Ottawa Event Review: “Forever Young: A Ghetto Story”

The Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), nestled in the heart of Wellington West, is one of Ottawa’s premiere theatre venues. It hosts multiple shows each theatrical season, which is why it’s a bit shocking that I have never been there for a show before! I’m thrilled to say, that has finally changed!

Photo: COG Street View GCTC Wellington West/Holland

The theatre is beautiful inside and out. The all-glass frontage shows off two floors of lobby space from the street, offering a glance into the upscale theatre scene, or, if looking outward from within, a great view of the bustling activity of Wellington West. In the lobby area itself, you will find a variety of artwork and an abundance of mingling space, featuring bar-height tables, as well as comfortable chairs for lounging and socializing. The bar service area on the second floor boasts some great craft beer, ciders, and wines from local suppliers. The inside of the theatre itself is equally beautiful, with comfortable, well-spaced seating (which is important to me as I’m 6’4), and a homey, yet sophisticated feel throughout. The theatre appears to hold 250-300 people, providing an intimate, close-up experience of the show regardless of where you are seated; there really isn’t a bad seat in the house!

Now, onto the show:

November 10th was the public world premiere of the show “Forever Young: A Ghetto Story,” written by Darrah Teitel and directed by Sarah Kitz. It was so well-written, and I was honoured to be in attendance to take in such a powerful and emotional show! Set in July 1942, and then spanning over the next year, the show depicts the atrocities endured in Poland during the height of World War II. The choice of date for opening night was significant; it was the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, where a series of attacks on Jewish people and businesses took place in 1938.  

Forever Young: A Ghetto Story follows the lives of a group of teenagers in the Warsaw Ghetto who are resisting the Jewish “processing” by Nazi Germany; amidst this, they also struggle to process the conflicts between one another in their efforts to come to terms with the occupation. The teenagers represent different factions of Jews hiding from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto. At the start of the show, the Warsaw Ghetto is described as home to roughly 500,000 people, in an area no larger than 3 square kilometers. These youth are looking to form an alliance between the Jewish Bund, the Zionists, and the Polish Socialist Party to develop an insurgence against Nazi atrocities. This alliance is called the ZOB – The Jewish Fighting Organization.

This show is unlike most of the performances that I have attended; my theatre-going experience has consisted of viewing mostly light-hearted musical comedies. Going to see a play that depicts the events of WW II, in particular the torture and killing of the Jewish people in Europe, I had no illusions that the tone would be anything but deep; that being said, this show was still quite eye-opening for me. Reading about the show beforehand, the description had included the word ‘comedy’ along with ‘Holocaust,’ and I could not image how the concept of comedy could ever apply to such a horrific event. But I was pleasantly surprised that the show was able to portray typical human interactions, including comedy, that would have undoubtedly still occurred during such a dark time. For me, the Holocaust evokes only feelings of horror, disgust, and absolute devastation, so to experience this story, where a group of young people are able to find humour and small joys amongst such terror was a stark reminder that the ‘Jewish people,’ who, perhaps in the context of reflecting on the Holocaust, are often thought of collectively, rather than as the human individuals that they were, were really just like you and I. They were everyday people doing their best to survive, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally. The idea that they were able to not only find humour despite terrible, inhumane circumstances, but to use it as a coping mechanism, is a true testament to the tenacity of the human spirit.

Do not get me wrong: this is not a comedy, but a very heavy performance. But the friendly quips and one-liners throughout allowed the audience the opportunity for some occasional chuckles, offering a brief reprieve from a very difficult topic.

The show had only five performers, and each one of them was as professional as they come. The resumes for each of them is quite impressive (including having been in some Top-10 Netflix shows!) I cannot say enough about each of the actors, but as per my previous theatrical reviews, I have chosen three to elaborate on briefly.

Billie Nell was outstanding in the role of Joshua. At the beginning of the performance, the inner-geek in me was reminded of the character “Data” in Star Trek TNG when watching Nell. The character of Joshua was often (especially through the first half of the show) very matter-of-fact, demonstrating limited emotions. Nell portrayed this perfectly! There was one line in particular that I may be ever-so-slightly paraphrasing that demonstrates this accurately:

“You’ve got a brain like a robot and always produce the right answer.”

Throughout the performance, Nell allowed for the character of Joshua to develop authentically and to express some strong emotional responses, but I’ll let you see that for yourself. Overall, they absolutely nailed this role, and they worked perfectly with the rest of the cast. I overheard some conversations during the intermission, so I know that Nell had some friends/family in the audience to support them. Your performance was phenomenal, Nell, and it is obvious that you are a genuine artist and expert in your craft. I hope to see you again in the future!

Next up is the character of Eden, portrayed by Brittany Kay. Kay was fantastic, so it came as no surprise to me to learn that she is a very experienced performer. Kay’s seemingly natural energy and enthusiasm was demonstrated throughout the show. In her portrayal of Eden, a strong and passionate young woman, Kay was perfect.

Finally, I must mention Ori Black in the role of Izzy. Although everyone in this show was talented, in my opinion, he was the glue that held it together. His performance was brilliant! His long-winded monologues were delivered with passion; he is incredibly well-spoken. His portrayal of Izzy was very genuine, making the cause that they were fighting for, their freedom, so real to the audience. Towards the end of the play (SPOILER ALERT!!) his endurance of his illness, TB, was perfectly depicted. I would not have changed a thing about his performance; well done!

Finally, I would like to offer a well-deserved shout out to the unseen members of any theatrical team. The costume designer Vanessa Imenson was incredible. The costumes were spot-on for the era, and worked perfectly! I also want to acknowledge the excellent work by Brian Smith’s team for the set design. Even thought the show took place all in one location, the versatility and practicality of the set was excellent. Very well done!

Overall, this show was fantastic. The heavy theme was alleviated slightly by occasional comedy relief, but not too much. Underlying messages of hope and freedom were represented throughout, and the parallels to modern day geo-political issues are not to be ignored.

I highly recommend that you go out and see this show! Tickets are still available on most days, and it runs between November 10th and 20th at the GCTC. Tickets and more information are on my events calendar, or through the GCTC directly website by clicking here.

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