June 13, 2013

'Odessa' a mix of Old World and New

By STEVEN HOWELL Press-Republican

---- — MONTREAL — With Russian gangsters, a mix of klezmer and rap music, and unique shadow puppetry, this ain’t your “bubbee’s” Yiddish theater.

The Segal Centre rounds out its season with “Tales from Odessa,” the annual Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre production. The show offers a modern twist with innovative theatrical elements and an original music and lyrics score by Josh Dolgin, aka rap artist Socalled, who mixes traditional Yiddish klezmer with rap music. The script is written by Derek Goldman, a professor at Georgetown University.

“But the seed for the whole idea came from Josh,” said Audrey Finkelstein, the director. “In some ways, it’s really his baby.”

Dolgin was inspired by the short stories of Russian writer Isaak Babel, specifically the character of Benya Krik, a Russian Jewish gangster. The musical is set in an Odessa neighborhood on the brink of the Russian Revolution.

“It’s exciting. But it’s not what you think of as a typical Jewish folktale. It’s not Tevya,” Finkelstein quipped, referencing the iconic, and perhaps more stage palatable, “Fiddler on the Roof” lead character.

Finkelstein said that the usual Eastern European story tells of life in a shtetl, a place with a large Jewish population, full of classic Jewish heroes.

“This is not that play,” she said.

That said, there are some typical elements, such as weddings and funerals.

“But it’s a different side of those stories,” she said.

How different? Enter the gangster, a timeless character in many a tale. 

“And Benya is a very colorful, vibrant character,” Finkelstein said.

And he’s not the only one onstage. The annual Yiddish-language production usually packs them in.

“At last count, I think we’re up to 32 cast members onstage,” she said. 

That’s in addition to a live seven-piece band.

Did Finkelstein know what she was getting into when she signed up?

“Well, yes and no,” she said. “You never know what you’re getting into.”

Finkelstein did have some good background, though.

“I grew up in Yiddish theater,” she said. 

Her parents were part of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre before she was born. In fact, Finkelstein’s mother performed while pregnant with her. Finkelstein worked her way up the ranks and performed, herself, as well as acted as assistant director and co-director.

While the cast size is a challenge, the annual production garners a lot of local community support. In fact, not all of the actors are professionals.

“We have many theater-school graduates, but the majority is not professional,” Finkelstein said. “The bulk of our company members have day jobs.”

Collectively, they get the theatrical job done.

“It’s a really great, generous group of people,” Finkelstein said. “It really is an ensemble piece.”

Finkelstein advised not to be wary of a production in Yiddish. The work uses “supertitles,” which means the Yiddish is translated to English and French just above the stage.

“Our shows are very accessible,” she said. “And this show, in particular, is so visual and so physical.”

The work employs unique shadow puppetry.

“It’s a really exciting storytelling element of this production,”  she said.

And the combination of klezmer and rap should pique anyone’s musical interest.

“It’s a real mix of Old World and New World,” Finkelstein said. “It’s a classic with a contemporary new spin and edge.”

 Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at

IF YOU GO WHAT: "Tales from Odessa." WHEN: Sunday, June 16, through Sunday, July 7. WHERE: The Segal Centre for Performing Arts is at 5170 Chemin Cote St. Catherine, Montreal. Take Autoroute 15 North (I-87 after the border), and continue over the Champlain Bridge. Take exit 66, Cote St. Luc/Queen Mary, and continue on the Decarie Expressway service road for about five minutes. Turn right on Chemin Cote Ste. Catherine. The Segal Centre is two blocks on the right. ADMISSION: Adult tickets cost $46. Discounts are available for students, seniors and matinees. CONTACT: Call (514) 739-7944, or visit