Alon Nashman as Hirsch

Collaboratively created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, Hirsch, part of this year’s Chutzpah! Festival, celebrates and deconstructs the life of Canadian theatre icon, John Hirsch

Before seeing this play, I thought I knew nothing about this man; afterwards I realized that I’d certainly experienced the influence of his enduring legacy. Not only did he help reshape the landscape of Canadian theatre, but also championed for original and unique Canadian content that we’ve come to expect from the CBC. 
There is a sense that these fortuitous outcomes resulted from pure chance. A Hungarian refugee, orphaned by the Holocaust, Hirsch may not have made it to the shores of Canada had it not been for the War Orphans Project of the Canadian Jewish Congress

In one of the most memorable scenes from the play, we witness a young, stateless beggar being batted from consulate to consulate without much success. His story reinforces the multi-cultural tapestry that makes up the remarkable diversity of Canada. Since adopting this nation, Hirsch has been a staunch advocate for promoting the Canadian identity in theatre and television, rather than trying to impersonate America. 
The stage is filled with several personages, although fiercely talented Nashman is the solo performer. He also acts as narrator and guide while transforming seamlessly from character to character during selected moments of Hirsch’s life. His remarkably authentic performance compares to someone with dissociative identity disorder assuming his place and prowling about the stage.

Alon Nashman as Hirsch
In the show, Nashman reveals that he’s had opportunities to work with Hirsch, and while the inspiration for this play comes from those interactions, he found the man both revering and revolting. His personal experiences with this caustic genius is perhaps what makes this production so unique. 

Hirsch is not a straightforward autobiography, but rather a humorous tribute. A seasoned director, co-creator Paul Thompson has developed the “collective creative” mode of production. It is an amalgamation of research and improvisation, then refined, reworked, and ordered. The three main songs/jingles that punctuate this work probably arose from improvisation but serve to tidily summarize Hirsch’s life. 

The first exposure to this style of theatre seems clumsy and scattered. Scenes and dialogue are plucked from Hirsch’s life that may appear non-sequential or insignificant in defining the man, while others are left out. For example, Hirsch’s adopted parents are never mentioned, although they were an unmistakable influence in his life. 

No other theatre genre can better showcase the importance of having an exceptional dramaturge (Bob White) for gathering quality researched gems. The audience is treated to a select few of Hirsch’s private and intimate interactions without omitting the quintessential events. These scenes expose the demeanor of the person underneath the icon – tyrannical, moody, haunted, zealous, visionary. Even towards the end of his dying days he remains authentic to his exacting craft and imperious ego.

Alon Nashman as Hirsch
The stage props are minimal but all bear significance to Hirsch’s life. A soft bong that signals the beginning and the end of the show is the same as that struck at every show at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

The enormous velvet curtains are reminiscent of grandiose Shakespearean productions; the “ghost light” on center stage is designed to ward off lingering theatre ghosts at the renowned Manitoba Theatre Centre; a single suitcase, the contents of which were all that Hirsch was allowed to take with him from Hungary; an elaborate feathered cape worn towards the end that may have been inspired by The Tempest.

For much of the play, Hirsch wheels around a wooden cart, inspired by one of his successful productions, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. This cart is ingeniously versatile, as it morphs from cart to shop table, consulate wicket, puppet stage, and wheelchair. 
Nashman uses an unnamed stage-hand who helps to change the set and deliver props. I found these interactions somewhat distracting as they happen too often and pull the audience’s attention away from the otherwise convincing reverie. 

If lighting choices were more intuitive, such as only spotlighting Nashman while the set was being moved, the show would have been more cohesive. However, I am unsure whether the stage-hand’s presence is unintentional. Her interactions increase as the show progresses and Hirsch, renowned for his bullying temperament, eventually treats her like one of his underlings towards the end. Regardless, there is either too much or too little of this interplay. 
Those with some knowledge of this inspiring pioneer would appreciate Nashman’s superb performance in this eccentric tribute. Those with none will reap some delightful trivia. Hirsch entertains at the Firehall through March 1.  

Photos by Cylla von Tiedermann.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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