says, “is an ethnicity” as much as it is a religion. The success of her approach to the complex subject in East of Berlin, meanwhile, gave her the confidence to tackle more contemporary political situations, such as her 2013 play This Is War, which examined the role of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Current projects include a play about the birth-control movement in Canada, “which went hand in hand with eugenics in the 1920s”.

Moscovitch recently celebrated the birth of her first child, which has changed her outlook and her priorities. She assumes it will also shape her work: “I even put sentences together differently these days.”

She would love to travel to Dublin to see Brinkmanship’s production, which is being professionally mounted by Canadian director Lee Wilson after a successful showcase at the Lir last year. But “a long flight with a 5½-month-old might not be the most practical idea.” And yet, “I just might do it.”

  • East of Berlin is at the Project Arts Centre January 7th-16th