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The Sol Shank Redemption 

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
Why is Charlie Varon's new solo show called The People's Violin? It's about a neurotic, narcissistic Jew approaching middle age who decides to film a documentary about his famous, respectable, elderly dad, an Elie Wiesel sort of figure known for his books about the Holocaust. Varon tweaks the Jewish father-son formula in an amusing way by insinuating an unlikely Irish background into his hero's past -- but it has nothing to do with violins.

Sol Shank, at 40, is a frustrated filmmaker. His documentaries still get rejected by public TV; he has very little fame to show for years of struggle. His father Sidney is a renowned psychologist and author of 19 books (notably Judaism Without God), who casts a long inhibitive shadow across his son's career. In desperation, Sol decides to make a film about him. He masquerades as an objective journalist focusing on the elder Shank's public life, but during interviews he asks personal questions about his fathering habits and murky childhood. "The focus is my work, the focus is not me," declares Sidney. "Turn off the camera." Sol feels he's getting somewhere. But midway through the production, Sidney dies.

Varon's most interesting prop is a so-called "player violin," a fiddle with three dials on the bottom labeled "Bach," "Vivaldi," and "Mozart," which plinks out selections from those composers like a player piano. Such contraptions were popular before radio, when poor people, obviously, couldn't afford live musicians in their parlors. Varon's agonist finds the violin in a box of his father's stuff, and the mystery of this item leads him to an Irish salesman named Big Jack Carver, who reveals an odd secret about Sol's family history.

The rest of the show deals with Sol's wild hunt for the facts of his father's childhood. Was Sidney Shank even Jewish? The sheer ridiculousness of the quest makes the play enormous fun to watch. Varon's major characters are vibrant and clear, from the sonorous patriarch to Sol's old friend Aharon to his Israeli wife Nirit. "The way to a woman's cunt," says Nirit, in her husky voice, remembering a lover who could cook, "is through her nostrils." The range of characters even reaches to a vividly remembered Hungarian butcher from Depression-era Chicago. Certain middle characters are out of focus, especially Irishmen like Big Jack Carver, but Varon gives his shape-shifting talent full play, and he hasn't forgotten to be funny.

Most of the press on the show so far has emphasized that it's Not a Comedy, at least not in the sense that Varon's previous one-man shows were comedies. Rush Limbaugh in Night School and Ralph Nader Is Missing! featured Varon running around the stage like a maniac, in one case with supporting actors, pretending to be about 80 different people; they made Varon's local reputation as a proteus of political satire. Violin is more emotional, more psychological. It features Varon alone, playing 20 characters, and deals with family matters and identity instead of politics. But lack of humor is not the problem. Varon just is funny.

The weakness of The People's Violin is a writerly problem of control. The title shines a bright spotlight on Sidney's player violin, but the strange instrument comes out all too briefly, piquing the audience's curiosity without satisfying it, or illuminating any part of the story. Fiddles are folk instruments; is this one meant as a symbol of subterranean connections between the Irish and the Jews? Does it reflect some romantic part of Sidney's personality? It's impossible to say -- Varon fails to use the violin as anything besides a prop. The story, as a result, spins off in every direction, passing through some excellent scenes (like a quiet moment between Sol and his father while Sidney grades papers, or an interview near the end with Aharon), but flopping at the conclusion, where Varon hits all the right thematic buttons but reaches for phony sentiment.

The result all feels like a late draft, a work in progress. Varon's earlier shows played extended runs at the Marsh, and Limbaugh toured to New York and D.C.; hopefully Violin will have the same sort of life span, and evolve. Because Varon's onto something. His experiments with "documentary form" still bear fruit, and his talent for conjuring whole milieus of recognizable characters makes him not just chaotic but unique on the local scene. Near the end, Aharon says, "You were not a coward, Sol. You were an American ... Americans can change their identities at a moment's notice." So, for better and worse, can Varon.


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