2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival Review: On The Other Side of the World (Harley Dog Productions)

On the Other Side of the World is a story of Jewish refugees in Shanghai at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival.

on-the-other-side-finalIn the years leading up to World War II as country after country closed its borders to Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany, one port remained open to them; Shanghai, China. On the Other Side of the World, written and directed by Brenley Charkow and making its debut at the Next Stage Theatre Festival, is a fascinating look at this little-known piece of history.

When I first visited Shanghai what struck me most was the indelible imprint the West had left on this bustling Chinese metropolis. After China’s defeats in the Opium Wars the country was forced to concede large swaths of Shanghai to the West and open up trade. Shanghai’s iconic Bund and French Concession are still lined with European architecture today. But as much as I had read about the city’s history I had no idea that Shanghai was home to between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

Charkow’s script for On the Other Side of the World was inspired by the recorded accounts of many of the Jews who sought refuge in the Shanghai ghettos. She centres the script on the character of Ursula Blomberg (Ashleigh Hendry), a young Jewish girl whose family flees Nazi Germany to spend eight years in the asylum of Shanghai. The show is a collection of scenes and vignettes that sketch out the hardship of daily life in the ghettos and the culture shock of being transplanted to a completely foreign place as well as an exploration of the characters that make up World War II-era Shanghai.

The show features a large ensemble cast, a tight movement design that gives the show a dynamic feel and a sleek, resourceful production design that does a lot with a little. I also really enjoyed the addition of live musicians playing an original score by Bryce Kulak that draws from both Chinese and Jewish musical influences; it was an effective device to enhance the setting of the play.

While the show does a remarkable job sketching out the pervading mood and atmosphere of the Shanghai Jewish ghettos, I found that its memoir style created a bit of a detachment between the audience and the characters. At times, I found the show a bit documentary-like and because of that, the bigger emotional moments didn’t quite resonate with me. The show also features a few too many characters and I found the plot meandering at times causing the pace of the show to drag. I think the show would benefit from some editing to more tightly focus the script.

Regardless, On the Other Side of the World is a fascinating exploration of a part of history that few people are aware of but that is well worth learning more about.

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Photo of Brenley Charkow by Tanja Tiziana.