“Hope. Do we ever give up on hope? Even in the face of hard evidence?”
That the question at the heart of Si Kahn’s succinctly-titled new musical memory play Hope, running through December 18 at Main Stage West theater, in Sebastopol. A world premiere, Hope is a surprisingly innovative, if not always entirely smooth collection of stories, some a little on the tall take side, that Kahn heard over and over growing up in a family of Jewish immigrants with a strong political conscience, and a clear knack for spinning a good yarn.
Kahn, who authored Main Stage West’s popular musical Mother Jones in Heaven, is an award-winning folksinger, nationally renowned for his politically fueled songs and progressive activism. Hope is his fourth Main Stage West collaboration with director Elizabeth Craven.
In the new show, transformed from a straightforward monologue-type piece into something far more theatrical and a bit strange and wonderful, Kahn uses stories to mine his own family’s past, borrowing songs from his own celebrated discography.
These are stories of his aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, including some relatives he never got a chance to meet. Filled with references to pogroms and concentration camps, these are stories of hope somehow surviving in the midst of unspeakable loss and sacrifice. As one piece of the massive story of European immigration to America in the 1900s, it’s powerful stuff.
Which is not to say it isn’t occasionally very funny.
In presenting Kahn’s loosely connected stories, Craven and her troupe of four actor-singers and three versatile musicians have created something altogether unexpected, though a bit confusing. Kahn’s first-person narration has been spread out amongst the members of the cast, each of whom tell bits of the author’s family history, all speaking as Kahn.
While ultimately quite effective, this approach takes a while to figure out, and leads to some initial befuddlement. That said, the stylized storytelling does yield some supremely satisfying fruit. The expert cast features Mary Gannon Graham, Sharia Pierce, John Craven, and Alia Beeton, working their way through short overlapping vignettes of determination, love, resilience and grief, playing an array of characters: from Si Kahn himself to members of Kahn’s family, to Cossacks engaged in pogroms, and even a hilarious Angel of Death, who gets laughs with lines like, “Oy, what a day I’ve had!”
At such times, ‘Hope’ resembles nothing as much as a Jewish immigrant ‘Hee Haw,’ the popular 1969-1981 television show combining country music, one-liners, and folksy sketch comedy. The main difference, of course, is that ‘Hee Haw’ went solely for belly laughs, while Kahn’s deeply personal assemblage of memories aims straight at the heart.
The ensemble is first-rate, and under the musical direction of Jim Peterson, Kahn’s songs are simply and precisely orchestrated for maximum emotional impact. Craven’s gracefully energetic staging, though a bit uneven at times, is always striking and dreamlike in its flow. Despite some wobbly moments, it works, much like a really good Si Kahn folksong, serving up its scraps of dreams and slivers of hope with quiet power, and deep, wholehearted emotion.
‘Hope’ runs Thursday–Sunday through December 18 at Main Stage West.