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The Arts
August 22-28, 2007

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'2 X Malamud'

Universals: The Traveling Jewish Theatre finds common humanity in the stories of Bernard Malamud.

Cat and Crow

Traveling Jewish Theatre does Malamud twice in 'Jewbird' and 'The Magic Barrel'

By Marianne Messina

PULITZER PRIZE–winning author Bernard Malamud baffled some critics by saying, "Every man is a Jew though he may not know it." Certainly, the characters in his short story "The Jewbird" exemplify all manner of humanity. Even though the scraggly-looking, anthropomorphized crow that invites himself into the Cohen household represents the wandering and persecuted Jewish people, he is universal in his opportunism: "The window was open, so the skinny bird flew in. ... That's how it goes. It's open, you're in. Closed, you're out." Making himself the "unwelcome guest" (albeit helpful), this self-identified "Jewbird" named Schultz (Corey Fischer) gets birdseed and asks for herring. "One false move, and he's out on his drumsticks," says Cohen (Max Gordon Moore), who torments the bird, first by hinting about "migratory birds" and later by bringing in a cat.

In the Traveling Jewish Theatre's enactment of Malamud's tale, Tamar Cohn plays a fiendish cat. Front paws perched on the table in her black cat ears and tail, she stares down the crow, licking her chops and twitching her velvety tail. As the crow, Fischer evokes wings using a long, black velvet scarf; skewed black feathers stick randomly from his mop of white hair. Pacing, huddling, Fischer makes the Jewbird both pathetic and magnetic—his drooping beakishness, his flapping hunched wings, his pitiable "sprwaak!" when assaulted.

"The Jewbird" follows "The Magic Barrel" in this two-story presentation called 2 x Malamud. Between stories, Moore makes an amazing transition in becoming the harsh, stout-bellied, cigar-smoking, slick-haired Cohen. He starts out as Leo, a foible-laden, nebbishy rabbinical student in "The Magic Barrel." The reclusive Leo decides that, before he can attain a good congregation, he needs a wife. So he enlists Salzman the marriage broker, or as he later scoffs, "commercial cupid." A helpful pest like Schwartz, Salzman is frazzled, foul-smelling and wearing a coat "too short and tight for him."

Unlike theatrical adaptations, the show's innovative "word-for-word" enactments come with built-in ironic humor. Characters refer to themselves in the third person and follow their statements with tags like "He said amiably." Shrewd direction by Joel Mullennix ("Barrel") and Sheila Balter ("Jewbird") exploits the concept further. Narrative lines prompt action, like Salzman sweeping up his crumbs as he says, "When he had finished, he cleaned up the mess." Sentences are parceled out in intriguing ways. For example, "Leo trembled" (Lily); "with rage" (Leo), in a neat division of inner and outer experience.

Though the language rings of storytelling, 2 x Malamud is rich theater all the way, precisely timed and carefully blocked in furnished rooms with framed windows and doorways. That it moves briskly shows Malamud's writing for the lean vehicle that it is. In "The Magic Barrel," Mullennix has Tamar Cohn and Jeri Lynn Cohen (also Lily) convey the passage of time (helped by speedy music) as gossiping neighbors. Sound designer Rex Camphuis has applied Dan Cantrell's music sparsely but purposefully to make frenetic scenes more so, to hurry or suspend time (for poetic images) and to set the mood. For Malamud's more magical imagery, like "violins and lit candles in the sky," the action slows deliberately to clear a gap for tableaux, Cohn and Cohen holding up stick puppets or cutout mobiles. Oddly, there were no kids at this show. Kids would really get it—the enacted storytelling, the accessible magic realism, the rich visual humor. Fischer is a veritable pied piper of expressiveness as both wily marriage broker and whiny Jewbird. And with Malamud's insightful undertones for adults, 2 x Malamud is the substantial family fare most family shows pull off only in the dreams of their marketing teams.

2 X Malamud, a Traveling Jewish Theatre production, plays Wednesday, Saturday–Sunday at 2pm and Thursday and Saturday at 8pm through Aug. 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24–$34. (800.838.3006)

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