Thursday, July 18, 2013

Triumph of the Will

Nobody's perfect. While many people set out in pursuit of perfection, they often find themselves attracted to someone because of that person's quirks and imperfections.

Two plays currently receiving their world premieres from Bay Area theatre companies offer audiences remarkable performances built upon stories of distraction and disability. In one case, the protagonist is a familiar Bay area artist. In the other, the protagonist first appeared before local audiences in a workshop reading as part of a new works incubator program run by an arts organization noted for its proud history of producing new works by American artists.

During each performance, audiences learn how people challenged by a particular neurosis or physical disability can overcome the short-sighted perceptions of those who may have sought to block their personal and professional paths to success. As Molly Tobin famously said, "I ain't down yet!"

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Throughout the two decades that Josh Kornbluth has been writing and performing monologues he has developed a a devoted following that admires his intellect, embraces his lovable stage persona, and simply can't get enough of his work. During the two years that he hosted an interview show for KQED, he displayed a rare gift for combining the geekiness of genuine fandom with the ability to seek out truly interesting subjects and talk shop with them.

Woody Allen seduced legions of fans with his character of the stuttering schlemiel. Kornbluth, however, chose to polish his comedic shtick in the form of a hopeless schlub, a confused and often frightened manchild whose parents were Communists.

Some of Kornbluth's monologues (Ben Franklin: Unplugged, Citizen Josh, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?) have only been seen in live performance. Others have been filmed and are available on DVD (Haiku TunnelRed Diaper BabyThat's Calculus: The Formal Limit 1 and 2, and The Mathematics of Change). Love and Taxes is still in production.

In live performance, Kornbluth has always been a solo performer. This summer, however, audiences are being treated to the result of a challenge thrown down by his friend, Patrick Dooley (artistic director of Berkeley's Shotgun Players).  Directed by Kornbluth's long-time collaborator, David Dower, and performed on a simple but incredibly handsome unit set by Nina Ball, Kornbluth appears in Sea of Reeds with his good friend Amy Resnick (cast as Josh's personal trainer) and a chamber ensemble performing on violin, cello, piano, bass, and percussion.

Poster art for Sea of Reeds

The gimmick which launches the performance is Resnick's explanation to the audience that part of her job as Josh's motivational coach is to get him to finish certain tasks at which he has become a notorious procrastinator. Jobs like making his own reeds for his oboe and performing a piece of music from Difficult Passages for a live audience. As Kornbluth explains:
"With Sea of Reeds, I will explore how Judaism and music both address (with great beauty) the deepest conflicts within ourselves and with each other. My hope is that, in taking on difficult subjects, such as the role of Israel in the contemporary world, we can use elements of both spiritual and musical practice to bring audiences on an unexpected journey -- one that, with empathy and humor, engages with painful contradictions and opens doors, rather than slamming them shut.”
Amy Resnick and Josh Kornbluth in Sea of Reeds
(Photo by: Heather McAlister)

Prior to the performance, Kornbluth can be found stage left making reeds for his oboe. Once the performance begins, Resnick's participation engages Kornbluth in several conversations (whether pushing him to explain things to the audience, impersonating Kornbluth's friend, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom, or re-enacting the scene in which the infant Moses was found floating in a basket by a woman with a thick New York accent).

Josh's explanation of how he got involved with learning to play the oboe is, as usual, priceless. As he describes being mugged as a child and having his oboe stolen from him, he confesses that he waited a sufficient amount of time to tell anybody about the theft because he hated practicing on the oboe, everyone in his neighborhood hated listening to him practice, and he wanted to make sure his attackers made a clean escape.  With his oboe

Josh Kornbluth with his oboe (Photo by: Heather McAlister)

Sea of Reeds can often seem like a glorified excuse to distract the audience long enough so that Kornbluth never has to play an oboe solo with a reed that he himself has made.  But, as is so often the case with his monologues, the "excuse" leads to a much deeper conversation. In this case it's about why an avowed atheist would consent to travel to Israel with a group of Berkeley Jews and get bar-mitzvahed at the age of 52.

Because he has always been such a powerful storyteller, audiences familiar with Kornbluth's work won't be the least bit surprised to hear him establish a logical connection between the Book of Exodus and an oboe (as it turns out the Red Sea was originally known as the Reed Sea). However, when Kornbluth adds in the usual helping of emotional baggage from his youth and dysfunctional family, his new show becomes irresistible.

Sea of Reeds continues through August 18 at the Ashby Stage (click here to order tickets). The following clip contains some of the material used in Kornbluth's new show.

