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A CurtainUp Review
Circumcise Me

By Michael Walek

Is it warm in here, or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?—Yisrael Campbell
It's been a week of religious penises at Curtainup. Last week I reviewed The Irish Curse (review) and this week it's Circumcise Me. May I suggest a double header one weekend for two cultures' perspectives on the penis?

Circumcise Me which has been enjoying an extended run at the Bleecker Street Theatre, is the story of Yisrael Campbell's journey from Catholic boy in Philly to Orthodox Jew in Israel. The story starts with Christopher Campbell, a boy raised by a mentally ill mother and a silent father. With his first taste of alcohol at nine, he begins a spiral of substance abuse that lands him in Los Angeles conning people into buying overpriced toner.

Campbell's first glimpse of what it means to be Jewish comes from the novel Exodus. This romantic fantasy of "digging Avocados from the earth" stays with him until one day he sees a newpaper advertisement for introductory classes to Judaism. Goodbye drugs and alcohol. Hello matzoh and Manischewitz.

The years fly by as Campbell moves up from Reform to Orthodox Judaism, and so do the Jewish jokes that have been around since the Borscht Belt. At times I was reminded of the dentist on Seinfeld who, much to Jerry's chagrin, gets to tell Jewish jokes once he's converted.

It's not until Campbell moves to Israel that the comedy turns to pathos. Life in Israel is far from the Exodus fantasy. It is a constant series of Palestinian attacks. His good friend dies in a cafe bombing. Wedding planning involves not only picking waiters but body guards.

As we trace this man's life from childhood to the birth of his children we get a glimpse into a life that is anything but conventional. Yet the story is one we have heard before. Like so many stories of addiction and recovery, the user substitutes one obsession for another. But Campbell never once makes the correlation between his recovery and his desire to become a Jew and it is this lack of introspection that cheats the audience.

The motivation for converting to Judaism is never discussed, nor what Campbell finds fascinating about the Jewish faith and the people. If Circumcise Me was intended as one long comedy routine, this might be forgiven. However, the confessional last third needs to be built on more of a foundation. As Campbell promises his allegiance to the state of Israel and proclaims that his prematurely born daughter will one day be strong enough to fight in the Israeli army, I felt I needed a better understanding of his devotion to this land. Did he feel he found his people? Did something in his history connect to the history of the Jewish faith? Instead his description of immersion in the Mikveh sounded like a good high.

Sam Gold directs the seventy five minute show with a light touch by Sam Gold, with projected pictures and cartoons to illustrate some of the points made during the narration. The clip art and sound design could be more polished.

Campbell is a talented entertainer who honed his talents with training at Circle in the Square Theatre Company and a standup comedy background. He engages the audience and for the most part they are with him. The audience at the performance I attended oftend nodded in agreement as he makes fun of Jewish shame and various prayers, though there were very few people who seemed to need the glossary provided in the program, in case someone didn't know the meaning of words like kosher.

The show's punch line is provided by all three — yes, three— of Campbell's circumcisions. One for every layer of Jewish hierarchy: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Unlike circumcision at birth, a ritual bloodletting is needed before every conversion. The joke that "three circumcisions is not a religious covenant, it's a fetish." seems apt for Mr. Campbell's story.

Circumcise Me
By Yisrael Campbell
Directed by Sam Gold
Written and Performed by Yisrael Campbell
Lighting Design: Perchik Kreiman-Miller
Set/Video Design: Aaron Rhyne
Associate Video Designer: Linsey Bostwick
Sound Design: Drew Fornarola, John Fontein
Running Time: 75 minutes no intermission
Bleecker Street Theatre 45 Bleecker Street 212-239-6200
Tickets: $25-66.50
Performances: Wednesday at 3PM and 8PM; Thursday at 8 PM; Saturday at 9 PM and Sunday at 4PM and 7PM.
From 11/01/09; opening 11/18/09; closing 6/27/10.
Review by Michael Walek based on performance 04/04/10
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