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Actor delves into her own family history

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A scene from 'Avaricious'
A scene from 'Avaricious'

Actor Michelle Polak has had a busy couple of years. She’s currently delving deep into her own history to learn more about her family’s past while also working on Avaricious, a new play by Toronto’s Theatre Gargantua.

“Theatre Gargantua develops work over a two-year-cycle,” says Polak. It all started when director Jacquie Thomas asked a group of artists to start mulling on the word gluttony, or avarice.

Eventually, after long hours spent in both the Toronto Reference Library and the rehearsal hall, that wordplay turned into Avaricious, a new piece of theatre written by Michael Spence, along with the cast and playwright Kat Sandler. It will get its world premiere on Nov. 4 at Theatre Passe Muraille.

The story centres on an enterprising billionaire and his legion of adult orphans who must survive an impending flood. Polak plays a middle-aged orphan named Rupa.

“The essence of my character is survival,” says Polak. “It’s all about her needing to survive, and she’s caught in a very difficult situation because should she step out of the lines and judge the billionaire, she can be replaced.”

Polak notes that in a larger sense, Avaricious looks at the idea of an economic and environmental tipping point as well as the disparity between rich and poor.

She relates to these themes, both in her personal life and professional life as she’s now developing her own play outside of her work with Theatre Gargantua.

“The play is about identity and displacement,” she says. “And this summer I started researching my family bloodline because I look physically Sephardi.” She’s tracked that Sephardi-looking side of her family back to 1732; they were Dutch and Ashkenazi. Her paternal grandfather eventually came to Canada after surviving Auschwitz.

She wants to find out why her surname’s Polak considering her Dutch ancestry. “I’m completely obsessed,” she says. “My kids are making fun of me.”

Her search began in earnest when she reached out to a cousin in Israel. This led her to a man in Amsterdam who shared various Dutch Jewish genealogy sites with her. “In two days, I went from not knowing anything to having a place to research. And 48 hours later, a family tree starts to sprout,” she says.

Determined to go further, she’s sent her DNA off to testing company 23andMe and has even persuaded her brother to send his to the National Geographic Society.

Yet, all of this seems to have a deeper meaning; Polak is beginning to reconnect with her roots.

“God and I had a falling out when I was 10 years old in after-school Hebrew school because I asked my teacher, who was probably somebody’s bubbie, ‘Why did  God kill the babies in the Holocaust?’ And she couldn’t answer me.”

For the first time since the 1980s, Polak attended High Holiday services this year. She fasted on Yom Kippur and even commemorated her great-grandmother’s yahrzeit, who she learned about through her research.

“It’s been a really interesting journey as a lesbian, as a feminist to kind of try and find my place now,” she says.

“I think the thing I’m trying to figure out is what does it mean to be Jewish today, in this time, in this age?” she asks. “How do I get my head around the fact that I once thought that if I was a lesbian, I had no place in Judaism?”

She’s since brought her many questions to Rabbi Aviva Goldberg from Toronto’s Shir Lebeynu congregation as she continues to forge her road of self-discovery. And it’s one she’ll incorporate into her original work. “There’s no way Judaism can’t be part of this play now,” she says.

Yet, she hopes it’ll be relevant for a pluralistic group of people. And she wants the same for Avaricious. “I just crave theatre that has impact, so I hope it [Avaricious] does,” she says. “I hope people leave the theatre different and might even consider their own place in the world.”

Avaricious is playing at the Theatre Passe Murraille Mainspace, running until Nov. 21. For tickets click here.

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