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Last August, while attending some staged readings at the New Works Festival run by TheatreWorks down at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, one play was so vitally different and bracingly original that it stood head and shoulders above the others. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop and further developed at the New York Theatre Workshop, The Loudest Man on Earth is performed in a jumble of three languages: English, American Sign Language, and Visual Vernacular.

As a result, audiences accustomed to attending performances that are heavily amplified suddenly find themselves leaning forward, acutely attentive to what's happening on stage and much more involved than usual because they don't want (and can't afford) to miss anything. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks) recalls:
"At the first reading of The Loudest Man at last summer's New Works Festival, something unique happened. Although there was no dialogue coming from the stage, the audience was hushed and breathless, completely mesmerized by a monologue from deaf actor Adrian Blue (a monologue delivered without a sound). It was a moment of exceptional, unprecedented contact between actor and audience, and I knew immediately that this remarkable play belonged on our stage. The Loudest Man on Earth changed forever my perceptions about how and why we communicate. Its underlying premise is that no single form of communication is better than another, and it proves that premise true in a funny, romantic, and deeply moving evening of theatre."
Jordan (Adrian Blue) and Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) move in together
in The Loudest Man on Earth (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

Mr. Blue portrays Jordan, a theatre director who is deaf and not particularly interested in conducting interviews about his work. When an exasperated journalist barges in on one of his rehearsals and refuses to "reschedule" again, he and Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) finally meet. Although they might start off on the wrong foot, there is a spark and Jordan asks her to join him for a trip to the Museum of Modern Art.

Although Haylee has a limited command of ASL, a romance quickly starts to build. Within weeks, they have moved in together and become a couple. As Jordan and Haylee travel around New York City, communication problems continually arise. An unfortunate encounter with the police on the night they move into their new apartment becomes a violent nightmare of misunderstanding.

A dinner with one of Haylee's old college friends (and her boorish boyfriend) causes Jordan's temper to flare when he feels disrespected. And yet, during an outing to the New York Aquarium with Haylee's father and grandmother (a former marine biologist), the sweetness of Jordan's communicative skills (including his impression of a puffer fish) impresss the old woman when he helps her spot a shark that has been invisible to the others in their party.

Adrian Blue, Julie Fitzpatrick, and Mia Tagano in a scene
from The Loudest Man On Earth (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Written by Catherine Rush and performed on a unit set designed by Jason Simms that helps to keep the action fluid by shifting several skewed panels, the production has been directed by Pamela Berlin with a keen desire to draw the audience into the action. As Berlin explains in her program note:
"We who don't speak in sign language assume that it is all in the hands. But signing requires that, first and foremost, you look the other person in the eye (the hands you take in through peripheral vision).  There is also a lot of touching involved to get people's attention, to make something clear. Signing creates an extraordinary intimacy between people. And an honesty. It is a wonderfully imaginative, pictorial, sensual, humorous language. A sign references a specific image in a graphically evocative way; the tip of a cap for boy, two tips of the cap for man, hands on top of a walking stick for English, a finger expressing a solitary winding path for loner. It is a language that expresses many layers of meaning and feeling."
Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick) and Jordan (Adrian Blue) quickly fall
in love in The Loudest Man on Earth (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

When Haylee (with the best of intentions) tries to find out why Jordan refuses to discuss his childhood, a chance meeting with his parents on the Coney Island Boardwalk opens up some old and deeply painful wounds -- which leads to utter catastrophe. After Haylee falls off a kitchen stepladder and Jordan can't hear the crash, she ends up in the hospital where, because he is not a blood relative, Jordan gets some pretty rough treatment from insensitive nurses and interpreters.

At various points in the play, Blue breaks the fourth wall to communicate directly with the audience through a series of signed monologues which demonstrate his love for Haylee as well as his fury and frustration with the day-to-day insults of being deaf in a hearing world.

Adrian Blue performing one of Jordan's monologues in
The Loudest Man on Earth (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As Jordan, Mr. Blue delivers a powerhouse performance which will easily melt people's hearts. Julie Fitzpatrick is a perfect foil for him as her character slowly starts to understand that some of their communication problems might actually be her fault. Cassidy Brown and Mia Tagano make the most of Tanya Finkelstein's costumes as they take on a rapidly changing variety of small roles.

It's rare to encounter a new play that manages to be proud and poignant, upfront and uncompromising, while opening its audience's minds to possibilities they've never even considered. Performances of The Loudest Man on Earth continue at the Lucie Stern Theatre through August 4 (click here to order tickets). This show is well worth your time.

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