Politics are Dangerous; Talk is Essential

(l to r) kevin bundy (gordon) and michael rubenfeld (josh) in a scene from the harold green jewish theatre company production of talk by michael nathanson. photo credit: racheal mccaig
I’m sure it won’t surprise any of my frequent readers to know that I have an ardent interest in the history and popular culture of the 1960s. The idea of the young people of the world burning with a communal fire in their bellies and the passion and courage to change the world, thrust open the doors of unchartered waters and to attack prejudice and bigotry has always appealed to me. The fact that the heartbeat of this revolution was resonating so strongly in the popular music of the time is even more inspiring to me. When I had the opportunity to take one of Dalhousie University’s most unique English classes, “Bob Dylan and the Literature of the Sixties” taught by Dr. Andrew Wainwright, I obviously leapt at the chance. In this class we watched a documentary which dramatized the argument that even the most seemingly innocuous actions are innately political. This idea has remained vividly with me and it was, of course, especially relevant in the 1960s when wearing a bra, smoking a joint, where you sat on the bus and how you wore your hair were all intensely political decisions. Yet, this argument is still incredibly relevant in our world today. Michael Nathanson’s riveting play, Talk, playing until March 20th at the Jane Mallett Theatre (a Harold Green Jewish Theatre Production), is one such example. It tells the story about the loss of a friendship and emphasises how strongly politics remains embedded within our daily interactions with one another.Talk is also about the power of words, as words are arguably all we have with which to express our beliefs, our values and our perspectives. These words can be meticulously chosen or swathed in ignorance and they have the ability to destroy while being so limiting and inadequate. In Talk an eighteen year relationship between Josh, a Jewish man from Winnipeg and his best friend Gordon, a non-Jewish man who has since moved to Europe, threatens to be shattered because of one loaded word: Palestine. With one word, Josh learns that his best friend supports the Palestinians and not the Israelis in the conflict in the Middle East and this threatens to tear them apart.
What is so interesting about this play is that it is not about “right” and “wrong” so much as it is about feelings of jealousy, betrayal, loyalty, pride and passion and how each of these emotions can block our ability to listen and to really hear what even our closest friends are saying. Talk is a play that focuses more on the way that these issues are discussed than on the issues themselves, which actually accentuates a substantially larger issue. How much of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is about facts, terms and logistics and how much is embedded in an intricate web of emotion which skews the people’s ability to communicate freely with one another?
The brilliance in Michael Nathanson’s story is that the flawed nature of both Gordon and Josh shines stunningly through their arguments revealing not only their biases, prejudices and the holes in their logic, but also their unwavering humanity. Kevin Bundy plays Gordon as a quite methodical, quantified and composed man who wishes to present the research his girlfriend, a French Palestinian activist, has provided him with to Josh and for Josh to condone his role in this activism. What is so interesting about Bundy’s performance is that, while many of Gordon’s opinions are compelling, he presents them to Josh as though they were discussing an entirely unequivocal matter. Michael Rubenfeld’s Josh, on the other hand, is far more passionately engaged and emotional in his support for Israel, using humour to deflect much of his defensiveness and lashing out in sudden, and complex, frustration. Together, Bundy and Rubenfeld create a rich and sweet friendship for Josh and Gordon which insures that it tugs grippingly on the heartstrings as the weight of their words slowly smother their ease and familiarity.
Director Ted Dykstra uses crisp lighting techniques which snaps the action between the conversation between Gordon and Josh, and each one’s own inner monologues during which they established firm relationships with the audience. Although the play can be considered quiet stationary, Bundy and Rubenfeld are always filled with a sense of momentum which is expressed clearly in the way they are positioned in their chairs and culminate with their leaping to their feet and catapulting themselves and their ideas straight toward the audience with vigour and urgency.
Talk is a play that needs to engage with its audience because the twisted dichotomies that are raised by Josh and Gordon warrant shrewd reflection and consideration. At first I vehemently agreed with Josh when he said, “Being a Jew is a dangerous thing… you don’t understand, you’re not Jewish.” I remembered the awe I felt as a child learning about the Holocaust for the first time when I realized that these people had such loyalty and conviction to their faith and their culture that most would not do what I thought I would surely do, lie and deny and try to wiggle my way out of death’s grimy clutches. I admired the Jews so much for that integrity. In Talk, however, for the first time I allowed myself to wonder whether I have been conditioned to blindly accept the fact that I cannot understand particular human experiences simply because I’m not Jewish. As a child I admired the integrity of the Jews because my faith in Catholicism, in Jesus, even in God, was definitely not strong enough for me to refuse to renounce it in the face of torture. Yet, as an adult, I know that I have my own principles which I feel confident that I would uphold regardless of the circumstances. I believe in Human Rights and Equality, for example, and I am terrifically proud to be Canadian. Does respecting the fact that I don’t understand the Jewish experience and therefore assuming that an opinion from the Jewish perspective regarding an issue like the conflict in Israel is more informed than my own allow for an open discussion between us, or does it, conversely (and ironically), still divide us? Josh is “other” because he “understands”; Gordon is “other” because he doesn’t? And, just because Josh is Jewish, does he, who lives in Winnipeg, really innately “understand”? Where does this leave us and where can we go from here?
The human experience is fascinating because it can be so insular. We live our own individual lives and yet we cannot hide from our explicit connection to the rest of the world. It is this way that our actions and our words are continually marred by politics and, like in Talk, we can find that even our most personal relationships can reflect the struggles and conflicts taking place beyond our borders, whether we want them to or not.
Talk plays at the Jane Mallet Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, (27 Front Street East) until March 20th, 2010. Tickets are $20 to $69 and can be purchased in person at the St. Lawrence Centre Box Office, by phone at 416.366.7723 416.366.7723 or 1.800.708.6754 1.800.708.6754 , or online at www.stlc.com. For more information, please visit www.hgjewishtheatre.com.  

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