The Humanness of John Hirsch

Hirsch Mocks March12.inddAlon Nashman delivers an explosive and honest performance in Hirsch. The one-man play co-created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson chronicles the life of Canadian theatre guru John Hirsch.

Nashman opens the show by telling us it is okay if we don’t know anything about this man, because soon, we will know a lot.  Not just about his life, but about his character, his passion and his anger, his distinct mannerisms, and his harsh directing techniques.

Nashman plays the late Hirsch at various ages and stages of his unnerving and compelling life. Hungarian born, Jewish refugee, Hirsch was orphaned by the Holocaust at age 13. His mother, father, and brother were taken away by Nazis. His grandfather was shot dead, mid-sentence, right in front of little Hirsch.

In his youth, Hirsch wandered the streets of Europe, begging, stealing, and busking with handcrafted scrap puppets for a hot meal, for a bowl of soup.

The fabric puppets Nashman uses to recreate this moment are all body and no head, pure comic relief, which is something Thompson and Nashman do an excellent job of slipping in throughout the play: humour. Like Hirsch’s life, parts of the play are truly tragic, but the overall tone of the production is upbeat, and the genre, undeniably, comedy. It was John Hirsch’s belief that all theatre should be funny too, even tragedies, otherwise who would come?

The dramatic and heartfelt scenes of Hirsch are split up with silly skits, and rhyming songs about the young Hungarian boy’s first impressions of Canada: Winnipeg- all snow and mud and mosquitos. In a later song, Hirsch moves to “New Yirsch” and comes back again.

Parts of John Hirsch’s life and career are skipped over. The play focuses on Hirsch’s theatre career in Canada, his big moments, and the ways in which he influenced and changed the path of Canadian theatre forever. We are shown glimpses of various productions Hirsch directed in Winnipeg and Toronto, some of which Alon Nashman was also involved in.

Throughout the play, Nashman portrays himself, the younger version, and he reenacts conversations that he and John Hirsch had. He shows us the great and the terrible, the lasting impact of each interaction. He shows us what it was like to be an actor under the direction of Hirsch: “the prickliest prick in Winnipeg”.

Nashman also acts as Hirsch’s mother, grandmother, and grandfather, and many other characters and theatre contacts that came into Hirsch’s life and appear briefly in this tribute play.

With little knowledge of historic Canadian theatre, some of the characters, scenes and references can be a little confusing. The constant switching of characters played by one actor can also be a little confusing, especially in such a fast paced piece of theatre, but simple props and costume additions help bring the audience up to speed. There is no doubt when Nashman is playing John Hirsch, his demeanour is consistent, and his accent, impeccable.

Thompson and Nashman definitely do not paint Hirsch in the most flattering light, we see his arrogance, and his temper, his distaste of budgets and anyone who does not share his theatrical vision, but we also see humanness. We leave knowing, how great and visionary a man, John Hirsch really was.