The Chutzpah Festival, Firehall Arts Centre and Touchstone Theatre

Dates and Venue 25 February - 1 March 2014, Tues - Fri at 8pm (Sat at 5pm & 9pm) | Firehall Arts Centre

Director Paul Thompson Set & Costume Design Gillian Gallow Lighting Design Itai Erdal Sound Design Verne Good Dramaturg Bob White Stage Manager Suzie Martin

Reviewer John Jane

Hirsch is a single-handed, single act bioplay that takes a satirical, and sometimes cynical, look at the personal and professional life of celebrated theatrical icon, John Hirsch. Former understudy Alon Nashman and director Paul Thompson have created a “warts n’ all” tribute to the Canadian cultural ground-breaker. A Hungarian Jew orphaned by the Holocaust, chose Winnipeg as his adopted city while still in his teens, after the Second World War.

Nashman, who is the show’s solo performer, enters the stage from the back of the theatre promising that even if we don’t know John Hirsch, we’ll “know a great deal about him by the end of the evening.” Nashman begins his subject’s story close to the end of his life, dying of an AIDS-related illness in Toronto in 1989, aged fifty-nine.

A hand-cart from Brecht’s Mother Courage, a battered suitcase, a ghost light and an ornate floor length cloak are among a myriad of props that provide reference to Hirsch’s distinguished career. Over the ninety-minutes run time, Nashman portrays Hirsch through pivotal periods of his chaotic life, using Hebrew songs, critical commentary with actors (including a conversation with Frank Langella) and even a puppet show.

The play is predominantly anecdotal rather than following a narrative arc. In one instance, Nashman (who must have been there) relates a story of Hirsch while head of the Stratford Festival, berating an actor for his lack of passion in the role of Caliban in The Tempest. In an earlier scene, Hirsch is liberated from a concentration camp as a “stateless person.” Visiting numerous consulates, answering questions, taking blood tests, fate draws him to an immigration line-up for Canada – a country not initially at the top of his list and a place he knew almost nothing about.

Alon Nashman certainly delivers an energetic and committed performance; he’s dead-on with Hirsch’s quirky affectations and foibles and credible when impersonating his mildly neurotic, East European accent. Though essentially a single-handed show, droll support comes from Jessica, a stage hand who contributes some highly visible on-stage prop-shifting.

Hirsch is heartfelt, and insightful that is sometimes humourous and sometimes poignant. Notwithstanding, I feel that John Hirsch himself might be skeptical about how such an outsider warrants a full theatrical biography.

© 2014 John Jane