Josh Kornbluth: Good for Andy Warhol’s Jews?

Reviewed by Berkeleyside contributor Sarah Henry

It would be tough to find a funnier guy in Berkeley than Josh Kornbluth.

I’ve been a fan of the moon-faced, wide-eyed, hair-challenged monologist, who has perfected the art of the raised eyebrow for maximum comic effect, since his early days at The Marsh in San Francisco. (An aside: This ex-citysider is so glad The Marsh had no problem crossing the bridge, unlike some people she knows.)

Kornbluth has made a career out of chronicling much of his life on the stage in his frequently hilarious and often thought-provoking solo shows. We first meet him during his childhood in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where he is raised by Marxist, atheists (Red Diaper Baby). Then it’s on to college (The Mathematics of Change), temp work (Haiku Tunnel) and a stint as an editor (Pumping Copy), a personal favorite. Berkeleysiders familiar with his work may recall that the city features prominently in the recent Citizen Josh.

Now, Kornbluth is in the middle of a run of his latest production Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews? His first commissioned show, The Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco asked him to ruminate on the series of portraits depicting the likes of Einstein, Kafka, and the Marx Brothers by the iconic artist.

It’s his fourth collaboration with director David Dower, who joined forces with the writer-comedian on Ben Franklin: Unplugged, Love & Taxes, and Citizen Josh. The two have also worked on film versions of Haiku Tunnel and Red Diaper Baby.

And it’s vintage Kornbluth: There’s the meandering monologue, the stitching together of seemingly disparate stories, and the real-life characters with almost unbelievable names. In this instance: Rabbi Menachem Creditor — seriously — plays a prominent role.  And always the autobiographical performance mixes the poignant with the punny and comes back to Kornbluth’s complex relationship with his beloved father, Paul Kornbluth. This time round audience goers even get some cringe-inducing Borscht Belt humor, which is fitting, given the subject matter.

The jumping off point for Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews? Is Warhol’s controversial 1980 series Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, which may have wowed the masses but critics called it crassly exploitive. At first, Kornbluth just didn’t “get it” either and defaced his catalog in protest.

As with all Kornbluth’s shows, I always learn something from the journey he takes his audience on. The man is seriously smart: I’d never heard of the theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, one of Warhol’s subjects. Kornbluth finds a cleverly amusing way to weave his theories on human relationships into this show.

As you might expect, the 90-minute performance explores identity, culture, spirituality, Jewishness, art, and the performer’s own unease with Warhol’s exhibit, by examining the portraits’ genesis and the subjects (chosen for their faces), and includes a touching tribute to its eccentric creator. The show also offers validation for any museum goer — hand up over here — who has ever struggled to find meaning in an artwork dubbed a masterpiece.

It’s a typically warm and engaging performance from Kornbluth, though my fellow theater-goer and I agreed there are less laughs than previous shows. We both noticed a couple of transitional leaps that asked a lot of the audience and a few more verbal missteps from the monologist than we’re used to.

But these are minor quibbles. The man who proudly touts his membership on the city’s Energy Commission (those meetings must be a hoot) is his original, quirky, irreverent self.

There’s a mellowing with age, too, that appeals. Case in point: Kornbluth, who never attended a synagogue as a child or had a bar mitzvah, recounts his experience going to temple for the first time as a 50-year-old man, making his peace with his past and coming to terms with his own Jewish roots. It’s a moving moment, and as always, there’s a little self-deprecating humor served on the side.

Andy Warhol: Good For The Jews?, written and performed by Josh Kornbluth, Shotgun Players, The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, runs through February 27. Tickets here.

On Wednesday, February 23 Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, will be on hand for a post-show discussion.

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  • http://www.preservenet.com Charles Siegel

    Some time ago, I ran into Josh Kornbluth while he was walking to a performance. I told him that a number of Jewish organizations had just put a full-page ad in the New York Times saying that they supported congressional action to control global warming because it would reduce the power of Middle-Eastern oil-exporting states and so increase the security of Israel. I told him I thought about him when I saw that ad, because at last, someone had asked the most important question about global warming: “Controlling global warming – Is it good for the Jews?”