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Fringe plays give voice to Jewish women

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The cast from The Ties that Bind and Gag. (Stefan Delmedico photo)

On April 1, 2017, Paula Wolfson threw herself an unusual birthday party. She spent a few thousand dollars to rent out the Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre in downtown Toronto, invited hundreds of guests to fill the 497 seats and hired stage and musical directors to perform a two-hour, one-woman cabaret of her favourite songs as a theatrical retirement party.

There was cake, there was a slideshow, there was a grand finale of The Beatles’ In My Life sung by everyone in attendance. In the first act, Wolfson sang a medley of her favourite songs. After a 15-minute intermission, she launched into a second act, comprised exclusively of songs from her favourite musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

“So much of me has left the theatre behind,” she says, reflecting on the night. “I thought, if I’m going out, I’m going out with a bang.”

People remembered her performance. One of those people was Bonnie Anderson, who, months later, suggested Wolfson mount her Superstar renditions as a short play for the Toronto Fringe Festival. Wolfson was hesitant – she did technically retire, after all. But what drew her to retirement were the auditions, the pressure, the constant grind. This would be different, she figured. This would just be for fun.

Performer Paula Wolfson. (Bonnie Anderson photo)

The result is Judas Star Supersong, a 45-minute show that lies somewhere between cabaret and concert – a condensed medley of the original musical, all sung by Wolfson and directed by her longtime collaborator, Ed Sahely. She’ll be performing at the Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, a 161-year-old Anglican church outside Kensington Market.

For the veteran theatre workers, this is a labour of love.

“You’re not going to go into Fringe to make money,” Sahely says. “I have no illusions of momentum in this business. You do what you want, not what the business expects you to do.”

Likewise, the play echoes Wolfson’s self-given send-off from last April, in that it allows her to sing as Judas – the role she’s always wanted, but was never given the chance to play.

“For women, there’s an assumption that the part they want is the leading lady,” she says. “I’m pushing back against that.”

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Giving a voice to Jewish women is also one of the driving forces behind the Paperny sisters’ debut Fringe Festival play. For Anna Mehler Paperny, 31, and her sister, Juliet, 24, it was important that their hour-long show portrays the strong-willed, thick-skinned women that comprise their own family.

Juliet, who works in media production, approached Anna with the idea of collaborating on a play last fall. Anna, a reporter for Reuters in Canada, liked the thought of having a creative outlet – and knew just the story she could tell.

Back in 2016, Anna found herself in a long car ride in Los Angeles with her mother, her 91-year-old grandmother and her uncle. What might have began as a fun little road trip turned into a test of love as the group quickly began arguing in an endless loop.

“There was just this palpable tension,” Anna recalls. She was torn between defending her mother and her grandmother, trying to stay neutral in a strategic argument that she knew wouldn’t lead anywhere.

“We create these Risk games against each other,” she says, “but you can’t win against people you love.”

That trip inspired The Ties that Bind and Gag, the sisters’ debut production at this year’s Fringe Festival. The play is essentially a fictionalized retelling of that event, pitting five family members against each other in a car ride.

“I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia with people you love so much but want to get away from,” Anna says.

READ: ‘WE THE MEN’ IS A FRINGE SHOW UNLIKE ANY OTHER

They credit their Jewish upbringing – and Jewish family dynamic – with giving them the tools needed to recreate this world onstage. In the play, both grandparents are Holocaust survivors, a fact that is never explicitly stated, but looms over the family. (Jewish audiences, Juliet says, will catch on; non-Jewish viewers may miss the hints.) The subject matter of their argument also deals with particularly North American Jewish themes, like the shift of first-generation Jewish immigrants to the political right.

It’s a debate surely most young Canadian Jewish adults have had with their parents, and will recognize the characters’ need to be thick skinned about any confrontation.

“If you can’t joke about it at next Shabbat dinner,” Anna says, “you’re just gonna resent your family.”

 

Judas Star Supersong will run from July 4-14, and The Ties That Bind and Gag will run from July 6-14, as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival. Tickets are $13. See fringetoronto.com for details.