It's always impressive to see just how much comedic and poignant material Berkeley monologist John Kornbluth mines out of being Josh Kornbluth. Past monologues have explored his work as a proofreader (Pumping Copy), growing up communist (Red Diaper Baby), temp jobs (Haiku Tunnel), unpaid taxes (Love & Taxes), unfinished school work (Citizen Josh), even his passing resemblance to one of the Founding Fathers (Ben Franklin Unplugged). As a character in his new show, Sea of Reeds, puts it, "Josh has made a living telling stories about things he failed to do."
One of the interesting things about Sea of Reeds is that it has its roots in one of Kornbluth's earlier monologues. Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? had a relatively straightforward start as a commission from the Contemporary Jewish Museum to write a short piece responding to an exhibit of Warhol portraits of famous Jews. But it blossomed into a 2010 full-length show filled with an unexpectedly deep consideration of his own previously unexamined Jewishness as a lifelong atheist.
Sea of Reeds shows just how deep that experience of embracing that side of his heritage was for Kornbluth. One of the people he connected with while making Warhol was Berkeley's Rabbi Menachem Creditor. As Kornbluth recounts in Reeds, he enjoyed his talks with Creditor so much that he didn't want them to end, so he decided to belatedly study for the bar mitzvah he never had, only at 52 years old rather than the traditional 13.
Kornbluth ties that experience, which in his case involved a pilgrimage to Israel, together with his long-stalled progress playing the oboe, especially making his own reeds for the instrument. The title is a play on oboe reeds, of course, but also on the Book of Exodus ("Red Sea" was a mistranslation of "Sea of Reeds"), which also plays a big part in the narrative. In explaining how he came to pick up the oboe in the first place, Kornbluth delves into hilarious and touching reminiscences about his childhood experiences with faith -- in his parents, in communism, in Santa Claus. Explaining why Christmas was such a big deal in his childhood, he says, "My father was a Jewish communist, and Christmas was the birthday of a Jewish communist."
This play, commissioned by Shotgun Players and co-produced by Shotgun and Jonathan Reinis Productions, is a big departure for Kornbluth in one important respect: It's not a solo show. Most of it is still a monologue, but there are other performers in it. Actor Amy Resnick opens the show as Josh's personal trainer Anya, who in this context seems to function more as a life coach. Her function is to prompt his monologues and nag him into making his own reed to use to play a difficult passage (from a book called Difficult Passages, no less) at the end of the show.
If you don't recognize Resnick from many powerful past performances such as last year's Body Awareness at Aurora Theatre Company and God of Carnage at San Jose Rep, you might think at first that she's exactly who she claims to be. Anya's involvement in the show is minimal at first, butting in occasionally to redirect Josh when he seems to be stalling or copping out. But relatively late in the play, she starts to play roles in Josh's story, from his sexy oboe teacher at camp when he was a kid to Pharaoh's daughter to the inspiring Rabbi Creditor himself, shifting from one to another with chameleonlike grace. (Beth Wilmurt will take over the roles starting August 7.)
There's also an onstage musical quartet that occasionally plays music with Kornbluth, including a lovely singalong of beloved folk songs from his childhood. Very, very seldom they'll underscore one of Josh's stories (with haunting compositions and arrangements by Marco d'Ambrosio), and eventually they even get to say something.
Unfortunately, Kornbluth doesn't seem to know entirely what to do with these additional elements. The show is written by Kornbluth in collaboration with Resnick and director David Dower, but the non-monologue elements feel awkwardly shoehorned in. There are long stretches of the play in which Resnick and the band don't really have anything to do but sit around and watch Josh tell his story, so it's jarring when they finally do get involved again. The dialogue feels forced and relatively clunky compared to the easy flow that Kornbluth gets into when it's just him talking.
As ever, the storytelling is the heart of the piece, and Kornbluth is a fantastic raconteur, but even on that level this particular tale hasn't quite found its shape. The disparate elements of the oboe, the Book of Exodus and Josh's bar mitzvah don't really congeal. There's a recurring theme about a message from his childhood self to his adult self that's easily missed when it's first established and thus confusing when it becomes important later. Josh talks a lot about worrying whether his goyish wife and son will think of this new interest in his heritage, but although they're present for his bar mitzvah, we never get to hear what they think about anything.
Even so, various pieces of the story are hilarious, especially the account of how little Josh got his first oboe, a pricelessly convoluted tale involving muggers, battling parents, street gangs, and Santa Claus. Kornbluth's take on bloody tales from the Torah is compelling, as are his ruminations on playing the oboe, and the music itself is a treat. The show may feel like less than the sum of its parts, but those are some awfully good parts.
Sea of Reeds runs through August 11, 2013 at Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit shotgunplayers.org.
All photos by Heather McAlister.