Monday, July 16, 2012

Nashman captures the troubled genius of John Hirsch

Alon Nashman is pictured as John Hirsch in Hirsch. Photo is by Cylla von Tiedemann.

World premiere
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Co-created and performed by Alon Nashman
Co-created and directed by Paul Thompson
Designed by Gillian Gallow
Light design by Itai Erdal
Sound design by Verne Good
Written by Geoff Dale

Alon Nashman’s gut-wrenching and emotionally charged one-man show Hirsch serves a dual purpose of equal importance.

The 90-minute production brings back to life the oft-time controversial Stratford Shakespeare Festival artistic director (1981-85) John Hirsch, warts and all, to an audience that already knows of the troubled genius and to a new crowd being educated on the man’s intricacies for the first time.

It is also provides the golden opportunity to watch a tour-de-force acting clinic by Nashman, an actor and writer of immeasurable talents. This is a performance – mercifully abandoning the perfunctory intermission – that, without interruption, touches the soul, boldly reaches out to the spirit and reminds all of just how powerful theatre of this nature can be.

Thanks to the personal recollections from more than 60 theatrical artisans from Martha Henry, Brian Bedford and Gordon Pinsent to Marilyn Lightstone, Des McAnuff and Moses Znaimer, the show is a broad-based portrayal of his life that covers both the latter years and his tormented time as an orphaned Jewish boy in Hungary during and after The Second World War.

For those familiar with newspaper headlines, Hirsch was the co-founder of Canada’s first regional theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Company, head of the CBC’s drama department throughout the 1970s, an associate director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival from 1967-69 and its artistic director from 1981-1985.

He died from AIDS in 1989.

While wildly accepted as a theatrical genius, he was also known to be man of wildly shifting moods and often a director prone to dictatorial tactics, referenced throughout the production. The bearded and lean Nashman looks the part, bringing to the role both aspects of childlike whimsy and uncontrollable adult passion.

Hirsch pulls no punches, offers no apologies and never glosses over the man’s imperfections but, thanks to co-creators Nashman and Paul Thompson (also the director), speaks straight from the heart, with Nashman literally hurling the narrative straight at the audience with authority and with a good measure of physical dexterity thrown in for good measure.

If you’re looking for references to the great productions – The Tempest, King Lear and The Cherry Orchard – they and many more are all there. Tantalizing recollections of fellow actors and a miserable stay in New York City are also part of the mix and there is Hirsch’s delightfully didactic explanation as to what theatre is really all about – and it has nothing to do with either balancing the books or making a profit.

Hirsch is simply magnificent. A production that will mesmerize those both familiar and unfamiliar with the man, it is a stunning triumph for Alon Nashman. Audiences can catch it until September 14.

Hirsch rates **** out of four stars.

You can also find this review online at: the beat magazine

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Studio Theatre
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online
Runs until September 14

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