Survival Instincts At Fringe Festival

Three solo shows by Jewish performers at the theater festival mine the preservation theme.

08/20/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Evan Brenner in “The Hungry Ghost.” Phoebe Sudrow
Evan Brenner in “The Hungry Ghost.” Phoebe Sudrow

Fringes are worn on Jewish garments to remind Jews to follow the commandments, to maintain the connection to God that has preserved them as a people. At the New York International Fringe Festival, now in its 17th year, three solo shows by Jewish performers also deal, in very different ways, with the theme of survival. From Mallory Schlossberg’s tale of single life in New York, “Molly Marjorie Rosenblatt Needs a Man,” to Lee J. Kaplan’s harrowing account of being tormented at school, “Bully,” to Evan Brenner’s paradoxical embrace of Buddhism, “The Hungry Ghost,” the Fringe Festival continues, like the fringes on clothing, to point in new and sometimes contradictory directions. 

Schlossberg’s hour-long musical comedy, while perhaps the most conventional of the three, is most in line with the Fringe’s traditional emphasis on plays about relationships and sex. Directed by Robin Rothman, “Molly” focuses on a fictional 20something who has moved from the suburbs to the city to seek her fortune as a musical theater actress. While living in a basement apartment in Astoria, Molly finds herself constantly chasing men, including a Jewish hipster from Brooklyn, who perennially disappoint her. By the end, she must decide if finding a relationship is more essential than building her career.

Schlossberg grew up in Westchester, and went on to study English and theater at SUNY Binghamton. Her first play, “Darcy Cohen’s Bat Mitzvah,” was set in a bathroom at a Jewish celebration. In an interview, Schlossberg compared her show to “Girls,” the HBO series with its plain and quirky heroine played by Lena Dunham, as well as to last year’s Noah Baumbach romantic film comedy, “Frances Ha.” She noted that her character “sees things through rose colored lenses, but things start to crack as things get thrown her way.” Schlossberg sees the play as “a lighthearted, fun romp for anyone who has ever struggled or wanted anything,” and had to learn to compromise and to accept things as they are. The character learns, she said, that you can be both “poor and fabulous, able to celebrate your mess.”

A much more serious theme animates “Bully,” Lee J. Kaplan’s autobiographical account of the physical and psychological abuse that he endured from schoolmates beginning in elementary school. Kaplan, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., based the play, which is directed by Padraic Lillis, on his fifth-grade diary. He plays all the characters in his story, including the bullies, the teachers and school administrators, and his distressed parents. Eric Grode, writing for The New York Times theater blog, called the play, which also ran last month at the D.C. Fringe Festival, “animated agitprop … its unassailable messages sugarcoated with ounces of sweat, pounds of goofy humor and tons of heart.”

The relentless abuse that he suffered, Kaplan told The Jewish Week, magnified his sense of self-doubt at a very vulnerable time in his life. And while there was nothing about the abuse that was explicitly anti-Semitic, the other children did attack him for stereotypically Jewish traits — being what he called “small, studious, and a goody two-shoes.” Fortunately, Kaplan found refuge in a loving Jewish family and in the community at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, the Conservative synagogue where he became bar mitzvah. After the show ends its run in New York, Kaplan will perform it at a benefit in Maryland for a family whose son committed suicide at the age of 16 after being bullied by his peers.

Spiritual, rather than physical survival, is the theme of Evan Brenner’s “The Hungry Ghost,” a play about the Jewish performer’s evolving relationship with Buddhism. Brenner, who grew up on the Upper West Side as the child of two psychotherapists, scored a success in 2009 with “The Buddha Play,” a depiction, drawn from Sutra texts, of the life story of the religious figure who lived in India 2,500 years ago. But after performing that play all over the country, Brenner’s career stalled. “The Hungry Ghost,” directed by Snehal Desai, shows how Brenner came to terms with the next stage in his life; he realized, in line with the teachings of Buddhism, that while worldly success is ultimately insignificant, it is also necessary to accept one’s own needs and ambitions as a part of human nature.

The title of “The Hungry Ghost” comes from mythical teardrop or paisley-shaped spirits of Tibetan Buddhism; they have large, distended bellies and pinhole mouths, and they symbolize the futility of trying to satisfy earthly desires. Brenner, whose mother fought in the Israeli War of Independence and whose father presented papers on politics to spark the discussion at their family seders, sees himself as an “open-minded seeker” much like many of the leading Buddhist thinkers in the United States — most of whom, including Mark Epstein, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzburg, are Jewish.

His aim in performing the play, Brenner noted, is to “take the audience on a spiritual journey” not unlike the one that the Buddha himself embarked upon, “to keep the spirit alive in the midst of a world that dehumanizes and trivializes.” The central message, he said, is one that will be familiar to practitioners of Buddhism: “No matter where you go, there you are.” 

These three plays all run at the Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre (formerly the Players Loft), 115 MacDougal St. in the West Village. The Fringe Festival runs through Aug. 25 at 18 venues in Lower Manhattan. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door. For information and tickets, call (866) 468-7619 or visit www.fringenyc.org.

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