Montreal’s Segal Theatre presents plays that range from the provocative to the irreverent this season

A provocative new play that explores the impact of antisemitism in France across generations will be staged at Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts this season.

Prayer for the French Republic by the American Joshua Harmon had its world premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this year, garnering glowing reviews. The New York Times declared this dramatic comedy “thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and wickedly funny.” It won three 2022 Drama Desk awards, including for outstanding play.

The play is primarily set in Paris in 2016-2017 when a Jewish family worries if rising antisemitism will force them to leave the country they have called home for generations. Their contemporary insecurity is unnervingly similar to that of their great-grandparents who in 1944, when the narrative begins, were desperately searching for relatives missing in the Holocaust.

Although the family did not leave France, their uncertainty about whether it was a place for Jews never completely eased.

Prayer for the French Republic, a three-act production with 11 actors, will be staged at the Segal from April 23-May 14, directed by Lisa Rubin, the centre’s artistic and executive director.

Lisa Rubin, artistic and executive director of the Segal Centre for Performing Arts (Ryan Blau/PBL Photography)

The Segal’s four-play 2022-2023 subscription season gets underway in October.

At the launch, Rubin said audiences can expect the same biting dialogue and cutting wit that Harmon brought to Bad Jews, a frank and funny look at modern Jewish identity that was staged at the Segal several years ago and reprised the following year because of its popularity.

“Future generations will study Joshua Harmon’s works the same way we do Mordecai Richler’s and Leonard Cohen’s for his white-hot commentary on contemporary Jewish lives,” said Rubin of Prayer for the French Republic, whose Segal production is sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation and Federation CJA.

Antisemitism is also the theme of a pre-season show at the Segal. American standup comedian Alex Edelman’s monologue Just For Us recounts how he confronted those behind the online hate he was bombarded with by covertly infiltrating a gathering of neo-Nazis in New York. A hit off-Broadway, this absurdist comedy is presented for one night only on Sept. 17 in association with Just For Laughs.

Rubin said the Segal aims to “continue to explore the many facets of Jewish cultural identity, as well as the diversity of other voices and perspectives in our society.” It is committed to providing a space for other cultural communities’ artistic expression.

The season kicks off, in time for Halloween, with two new takes on favourite spooky tales.

Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors from Oct. 23-Nov. 13, by Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen is described as a Mel Brooks-esque sendup of the classic tale, filled with special effects. This irreverent farce will see one of Montreal’s favorite actresses, Ellen David, in an uncharacteristic role.

Across the foyer, in the Studio, the whole family can take in the world premiere of Frankenstein, a “living comic book” created by Craig Francis, Rick Miller and Paul Van Dyck, with Montreal’s leading children’s theatre, Geordie Productions.

The first play of 2023 is English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia, from March 19-April 2. This is not a satire on Quebec politics, but rather a humorous look at how learning a second language affects identity.

Four students in Iran are sternly told to only speak English in class. Their lessons soon devolve into a linguistic mess, as they struggle with translating their native tongue into a foreign one, wondering if it was all worth it.

English was a New York Times critic’s pick this year.

“Language always seems to take centre stage in Montreal,” said Rubin. “This beautiful play is a reminder that language barriers aren’t as insurmountable as we think, and that we can find understanding when we celebrate each other’s differences.”

The season closes with the musical Josephine: A Musical Cabaret May 28-June 18, created by Michael Marinaccio, Tod Kimbro and Tymisha Harris, who also stars. It was judged the best production of this summer’s Montreal Fringe Festival.

This homage traces the remarkable life of singer and actor Josephine Baker, a groundbreaking African-American singer and actress in the early 20th century, who became a Second World War spy and civil rights activist.

Directed by Sean Cheesman of So You Think You Can Dance fame, the show incorporates song, theatre, burlesque and dance.

“After years on the Fringe circuit winning over audiences and sweeping awards – including one from us – we’re so thrilled to give it the Segal Centre sparkle and bring it to the main stage for even more people to enjoy,” said Segal.

The resident Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre is not putting on a production this season, but the troupe will be back with its popular Lyrics & Latkes: A Chanukah Sing-Along later this year.

This is the second in-person season during the pandemic, and the Segal is hoping this one unrolls without the disruption caused this past year by Omicron.  

Rubin frankly admits it hasn’t been easy. “The last three years have tested the (live performance) industry, which has been given a good shake up,” she said. “We are climbing our way out of a big mess. There’s still much we don’t know in this new world.”

The Segal continues to follow all the health guidelines and will recommend wearing masks, offered free of charge at the entrance, but they are not mandatory. 

Select performances of Dracula will be mask-mandate to accommodate those more comfortable with that restriction.

A new incentive to entice people back is allowing drinks for the first time to be brought into the theatre itself, not restricting their consumption to the foyer. To attract younger audiences, $20 tickets will be offered to those under 30.