The Fringe Gets Religion
Two Jewish-themed works mine serious spiritual matters at iconoclastic theater festival.
08/09/2011 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
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Religion is not the first thing that one thinks of in connection with the Fringe Festival, the smorgasbord of zany, often ribald theatrical fare that springs up every August in New York. But this year’s Fringe includes two plays, both by Jewish playwrights, which take on serious religious themes — a retelling of  the Garden of Eden story and the feverish fictional monologue of a shamanistic rabbi.
That both take a humorous, if often bleak, view of humanity seems par for the course at the reliably unpredictable Fringe, which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary.
In Albi Gorn’s “Back to the Garden,” at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village, a female deity battles a Satanic figure (Leo Goodman) who manipulates Creation to his own ends. Caught in the middle are Adam (Brandon Haagenson) and Eve (Allyson Morgan), who, while they make the wrong choice by eating the apple, are ultimately given a second chance to redeem themselves. Set in the Ice Age, the play exemplifies the late Talmud scholar Saul Lieberman’s observation (often quoted by Elie Wiesel) that the most tragic figure in the Bible is God.
Gorn, 64, a playwright and musician who grew up in the North Bronx as the child of Communist Party members, discovered midrash CAP? when he was in his late 40s. A longtime court reporter in the federal courts, he has written several plays, including the prize-winning drama “To Know Him,” about a terminally ill gay man who is visited in the hospital by a female rabbinical student. “Back to the Garden,” which was originally penned in 1995, is directed by Gorn’s wife, Robin Joseph, who is the Cantor of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson.
An even more iconoclastic view of religion underlies poet Alexander Nemser’s “Moshe Feldstein: Icon of Self-Realization,” a one-man show at the Studio at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village. Described by Nemser (who also stars) as “fusing the ecstatic linguistic panache of the Marx Brothers with the metaphorical fluidity of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” the play is an intentionally bizarre mix of performance art and stand-up. The fictional Feldstein is a street-corner prophet who Nemser calls a “visionary, huckster, charlatan, and spiritual seeker.”
Nemser, 27, grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and went on to win a Marshall Scholarship from Yale that enabled him to do graduate work in European literature at Oxford University. His poetry has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review. (One of his poems is read aloud by a future CIA agent in Robert DeNiro’s film, “The Good Shepherd.) “Moshe Feldstein,” which was co-written with Canadian playwright Joseph Shragge, has many influences, including the music of Bob Dylan, the stories of Isaac Babel, and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. 
The play, which has been performed at the Bell Foundry in Baltimore and the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, sprang from Nemser’s intuition that a true spiritual truth-teller would be “a poet and a liar, telling wild incantatory riddles that were impossible to believe or even follow, and yet were true.”
Feldstein’s message, Nemser said, is that the “ecstatic revelation of some kind of truth is a sanctifying truth.”
In different ways, the characters in both “Back to the Garden” and “Moshe Feldstein” are on an intense spiritual quest. As Cantor Joseph put it, echoing the language of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Where is God? Is God there? Is God listening? Man’s endless search for God is the flip side of God’s endless search for man.”
The Fringe Festival begins Friday and runs through Aug. 28 at a variety of venues in lower Manhattan. Other shows at the Fringe that have a Jewish theme, all solo pieces, are: Carol Lempert’s “After Anne Frank,” about life lessons gleaned from the slain diarist; Gabrielle Maisels’ “Bongani,” about Jews and blacks in post-apartheid South Africa; and Ken LaZebnik’s “Rachel Calof,” about the Yiddish-speaking pioneer in late 19th century North Dakota. For tickets, $18 ($15 in advance), call the box office at (866) 468-7619 or visit


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Another Fringe piece with Jewish themes to check out: YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE, which is largely how Jews who fled eastern Europe transformed American comedy, specifically the satire of the Fifties and Sixties -- Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Paul Sills, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, etc.

I'm glad to see religion featured in the festival. I know since I accepted Yeshua as Messiah in my life, spiritual issues are far more important to me now than the day to day or mundane issues. May the festival bring joy to many.

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