Actors and puppetry bring life to Fabrik: The Legend of M Rabinowitz on stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts
On Thursday night, I trekked to North York to see Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz at the Toronto Centre For The Arts. Fabrik is the story of Moritz Rabinowitz, a renowned Jewish tailor in Norway and his life as a businessman, husband, father and political pundit. The story is set against the backdrop of pre-World War II Europe, when the global economic crisis was paving the way for political extremism and a rising tide of antisemitism.
Fabrik is very much about the Jewish experience at a very crucial time in European history. Rather than being a pedantic lesson, Fabrik is a touching, humorous and candid glimpse of one man in extraordinary circumstances. We observe the titular character as boisterous and full of life as he manages and expands his business, negotiates a less-than-perfect relationship with his wife and watches his daughter grow up, marry and start a family of her own.
We see Rabinowitz rally against restrictive political and economic policies levied against Jewish people. His writing inevitably makes him the target of the invading Nazis and he is captured, imprisoned and murdered. Pretty heavy stuff. Enter the puppets.
Fabrik is puppet theatre presented by three skillful and talented performers, Peter Russo, Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock. In all, there are over twenty puppets (all created by Waage) in the hour-long show and a handful of human characters in mask. The performers create a motley cast of characters through a wide range of voices.
Warnock’s Edith, Rabinowitz’s daughter, is delicate and soft-spoken in contrast to Warnock’s portrayal of Gerhard, the forceful, opinionated and dangerous wife of a Nazi consular. Kirjan Waage creates a shy and earnest shop assistant, a hardened, raspy driver, and a terrifying Nazi interlocutor at a death camp talent show, to name a few of his characters. Peter Russo plays Rabinowitz’s arc beautifully as he journeys from a charismatic community leader to a dispossessed, condemned man.
The cast members are dressed in black suits and fedoras. They’re very dynamic in their manipulation of the puppets and creative with their use of space and environment. They are expert in creating the illusion of vehicular and underwater movement.
The set is also extremely creative and functional. What appears to be a simple cylindrical box flips open to reveal a cityscape diorama through which travel is conveyed. A large black panel serves as a pulpit and it also turns around to display the bird’s eye view of Rabinowitz’s family bed. As an audience member, I truly felt like a fly on the ceiling of the room during a late night marital talk.
I really enjoyed the music and sound design. There is a mix of musical theatre, jazz and traditional music that contributes to the feel of a vibrant and diverse society. A chugging motor enhances a bustling street scene while chirping insects augment the desolation of many nights spent in hiding. There are harrowing airstrikes and a crackling, snowy radio broadcast features ‘Winston’s’ voice forewarning of imminent disaster.
I am a history keener so the historical references were easily digestible. My cousin is less steeped in dates and timelines yet could also follow the story with ease — save for a dream sequence that disrupted the show’s flow for her. This is the first time she has experienced this kind of show and she enjoyed watching the performers manipulate their puppets without drawing attention to themselves. We enjoyed the balance between the humorous and the serious and that the focus of the show was on an individual’s experience.
Fabrik is not limited to the annals of history and is as relevant today as it was eighty years ago. In the post-show talkback, Waage drew frightening parallels between 1930s Norway and post-2008 Norway with respect to rising antisemitism. It is imperative now, especially in light of Holocaust Awareness Week, that we pay heed to the lessons that history continues to teach us.
Fabrik is essential viewing for those who love history, for those eager for the Norwegian perspective, and for those who love inspiring, creative and transformative storytelling. Wakka Wakka Productions has a new fan and I am excited for their array of politically-conscious performances.
- Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz plays November 5-16 at Toronto Centre For The Arts (5040 Yonge Street)
- Show times are 1pm and 8pm, Sunday 2pm
- Tickets are $40-$50, group rates available
- Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 1-855-985-4357, or in person
- School bookings available by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo of Peter Russo provided by Wakka Wakka Productions