A journey to the past that keeps us in the present

A funny show about an unfunny subject. An interactive, very present performance about something that happened in the past. A talky, text-heavy show that relies on song, dance, video and mime to make its full impact.

All of these statements apply to We Keep Coming Back, which opened last week at Factory Theatre. In other words, easy to enjoy, even as the play explores some painful truths.

The performers and their equipment and props are sitting on stage as we enter the theatre. Funk music plays. Michael Rubenfeld performs as himself – it is virtually impossible to separate his acting from his actual, often explosive, behaviour. Michael is a Winnipeg-born Jew of Polish descent. He can act, dance, sing, do stand-up. Mary Berchard, an untrained actor, is his real mother and, it appears, is actually suffering poor health. As the lights go down, Michael and Mary tie a long, thick rope around their waists; it ties them together for the duration of We Keep Coming Back, even as one  performs while climbing a ladder or the other remakes her bed.

The third character on stage is Katka Reszke. She is a Polish-born U.S. resident, a writer, filmmaker, researcher, photographer – but not an actor. She tells her story, in Polish mostly (subtitles appear overhead) and performs it, all the while using a video camera that gives simultaneous footage of all the proceedings, projected on the blackboard behind the action. Also on stage at the side is stage manager Adam Barrett, operating a video camera on a tripod.

This is the essential plot: Michael Rubenfeld loves his mother but can’t stand being with her for very long. She feels the same way about him. But she needs some care at this point in her life. Mary, a daughter of holocaust survivors whose Polish family were mostly murdered by the Nazis, has a dream about Warsaw. Maybe she is ready to go to Poland and trace her family origins. Michael would like to go too, to find his roots. They make a contract. Katka is brought in as someone who can interpret Polish speakers for them, and document their encounters. She is also going to act as a buffer between mother and son.

Rubenfeld has another role: he’s the guy who steps to the front of the stage and addresses the audience about what’s going on. He introduces the participants, including his unseen collaborator, director Sarah Garton Stanley. He hands out bowls of his favourite Polish candies, which just happen to be named Michael. In a couple of other instances he polls the people in the seats about events on stage. “Whose trauma is worse?” he asks us, meaning his or Katka’s. We Keep Coming Back is not therapy (it may be that too); it’s pure entertainment, thought-provoking and joyful. From the moment when Rubenfeld draws a chalk outline around himself and his mother – she mimes that he’s made her too fat – through the long, once postponed, journey to Poland, to the villages where Mary’s father and mother came from, to the wedding of Rubenfeld and his Polish wife Magda and back to the Toronto stage, we are awed by, even amazed at  this multivalent performance.

We Keep Coming Back

Created by Michael Rubenfeld and Sarah Garton Stanley

Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until November 25

Photo of Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke by Jeremy Mimnagh

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