Theater Review: FELA! on Broadway

The old Reese’s peanut butter cup jingle is the perfect description for the Bill T. Jones – Fela extravaganza on Broadway: “Two great tastes that taste great together” FELA! is absolutely delicious — amazing choreography by Jones combined with spectacular direction overall. And Antibalas honors Fela’s music with their own deep grooving sounds — electrifying. Both the actors playing Fela and his Mother deserve Tony Awards — stunning performances. Mindblowing.

The only negative in this play is the attempt to add contemporary corporate bashing to Fela’s narrative and to add contemporary examples of police related violence (Sean Bell) to the story. I understand the emotional connection, for sure — but it comes across as a moral equation or a grab-bag of anti-establishment politics.

Still — amazing work with great power.

For those of you not familiar with Fela, here is some video footage of the late great Nigerian musician

Theater Review: Dai by Iris Bahr

Shrapnel in the front row

During the war between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, I called my cousin who lives in a small suburban town north of Tel Aviv. “It is surreal,” she said. “The children are going back and forth from the bomb shelter to the pool.”

Israel’s paradox is well known — on the one hand, it is a war-scarred nation in a region increasingly populated by religious extremists who own explosives. On the other hand, it is a place with exceptionally good weather where kids play in the pool while their parents sip iced coffee and discuss Almodovar’s latest. On a bad day, the two realities collide.

Collision is at the heart of Iris Bahr’s masterful new theater work, “Dai” (“Enough”), at Culture Project in New York. Appropriately, “Dai” is staged in the same theater that gave birth to Sarah Jones’ “Bridge and Tunnel,” the solo piece that went on to a Tony Award-winning Broadway run.

Artistically and thematically the pieces are identical twins — a series of immigrant tales told through simple costume changes, dialect humor, and both gender and racial role-plays.
Both women talk fast, have talent to burn and know how to vacillate between humor and pathos before you realize that you’ve been taken for a ride. Like “Bridge and Tunnel,” in “Dai” the personal becomes political, and you are sucked in by the energy, the stories, the language, and the performer.

But while Jones’ work hung on a poorly constructed back-story regarding the police and a Pakistani family, Bahr’s work is rooted in the visceral, explosive premise that all her characters are about to be obliterated in a suicide bombing. This device, in a lesser play, would seem like an easy way to draw loose ends to a resolution. But under Will Pomerantz’s superb direction each thunderous death of a character is a minor revelation. Bahr creates and destroys an Israeli woman visiting home from her exile in Long Island, an Israeli kibbutznik father, a newly Israeli solider from Manhattan, an opinionated Orthodox woman with seven children, a shrewd Russian Israeli prostitute, and a spunky Israeli ecstasy dealer.

More interesting, though, are the non-Israeli characters she places in Tel Aviv. She plays a half-Syrian BBC reporter, a gay German furniture designer, a Latina actress, a divorced Palestinian college professor, and a Southern-twanged American Evangelical. Bahr, who has guest-starred on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” had the audience doubled over in laughter throughout the show.

Only the American Evangelical comes off as a caricature. (It is clear that Bahr wants him in the story, but is having a hard time finding a way to identify with him.) But all the other characters that populate the Tel Aviv coffee shop have depth and texture — you feel for them, you want to hear more from them.

So what does one take away from a show in which such a mix of characters spill their life stories? Bahr does not leave you with a political vision for the Middle East. But like all solo performers who successfully take on multiple roles, the implicit political message is that we can embody and understand one another.

Bahr, who served in the Israeli Army, understands Israel — Israel as the refugee camp and the high-tech hub, the promised land and the war-torn wilderness — and her artistic brilliance is that she can bring us into that understanding in the context of an 80-minute romp in a mythical café.

Book Review time: Fima by Amos Oz

I just finished devouring Amos Oz’s Chekov marinated 1991 novel Fima. (a Father’s Day gift — thanks Shosh) The novel is about a divorced poet-political commentator-abortion clinic receptionist who happens to be the son of a cosmetics magnate. His name is Efraim – hence the nickname ‘Fima’ and he stumbles about Jerusalem and eats quite a bit of bread with jam. Most importantly, he waxes poetic about the legacy of the ’67 war and what it has done to the Israeli soul. 15 years after publication, the political ideas are still wet. In fact, in some ways the escalation of violence and the rise of Hamas are foreshadowed… it is a bit chilling that Oz was so accurate about the elusivity of peace. But mostly it is funny and brilliant and it rolls along beautifully and Oz reminds us what it means to be alive in a world that is in a constant state of entropy. Five puffy stickers.

