Worshipping a Vital Spirit

Naomi Newman's solo show is a mixed blessing.

Although A Traveling Jewish Theatre is no longer really nomadic — it has its own dedicated space in San Francisco — it still feels like a peripatetic company, with its small casts and simple sets.

Which doesn’t mean that the company’s shows lack gravity or power; only that it has made a virtue of artistic economy. A cast larger than four performers is a rarity, as is a set as detailed as the one it used for the recent Times Like These. And most of the scene changes in last year’s God’s Donkey were effected by clever lighting instead of the ponderous moving set pieces some companies love to distraction. Focusing instead on deep physicality, complex sound and music design, and new or rarely seen scripts, TJT is very good at warm, intimate, and direct.

Naomi Newman’s new solo show, Fall Down Get Up, is in this tradition, which is logical considering Newman is a founding member of the company and still very involved in determining its artistic direction. This is a loosely-bound tome following the stories of about a dozen people, from a Yiddish vaudevillian to a Dogon woman brought to America as a slave. Framed by Newman’s own story of growing up in Detroit back when there were synagogues and Yiddish theaters within the city limits, and her family was more likely to worship at the latter than the former, Fall Down is a paean to the vital spirit that makes us get up and dust ourselves off, no matter what. Another major theme in the work is journeys, both literal (the Middle Passage of African slavery, the transport of Jews to the concentration camps) and emotional (from youth to age, from loss to love). Like many TJT shows, Newman’s work relies on music (singing in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish), movement, and a smart blend of humor and thoughtfulness to get its point across.

What it also relies on is a prior knowledge of yiddishkeit, the trappings of Jewish (especially Ashkenazi) cultural life. There’s a part near the beginning where Newman offers a lesson in the “mother tongue,” namely the Yiddish equivalents for woman-oriented words like “lesbian” (“lesbianka — the one with the roommate”) and “wife.” It’s funny at first, but as she speeds up, it becomes hard to follow — even if you grew up hearing Yiddish spoken. Putting this segment at the front of the show creates a real risk of making the audience struggle to keep up. Having been raised among the tribe, I honestly can’t tell how much of this show might be an in-joke. Do non-Jewish women, for example, kvetch over the news (“This is what I do to relax,” the character Rifke tells us, shaking the newspaper in a fury)? Later on, Rifke leads the audience in some good old-fashioned cathartic complaining by encouraging everyone to “oy” as loud as they can; it seems hokey in print but is actually very satisfying, regardless of your upbringing.

All told, Fall Down Get Up is generous, humane, and uneven; brilliant in places, slow in others. Newman — who was delightful in last year’s Windows and Mirrors — speaks of enjoying being in other people’s skins, but the most effective bits here are when she is in her own. The story where the thrice-divorced Newman reveals to her sister that she has fallen in love with a woman is particularly delightful. The buildup to the revelation gives us a strong sense of the two women, and treats the sister more respectfully than such stories often do. When Newman first tells her sister that she has news, her sister says, “You’re not going to do one of your rituals, are you?” To which Newman replies, “I did my menstruation ritual five years ago. You refused to come.” The rest of the piece is well-paced, truthful, and very funny. Later, there’s a painful story of a child locked in a closet for a minor infraction that is affectingly sad as the coming-out story is funny; once again Newman scores when she keeps it close to home.

The characters that are further from her own experience are accurate and engaging but somehow not as vital. The best example has to be the woman listed in the program as the Hag. “How many gray hairs do you need to slip out of the human race?” she asks. While it’s a good question, is the inclusion of an unexpectedly wise and insightful homeless person really necessary when it’s been done so often? Lily Tomlin did it in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe; Sarah Jones does it in Surface Transit; even Eric Bogosian has a sagacious (for Bogosian) street person shtick. It’s as if the wisecracking street person has become shorthand for a certain personality who sees more of the truth by virtue of being an outsider; Newman’s work is more interesting when her outsiders are less familiar.

But there’s a lot of goodness in Fall Down; the wisecracking vaudevillian’s pitch-perfect joke delivery, Newman as herself describing the experience of listening to the musicians of the Lipman People’s Yiddish Theater warm up, the idea of closet cleaning as seen in geological time. And she’s carrying an invaluable message of patience and compassion. When she sings Maybe I won’t reach my goals … and maybe my boat won’t reach the shore. I don’t need to know I’ll get where I’m going, I just need to know I’ll find the light on the way, we are reminded to step out of our day-to-day grief, anxiety, and frustration. It’s a gift in a difficult time.

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