New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

Jewish Shows at the New York Fringe Festival
Downtown Manhattan

It's Fringetime in downtown New York-the New York International Fringe Festival, that is-which runs until Aug. 29. The shows (both foreign and from this country) play all over downtown Manhattan, spreading out in 20 venues from East to West, from 14th Street down to the Battery. The venerable event, which has grown larger with each passing year (now its 8th), features innovative, startling, and sometimes very good pieces. And the Jewish influence, not surprisingly, is strongly felt in its 200 offerings this year.

Among the many performances which this intrepid reviewer has already seen are three shows featuring Jewish performers and Jewish characters. Typical of the Fringe, these three run the gamut from terrific to torturous, from amazing to awful, from top-notch to bottom drawer.

Best of this particular trio is Gabriela Kohen's one-woman autobiographical piece. Gabriela has traced her family history, going back five generations to the early years in Poland (including the Holocaust), followed by the move to Argentina and the final years in Brooklyn, New York. Births, deaths, marriages, are all spelled out in this sometimes hilarious, always poignant, record of one Jewish family. What emerges is telling accounts of family interactions, child abuse, bitter regrets, deep love, and alienation.

First of all, Kohen is a gifted performer who, in a flash, changes from one to another of her two dozen characters, giving each-male as well as female--a clear, distinctive personality. She brings each character to life vividly, moving from Polish family members to the fiery Latinos. Not only does her accent swiftly change from Yiddish to Latino to Brooklynese, but each voice is different, as is each stance, each facial expression, each gesture. Kohen uses the merest of costume changes, adding a hat here, a jacket there, but it is the actress herself who makes the magical switch in character. Gabriela herself is seen first as a timid youngster, who endures bullying on the school bus. As she matures, she suffers the abuse of a father, the neglect of a mother, the interference of an aunt, the love of a "bubbe." She survives it all, and goes on to find her own true love, to marry and have her own child, thus continuing the generations.

Another show, "Common Knowledge," also falls into the top-notch category. This two-man piece results from the combined genius of two performer/writers-Doug Budin and Randall Rapstine, who bill themselves as "a Bald Guy and a Jew," respectively. They introduce the show silently but with a series of flip cards, a touch which proclaims the off-beat show that is to come. And from that one goes quickly into the body of "Common Knowledge," which is anything but common.

The two performers work easily in unison, but alternate in a series of comic, touching portrayals. While one performs, the other provides the sound effects (as in old-time radio). Each character is treated with varying mixes of tenderness and humor: there are the two gay men who awkwardly navigate a first encounter, a young naïve German who arrives on these foreign shores, an eight-year-old budding playwright, mothers and sons who come to terms with each other's failings. Male, female, youth, adult, foreigner, 200 percent American, they all combine to create the Budin/Rapstine dramatis personae. And, in a kind of six degrees of separation, they all connect to each other, through blood relation or casual encounter. Consequently, the disparate pieces of the puzzle fit together, to become a unifying piece with a gallery of endearing portraits.

Finally, there is the very disappointing piece with several Jewish characters and a long, long title-namely, "An Evening of Semi-autobiographical, Highly Self-Indulgent Theater" offered by the NeoShtick Theater. "Highly Self-Indulgent" is the operative phrase here. The piece is meant to be about an elderly Jewish man who looks back on his life with great remorse, because he had had no success with the ladies. His youth is replayed on stage, with every failed sexual encounter spelled out in glaring skits. This puts the theme into far more polite terms than the play itself uses. In fact, "Highly Self-Indulgent" is not only highly self-indulgent, but crass, coarse, and pointless. Emphasis on the crass-coarse. We do not object to crude language or virtual sex scenes or nudity on stage when such devices contribute to the artistic or socio/political statement. But, as presented in this badly-written, poorly-conceived piece, it is boring, boring, boring.

Nevertheless, in this first encounter with New York's 2004 Fringe Festival, we concluded that two good pieces out of three is not a bad ratio.

-- Irene Backalenick
August, 2004

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