Theater Review: Well by Lisa Kron

Last night I saw Lisa Kron’s play “Well” – a play on Broadway about a Jewish girl growing up in Lansing, Michigain whose mother believes in two things: Allergies and racial integration. The piece was deeply funny – especially the part of her mother, played on stage by a woman seated on a Lazy-boy recliner. But more important than the inventive staging of what is basically a one woman memoir based show was the central idea — the “through line” of the piece – Kron is conveying to her audience that we should not be talking about identities as if they are clothing. She first claims that people think that ‘being Jewish in the Midwest is like being Christian with a layer of Jewish on top” then she says people think that ‘being Black is like being White with a layer of Black on top’ and then she says being sick is like ‘being well with a layer of sick on top.’

The result of her symbolic layering of these identities is that she challenges us to think about the origins of prejudice – not by calling attention to acts of racial and religious prejudice – but by calling attention to the natural prejudice that evolves around how we discuss our health, around being ‘well’ – i.e. if we feel sick, we prejudice those who are well, if we feel well, we prejudice those who are sick. By starting with that which all humans share -anxiety around the ‘am I sick?’ / ‘am i well?’ question, Kron has created a powerfully humanistic piece of theater. Between Doubt, Well, and Bridges & Tunnel, Broadway is starting to feel like the theater world again.

Film Review: The Pity Card

Short thoughts on the short film The Pity Card
Director – Bob Odenkirk

I would file Odenkirk’s 12 minute film, playing at the Sundance Festival, next to the ‘survivor’ episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the ‘tolerance museum’ episode of South Park and Sarah Silverman’s ‘Jesus is Magic’ as a prime example of the new format of ‘post-holocaust’ comedy -comedy that pokes fun of the sanctity of holocaust memory.

The film speaks to a particular post-holocaust museum/holocaust education paradox: The American Jew desires to be associated with the holocaust in order to recieve the empathy of other Americans – but also wants to be detached from the holocaust in order to be seen as ‘normal.’

In Odenkirk’s short film, he deploys the stereotypical hollywood couple – the nebischy Jewish kid trying to impress the dumb blond. (think Jazz Singer 1927) But instead of acting cool (i.e. Black) to get the girl, here the protaganist stumbles into a situation in which he realizes that pity – in this case his grandparents survivor status – can help him get the girl. After telling his all-American white boy sidekick about taking her to the holocaust museum on a first date, he sees her at a party. All is well when the young couple are in private, but when she begins to tell a group of friends at the party about how much she is learning about the holocaust and says ‘isn’t that right Simon?” he inadvertantly says “I don’t fuc*ing care about the holocaust! Let’s just turn on the music and have a drink and get drunk….” And thus, he loses the girl. In the end, he wins the true prize, friendship with the sidekick, who is, of course, trying to figure out what his pity card is – a difficult task for many a Southern White boy.

The film, which is well acted and shot, is funny. I laughed from beginning to end. But on reflection, I have to say that the depiction of the third generation of survivors is not convincing. When I think of my friends whose grandparents are survivors, what I’ve seen is not a diminshing of the emotional impact of the Shoah – but the exact opposite. Many survivors kept their anguish, rage, and despair bottled up in order to survive. Children of survivors are left deeply scarred – and the rates of depression and suicide are alarming. Their children, sadly, are impacted – often in ways that they only come to terms with in early adulthood. Perhaps the protaganist in The Pity Card is simply immature and clueless – and maybe he did not have a close relationship to the parent who was a child of survivors. But as much as I enjoyed this short filck, and laughed at the central premise of a guy who ‘almost used the holocaust to get laid’ I found it to be dishonest. Some people may be ‘over’ the holocaust – but those who were raised by children of survivors are rarely among them.

Theater Review: Cirque Eloize: Rain

About a dozen years ago, at a Pina Baush dance performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music, I had something close to a religious experience. It was hard to describe – but the dancers, encircling a massive pile of red carnations, created such an ecstatic movement of beauty and wonder and celebration that I felt as if I had entered a dream. A delightful dream. Cirque Eloise , the Candian company whose piece Rain I saw today in Princeton, just took me on a similar trip. The piece, which ended in a joyous chaotic childhood romp in a simulated rainstorm was breathtaking. Wow.

Book Review: Joel Ben Izzy

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

Author: Joel Ben Izzy

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Publication date: November 7, 2003

Reviewed by Daniel S. Brenner

In lecture six of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Sick Soul,

William James quotes Robert Louis Stevenson -“There is indeed one element in human

destiny that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are

intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.” James

adds that “our nature being thus rooted in failure, is it any wonder that

theologians should have held it to be essential, and thought that only through the

personal experience of humiliation which it engenders the deeper sense of

life’s significance is reached?”

Failure is at the heart of first time author Joel ben Izzy’s “The Beggar King

and the Secret of Happiness ” a memoir by a traveling storyteller who learns

at the age of thirty-seven that he has thyroid cancer. In ben Izzy’s

narrative, he skillfully places his own failures in navigating through a life with a life-threatening disease in the context of the failures of two other men – his father’s failure to provide for his family and his mentor’s failure to overcome depression.

