by Deborah Altman
Longtime playwright/performer and San Francisco native Charlie Varon jumps onto the stage. One second he’s Varon, the next he’s Bernie–an instantaneous transformation from charming 55-year-old storyteller to cranky 83-year-old nursing home escapee.
Varon narrates: “Where the hell was that cab? ‘Okay,’ Bernie thought, ‘there’s more than one way to get someplace,’ and he stuck out his thumb. Cars slowed down but they didn’t stop. Drivers stared. He knew what they were thinking: ‘Old man off his meds. Nutcase in a $7,000-dollar suit.’”
Last week, Washington, DC got a mouthful of Bernie’s mind in Feisty Old Jew’s opening performance in the annual Capital Fringe Festival, a celebration of experimental theater. Raised in Depression-era Brooklyn, Bernie watches, but mostly hates, everything young and new happening to San Francisco. The story takes off on a particularly hot day where Bernie hitches a ride with some 20-year-old surfers in a Tesla, and bets them $400,000 that he’ll be able to ride a wave.
Besides the enjoyable storyline and smooth character transitions, it is Varon’s ability to embody a grumbling old man bewildered by hipster lifestyle and the popularity of Starbucks that distinguishes Feisty Old Jew.
“I didn’t ‘come up’ with Bernie–he arrived in my imagination and took up residence and refused to leave until I told his story!” Varon says in an email interview. “These feisty Jewish men of my parents’ generation fascinate me. Men who could take nothing for granted and who even in old age still have something to prove.”
Despite all Bernie’s complaining, he is delightful to watch. His quick temper and cynicism aren’t tools for entertainment but expressions of his identity. Varon succeeds in re-imagining one of comedy’s most traded-upon tropes by refusing to play on stereotypes, creating a genuine and persuasive interpretation.
“I love my Jewish characters!” Varon, who is Jewish, tells me. “With all my Jewish characters, there’s ferment and conflict and argument and yearning and striving. Which is delicious and frightening onstage. And then there’s the way they talk, these Jewish characters, the way ideas and language and stories converge.”
Bernie’s story is the first in a series based in the San Francisco Jewish retirement home.
Varon and longtime collaborator and director David Ford are working on a whole collection of feisty Jews, one of whom will be the protagonist in Varon’s first book. “Maybe the thing I love most about playing Jewish characters–and about being Jewish!–is the right to laugh,” Varon continues. “And not some mild, self-deprecating, midwest Gentile kind of laughter. Sharp, bitter, playful, angry, forgiving Jewish laughter. A laughter that engages the human condition in its complexity and without easy resolution.”
Even those less amused by the performance have to give Varon credit. While sketch and improve dominate the comedy scene, storytelling seems to have fallen off people’s map. It takes a whole different skillset to entertain a live audience with slow simmering humor than with strings of jokes. Varon achieves an incredible feat, captivating an audience through single-handedly embodying four unique characters, and never missing a beat.
“When it works, and the performance takes flight, you have this marvelous feeling of communion with an audience,” Varon writes before correcting himself. “Not communion, that sounds too Christian. Solidarity. Human solidarity.”
Well, Charlie, it worked.
You can catch Feisty Old Jew on July 22, 23 and 25.