Judging from the audience reaction on opening night, about 30% had seen John Hirsch live, in rehearsal or “in action” either during his tenure as artistic director of the Strafford Shakespeare Festival (1981-85—as well as a shorter stint as co-artistic director, 1967-9) or in his various incarnations in Winnipeg (notably his catalytic role in establishing the Manitoba Theatre Centre), at the CBC or in major U.S. cities. Many times, we felt like eavesdroppers as the famed director’s laundry was hung boldly on the lines.
For the rest of us, much of the production has to be taken at face value, with a grain of salt or seen as a highly romanticized dramatic biography of the “Hungarian, orphan, Jewish homosexual” outsider/immigrant who found relief from the ravages of the Holocaust in the centre of Canada, carrying only his chutzpah and talent in his baggage. Many times, we felt like eavesdroppers as the famed director’s laundry was hung boldly on the lines.
For ninety minutes, Alon Nashman relives Hirsch’s life with obvious passion, respect, love and insight. Whether mimicking his voice, affectations or body language, revealing inner fears that never really drop too far below the exacting director’s surface or parodying others within his circle, Nashman uses every fibre of his being to bring the icon back to life.
The historical lesson (~Act I) and the horrors of Hitler-dominated Europe have many echoes with the writings of compatriot George Jonas—albeit form a considerably different point of view (cross-reference below).
The career-building section is—naturally—much lighter in tone as the trials, tribulations and mosquitoes of Winnipeg are brought into the limelight during the heady days of bringing world-class theatre to Portage and Main (now just one block north of John Hirsch Place). Along with Tom Hendry, their goal was to “create great professional theatre with mass appeal”—no matter how big the deficit became once Hirsch took the reins on his own, it seems.
The Stratford era (following close on the heels of reorganizing all things dramatic at the People’s Network) drew the most knowing guffaws even as the testy artistic leader showed his contempt and disdain for “actors and the board,” which only thinly veiled his continuing worry about the next opening with what the critics might think (this despite the usual bravura that audience reaction trumps informed critical commentary every time).
Also illuminating today’s earlier performance of Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Brothers, Itai Erdal’s lighting skills burned brighter than ever, adding considerable visual depth to the saga of one man’s artistic and—later—health demons. (HIV/AIDS would eventually bring down the final curtain; happily, many good years with partner Bryan Trottier were also reported, bringing some comfort to the “challenged” life.)
The numerous musical references also contributed to the cultured home that unquestionably informed Hirsch’s early days—imagine dancing in the same room as Nijinsky while humming Debussy’s L’après midi d’un faune! Yet the quote from Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” seemed too on-the-nose for the relocation to Manitoba.
Special mention has to go the pair of stage managers who not only keep the prop train running on time but also managed a few droll contrubutions of their own (whether keeping straight faces to the hijinks or joylessly tossing synchronized party streamers in celebration of the star’s latest triumph). Much of the credit must, of course, go to co-creator and director Paul Thompson whose special understanding of the subject matter can be felt in every scene.
An obvious programming/funding coup for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 60th season, it will be interesting to see if Hirsch has theatrical legs beyond this special year. JWR