Ben Izzy has much to add. Here, for example, is a Sufi tale that he cites –

“Oh, great sage, Nasrudin,” said the eager student, “I must ask you a very

important question, the answer to which we all seek: What is the secret to

attaining happiness?”

Nasrudin thought for a time, then responded. “The secret of happiness is good


“Ah,” said the student. “But how do we attain good judgment?”

“From experience,” answered Nasrudin.

“Yes,” said the student. “But how do we attain experience?’

“Bad judgment.”

The hook of ben Izzy’s story comes in the irony involved in one of the

complications surrounding the disease. After successful surgery for his tumor, he

loses his voice. He is told that he will never speak again. The quiet tragedy

that unfolds is apparent as a man who makes a living as a professional

storyteller can’t even read a story to his two young children. At first Michela would forget. “Daddy tell a story! A Chelm story! Or the one about the lost horse! Or the Irish king story!”

Then, Elijah would remind her. “No, Michaela. We don’t want to hear a story, do we?” She’d shake her head in agreement. His attempts to speak

without properly working vocal cords lead him to a further sense of failure and

humiliation. He walks around his house in a funk and spins himself back into

the world of his cranky mentor.

Ben Izzy is funny, and one of his best jokes is a parable that captures this

book’s simple brilliance:

A man goes to a tailor and gets fitted for a new suit. Two weeks later the

man tries on the suit and it fits terribly. “One sleeve is too long and one is

to short. The pants are tight here and baggy here,” he says to the tailor.

The tailor replies “The suit is fine, just hold your shoulder back like this

and lean down like this and then put your left foot back like this…Perfect!”

The man walks out on to the street, hobbling along awkwardly as the tailor

had instructed him. Two women notice him.

“My God! What happened to him?” one says.

“I don’t know,” says the other, “but that’s a great-looking suit!”

The suit that fits ben Izzy’s twisting narrative is a series of fourteen folktales that he has selected. In them he imparts Zen, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim tales as well as the Jewish stories which are his native tongue. Between the tales, Ben Izzy works wonders with his central paradox of a speechless storyteller – and while he keeps his narrative light, he generally avoids fluffy spiritual summations. Except for some of the scenes with his cigar smoking mentor that have a “Tuesday’s with Morrie” feel, the interactions he has with his family are genuine and moving. Particularly moving are the moments when he communicates with his mother via an eraser board.

“Why so quiet?” she asked again. “You haven’t said a thing since you got here.”

Again I took out my eraser board and wrote, “I lost my voice.”

A puzzled look appeared on her face. “You have laryngitis?”

I shook my head. “Cancer,” I wrote.

You feel for his desperation, and hope for some redemption. So how does ben Izzy pick himself up from the failure of his vocal cords and fear of an early grave to attain “a deeper sense of life’s significance?”

Though ben Izzy briefly mentions a desire to hear God’s voice, this book is marked by an absence of theological quest or questioning during a time of illness. The problem of evil, which so riddles Reynolds Price’s meditations on cancer in his work Letter to

a Man in the Fire is absent here. Nor does ben Izzy join forces with

the demonic and go Vegas – either the Fear and Loathing or Leaving Las Vegas

variety that makes for a tasty parable of self-destruction. Rather, ben Izzy

looks for “life’s significance” in the folktales themselves.

In this way, ben Izzy’s little book of folktales and memoir solidifies the rise of a literary culture that Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty has articulated. In Rorty’s essay, “The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of Literary Culture” he argues that humanity has gone through three great stages of development. They are monotheism, in which religion offers hope through entering a covenant with a supremely powerful non-human. Philosophy, in which a set of beliefs tell us what is true about the world we live in, and literary culture – which does not care about What is True but about “What is new?”

In a literary culture, it is not only the canon set by Harold Bloom that becomes sacred text. The surviving remnant of the people’s religion – their folktales- also become sacred. Folktales have advantages in a literary culture. Like the Five Books of Moses, their author is invisible, their origins are secret, and there are no royalties to be paid. Even the style by which they are told – with careful detail in some places and purposeful omissions in others – echoes the ancient biblical narrative. If that isn’t enough to solidify the folktales ascendancy, in The Beggar King and the Secret of Hapinness the folktales are placed in a special font and with accompanying flourishes. It is as if life were simply a commentary on a set of tales.

The translator Hillel Halkin once wrote that “Folktales, like jokes and

mythical serpents – change their skins often but have extremely long lives.”

While folktales touch immortality ben Izzy’s book proves that they work best in helping us through the mortal’s journey. What is new in his work is that he has returned the memoir genre to its ancestral roots– here every personal revelation is a portal to a tale more universal in scope. Ben Izzy is to be praised. In a world that is increasingly self-referential he still finds redemptive truth, albeit with a lower-case “t”.

published in Crosscurrents