“I love my life – I’m a happy guy,” sings Crescent Beach resident Harvey Ostroff, playwright, artist, bon-vivant and, latterly, songwriter.
“I got a ukulele three years ago,” he explains. “I have a facility with words and I’m good at rhyme. I’m not much of a player or much of a singer, but I seem to be able to find tunes for the words I write.”
Most recently performed by Ostroff at the Crescent Moon Coffee House, his playlist includes everything from a tribute to a genuine Canadian hero – The Ballad of Terry Fox – to the anti-Harper sentiments of The Election Song, and another, Time Drags On, that seems a natural extension of his comedy Two Old Guys Sitting On A Bench (The Viagra Diatribes).
But much as he’s revelling in a new creative outlet – one in which he can have a finished product in the space of a day a day, rather than months and years of rewrites and tryouts – it’s not the only reason Ostroff is in an upbeat mood.
“I’m exploding with creativity in my 70th year – it’s the most amazing year I’ve had since I was 40 and my first big show, Lautrec, opened at the Waterfront Theatre on my birthday,” he says.
The coming year seems to be equally promising, the retired drama teacher says.
Next week the native Montrealer is flying to Toronto for a new production – and Canadian premiere – of his 1985 play, DeliMax.
Hitherto seen only in Washington and Oregon, it’s been picked up for a Jan. 7-18 run at Toronto Centre for the Arts’ studio theatre by Ari Weisberg, artistic director of Teatron, Toronto’s Jewish Theatre company.
Ostroff’s uncompromising, unblinkingly controversial play was inspired by the conflict over Bill 101 – Quebec’s 1977 French language charter – and fears of the nationalism that engendered it.
An ice storm that strands a handful of people in a Montreal delicatessen – DeliMax – sets the stage for a battle of wills between the Max Farber, an Auschwitz survivor (played in the Teatron production by Ron Boyd), and Quebec nationalist Rejean(Aris Tyros), boyfriend of his waitress Monique (Madeline Leon).
Also involved in the often intense drama are Max’s partner and fellow Holocaust-survivor Nathan (Allan Price) and Max’s old friend Yetta (Gloria Valentine).
Weisberg, who first read DeliMax six years ago, saw a distinct connection between the issues raised by Bill 101 – preserved in historically-accurate microcosm in Ostroff’s drama – and the proposed ‘charter of values’ that led to the Parti Quebecois’ defeat in last April’s Quebec provincial election.
“I was so grateful to the people of my home province that they decided that was not where they wanted to go, and turfed Marois,” notes Ostroff, who adds that while he has always supported French Quebec’s right to determine its own identity, he could no go along with a charter that would have “secularized” faith communities such as Jews, Sikhs and Muslims.
While it’s not autobiographical – Ostroff admits many of his shows are rooted in his own experiences – DeliMax was inspired by a real-life moment in the early 1980s when he and his wife were visiting Montreal and eating in the former Snowdon Delicatessen – which had been renamed ‘DeliSnowdon.’
The owner explained to Ostroff that due to Bill 101 the authorities had forced him to change the English sign and create a French-only menu.
“Sometimes, when you’re a creative person a spark happens,” Ostroff says. “For me, that spark was hearing somebody in the next booth saying ‘This is just like the Nazis.'”
But as an admirer of Henrik Ibsen’s pioneering problem dramas – plays like An Enemy of the People and A Doll’s House – Ostroff did not want to create a piece that dictated an attitude, or supplied pat answers.
“It’s neither pro-Jewish or anti-French,” he says. “It’s about two souls in conflict, based on their past experiences.
“Rejean is modelled on people I’ve known – when I left Montreal in 1970 to teach drama, many of my friends espoused these beliefs. But he goes one step further; he’s a holocaust-denier, because of his past – we’re all formed by our past.”
Max is equally complicated and conflicted, he adds.
“Awful things happened to him when he was in Auschwitz, unthinkable things, and they formed his character.
“It’s probably my darkest piece, although it is interlaced with humour – which is necessary for the drama to work.”
Is there an underlying message in the piece?
“When wrongs have been committed, it’s impossible to take them back,” he says. “At the same time one has to move on. But there are no winners in this play – except, I hope, the audience.”