Bad Jews- Theatre Calgary-Max Bell Theatre, Calgary

Theatre Calgary - Bad Jews

Written by Joshua Harmon

Directed by Valerie Planche

Running at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary until April 10th


If you ask a Canadian “Where are you from”, you will most likely hear something like “My family are German” or “I have an Irish background”. Living in a country as young as Canada, many of us pine for that exotic mother-land from whence we came, something older, more culturally potent on which to plant our flag of cultural-identity.

Canadians are still forging our shared cultural identity whilst also trying to keep alive our unique family histories through heirlooms, traditions, memories, whatever managed to survive the trip here. This cultural hole we’re desperate to fill may have been opened by our history as colonial immigrants; a hole I’m sure our ancestors felt gaping within themselves as they left behind everything they’d ever known, never to see it again, forsaking the old ways and striking out into the new world

“Identity”, according to Valerie Planche’s director’s notes, “is fluid”. She suggests that trauma experienced by our forbears can leave marks on us. Whether we recognize their origins or not, these events in history which have had such lasting impact on our family members, on our peoples on a larger scale, will reverberate in us as well.

Whatever our cultural backgrounds as individuals, Theatre is essential in shaping, documenting, and challenging our cultural identity as a whole. Theatre is created by us, for us, about us, about others, and is especially important in times of transition or hardship.

Joshua Harmon’s play obviously focusses on the specific struggles of how three Generation Y cousins (and one girlfriend) interact with their Jewish tradition, religion and history following the death of the family patriarch, who was a Holocaust survivor. Despite this cultural specificity, Theatre Calgary’s electric production is also rich in universal truths. The result is a highly accessible exploration of what cultural identity means to us- touching, scathing, funny, and bursting with conundrums as we explore our universal struggle with identity, especially what it means within the realms of family.

Bad Jews 204aABTheatre

(l to r) Jeremy Ferdman, Bobbi Goddard, David Sklar in Bad Jews. Photo by Trudie Lee.

The consequences of cultural assimilation, the deep impact of forgotten traditions, the guilt of  generations who have lost touch with their heritage, and the immense responsibility of continuing your family’s story, are just a few of the complex and vexing issues explored within the production. Planche’s tactful and intuitive direction encourages audiences to consider these issues very deeply, and her generosity as a theatre maker shows as she shares her very personal connection to these dilemmas.

Although due care has been taken to cast artists with Jewish backgrounds, director Valerie Planche’s roots in both Plains Cree and French European have obviously provided vital perspective. Her candid director’s notes divulge her own troubling personal struggles with identity; “Natives and genociders co-mingling in my veins”. As memories of the Holocaust live on through Feygenbaum family stories on stage, ghosts of other cultural genocides echo throughout the theatre and elisions with Canada’s own cultural atrocities, and others around the world, cannot be denied. How do we move on from these horrific defining moments in our histories and keep our cultures alive, help them to thrive even?

Also essential to the strength of this thought-provoking production are the talented young actors who make up the cast, including a stunning central performance from Bobbi Goddard. I first saw her as a powerfully complex Prospera in Shakespeare by the Bow’s Tempest, and her strength of spirit on stage in this production refuses to be stifled. As the vibrant, strong-willed Daphna, her dynamism thrives as she fights to single-handedly embody the heart and soul of the family’s Jewish identity. Harmon’s writing of a modern 20-something Jewish woman is constantly nuanced with what sounds like expressions she’s picked up from other family members. Through Daphna, we hear other voices from within the family and see how they’ve shaped her from childhood, beautifully illustrating the subtle, natural absorption of our family history through the influence of our loved ones. The role is as demanding as it is rewarding and Goddard more than rises to the challenge; I think we can expect many great performances from this soulful young artist.

Many find it difficult to sit in a theatre and experience something troubling, something that makes you think, something that’s honest and true to life but doesn’t necessarily reinforce the satisfying idea of “happily ever after”. Greek tragedians believed that experiencing devastating atrocities through characters on a stage gave them a crucial cathartic cleansing. Here in Alberta, we tend to spend our money on more uplifting escapist entertainment; a musical or comedy that leaves us feeling bright, cheery, and allows us to forget whatever daily struggles are bringing us down. While Bad Jews offers such comforts as relatable characters and belly laughs throughout, more important is the conversation it encourages us to have with each other about the role cultural identity plays both in our lives as individuals and within the community.

Theatre is meant to provoke a reaction, and this production has obviously sparked so much debate and discussion that Theatre Calgary holds a talk-back session after each performance, something they usually only do on select dates across a run. The impact of the production was immeasurable as people from all backgrounds came together to share their thoughts and experiences; together, tackling the complex questions on the journey towards understanding ourselves, each other, and the significance of cultural identity. That is this productions true theatrical triumph.

You could take this story and, with a few tweaks here or there, apply it to any four young people from any given culture anywhere. Imagine the possibilities if we moved the story from a place of privilege, i.e. a swanky Upper West-Side apartment occupied by a self professed upper middle class family like the Feygenbaums, and set it in the home of a newly resettled family from, say, Syria. Perhaps that’s extreme, but theatre can do that. A powerful story can engender further thought, debate, perhaps even change and we can all benefit from the possibilities.

Bad Jews runs until April 10th at the Max Bell Theatre, Calgary


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