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Solo storyteller adds actress, band — and still is funny

Josh Kornbluth emotes about his childhood, egged on by Amy Resnick. Photo: Heather McAlister.

 

Josh Kornbluth’s been making me laugh aloud for more than 20 years.

But he is changing.

In 1992, he was a bald, bespectacled chubby monologist in his 30s whose intelligence and offbeat sense of humor tickled me.

And made me think.

Today, he’s a bald, bespectacled chubby guy whose intelligence and offbeat sense of humor tickles me. And makes me think.

But he’s 54, graying at the temples.

And, in a colossal departure from his string of one-man shows, he leans on actress Amy Resnick (who does mock French and Valley Girl accents and uses a huge shawl to convert herself into God) and a four-piece band.

It’s easy to see, though, that Kornbluth’s new material at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley is infinitely more mature than previous introspections, interweaving themes without the scruffy seams he used to display.

“Sea of Reeds,” like its title, is multi-layered.

It’s a 90-minute-plus comedy that sporadically reveals Kornbluth’s earnestness and complexity — and leads playgoers to what promotional materials alternately call “the Promised Land of paradox” and “a story of faith and procrastination.”

It’s his latest exercise in cerebral self-pleasuring.

Yet his storytelling skills make it impossible not to enjoy the impressive flip side — his thorny wit.

The writer-performer draws chortles from unlikely places: having his violin ripped off by a Jewish/Hispanic street gang, childhood Red Christmases (his folks having been devotees of Marx — Karl more than Groucho), Exodus (the Bible book, not the Leon Uris novel) and the Dead Sea (“a good place to visit if you’re a scroll”).

He draws his biggest LOLs, however, from a risqué, slapstick oboe lesson designed by a spellbinding young temptress at camp, Monique.

Conversely, he bemoans his youthful inability to make a “leap of faith” off a diving board at an amusement park in suburban New Yawk.

The lifelong atheist segues into his decision to have an adult bar mitzvah two years ago in Israel atop a water tower in the desert — an outgrowth of an idea nurtured by his rabbi-friend, Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom.

That mentor had paved the way for Kornbluth to reconcile his Communist upbringing with his cultural Jewishness by defining God with a catchall phrase, “the collective potential of the human imagination.”

But despite Hebrew terms and phrases being translated immediately, almost as if they were in parentheses, “Sea of Reeds” may be too sectarian for non-Jews.

And too Jewish for many Jews.

Some may flinch, too, when he dismembers his designated Torah portion, utilizing exaggerated body motions and fiery word-pictures to depict its violence and murder.

For those willing to remain open, his twin searches — for proficiency with his instrument and for faith — will make it all worthwhile.

Kornbluth, a Princeton dropout who’s been labeled “Berkeley’s favorite intellectual and provocateur” and who formerly stressed being a luckless bumbler, indicates his director and friend, David Dower has helped him grow — while structuring the chaos of the comedian-playwright’s improvisations.

“Sea of Reeds” was commissioned by the Shotgun Players, which co-produced the show with Jonathan Reinis (who just won a Tony for the Broadway revival of “Pippin”). Like Kornbluth’s previous efforts, it superimposes silliness onto soul-searching.

I’ve seen almost all his creations.

I became something of an addict-stalker after his first big stage hit, “Red Diaper Baby,” where I first noticed his addiction to red socks (shades of Garrison Keillor).

“Haiku Tunnel,” about being an incompetent legal assistant, solidified my high regard.

So did “Love & Taxes,” about the fiscal implications of not reporting royalties to the IRS, and “Ben Franklin Unplugged,” about his affinity for the historical figure he resembles.

In “Sea of Reeds,” Kornbluth uses an especially piquant line: ‘This is how rabbis roll.”

Well, this stretch is how he rolls these days — and I applaud it. Again he’s made me cogitate all sorts of stuff. And I still find him funny.

“Sea of Reeds” runs at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby St., Berkeley, through Aug. 18. Show times, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $35. Information: (510) 841-6500 or www.shotgunplayers.org.

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