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Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
Sparkling Diamonds
Diamonds in the Dark. By various authors. Directed by Helen Stoltzfus. Starring Albert Greenberg, Naomi Newman, and Corey Fischer. At A Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida (at 17th Street), through Dec. 27. Call 399-1809.

Members of A Traveling Jewish Theater say their dream of having a home stage is precisely as old as their dream of bringing unknown Yiddish poems to life in some kind of live production. They've had a home stage now for about six years, and as of last week they also have their own entrance, their own box office, their own elevator, and their own cut-glass marquee. They are, by now, An Established Jewish Theater, so it's fitting that their new season should open with a long-deserved spotlight turned on some of the more obscure gems in the yiddisher canon.

Diamonds in the Dark translates 24 poems into music, English, and movement. Three performers trade lines in two languages while acting out the poem's story, if it has one, or pretending to play its rhythms on (for example) jazz instruments. It's the kind of show that only performers long skilled in movement can pull off without seeming self-indulgent. They play "The Joy of Yiddish Words (Dos Freyd Fun Yiddishen Vort)" as a scat-singing hipster's ode, and "Sheenie Mike (Shini Mayk)" as a tale set in a hard-boiled Mickey Spillane milieu, with howling dogs and a discordant violin. "Text (Tekst)," about the mysteries of the word of God, alternates Corey Fischer's very American Yiddish with an affected, ferociously prim reading in English by Albert Greenberg -- he sounds, on purpose or not, like the critic Harold Bloom -- and collapses entertainingly into mock existentialist panic. "It's Night," another poem about God, is set to music and sung by Naomi Newman as a languid, Streisand-esque torch song.

Newman has a marvelously tough reciting voice, and Greenberg is an excellent mimic, especially as one of the grandmothers in "The Cat Is Washing Herself." (He also composed most of the music, which is haunting, melancholy, and spare.) Fischer plays good comic Jews like "Crazy Levi," though his American accent sometimes flattens the pickled Yiddish tones. The company has done the proper work of letting each poem suggest its own form, and the variety of the poems leads to a nicely varied show, with flecks of pleasure for everyone. But variety is also the show's worst problem, since nothing but language holds the pieces together. Twenty-four poems may be too many at once. Staging a jumbled anthology with almost no forward motion is a sin of overindulgence, but I suppose it's forgivable just this once, as the only flaw in a showcase of undiscovered light.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Show, Don't Feel
East By Steven Berkoff. Directed by Nicholas Helfrich. Starring Beth Mann, Shane Nestor, Ellen Scarpaci, John McNally, and Kevin Kelleher. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through Dec. 19. Call 673-3847.

If you'd grown up with a last name that rhymed with "jerk off," you too might have developed a savage and exaggerated playwriting style. And you might create violently conflicted characters who yell at the audience and often get around, in their monologues, to miming some kind of sex act.

This seems to be the case with Steven Berkoff. The author of Kvetch and East has no use for subtlety. Earlier this year Berkoff himself performed in drag at the Edinburgh Fringe premiere of his new show Massage and sent people fleeing for the door. One critic wrote, "The first time Berkoff mimed a hand-job on an imaginary penis three or four feet long, culminating in a mimed fountain, it was mildly amusing, but by the time he'd done it half a dozen times ...."

East, however, in spite of a few hand jobs, is a pretty good play, and the current production -- by an apt-ly named new troupe called the Aggro Theater Company -- has a compelling, sinister energy. The story deals with Les and Mike, two young men in London's East End who compete for an unfaithful woman called Sylv. Mike's parents are a pair of exaggerated lower-middle-class horrors who don't seem to realize that Mike is a criminal thug; Les sells cheap men's suits. Dialogue is cockney, and the characters and charged rhyming slang may remind you of A Clockwork Orange, a film in which Berkoff actually had a role shortly before writing this play.

"It's soft and hard at the same time," Mike says, of a knife hitting flesh. "It gives you the collywobbles of thrilldom." Kevin Kelleher plays him in white makeup with bright red eye sockets, resembling Mephistopheles or something from Cabaret, and not for a single moment does he step out of character to show a soft or sympathetic side, but fills himself with venom and spits it at the audience, which is just right.

The problem with the play is that Berkoff develops his characters by giving them speeches, rather than something to do. The sheer weight of narration would sink the story if the language weren't so vivid. (Les describes his co-worker at the suit shop not just as bored, but with "boredom pourin' down on him like yellow piss.") The most important scenes -- like a disturbing one in a cinema between Mike and his mom -- are acted out as well as narrated, and the acting-out is so effective you wish there were more of it. The cast renders Mike's motorcycle ride and a trip to an amusement park in spare and whimsical movement; Mike's dad relives a war story he tells by dying on the dinner table.

There are too many monologues, well-performed as they are. But there isn't too much music -- sometimes the cast bursts into song, backed by a live piano -- and the unrelenting chaos of East makes it wicked, horrible fun.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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