Oboes, Judaism combine in confusing yet unique show

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As the play opens, Josh Kornbluth’s so-called personal trainer comes onstage to announce his entrance: “Josh has made a living telling stories about things he failed to do.”

“Sea of Reeds,” the locally renowned monologuist’s latest work, was commissioned by Shotgun Players. Kornbluth, a Berkeley resident, has written and performed in six live monologues and three major filmed works prior to “Reeds.” Similar to “Red Diaper Baby” (one of his filmed works) and “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” (one of his staged works), his latest production touches amusingly on his semi-Communist upbringing and exploration into the Jewish faith.

The title of the production is a play on words that refers to both the reed used to play the oboe and the biblical Sea of Reeds (better known as the Red Sea) crossed by Moses and the Israelites. Drawing on both, “Sea of Reeds” is an obtuse nonmonologue monologue of sorts that tells of Kornbluth’s recent religious journey in finding his Jewish faith — with a little bit of oboe-playing thrown in.

While the entire production is centered around and mostly told by Kornbluth himself, there is a musical component to the work as well as an additional character to assist in the storytelling. These additional players include an onstage musical quartet (El Beh, Jonathan Kepke, Olive Mitra and Eli Wirtschafter) that plays music occasionally to underscore particular stories being told and actor Amy Resnick, who plays the role of Anya, Kornbluth’s “personal trainer.” Many of the stories also incorporate the musicians and Resnick as random characters from Josh’s life, such as his childhood oboe teacher, members of his Israeli travel group and his Berkeley rabbi.

Some stories in the piece stand out far more than others in terms of both memorability and humor — one of which includes the now-54-year-old Kornbluth portraying himself as a hormonal teenager at an oboe lesson with Resnick playing his seductive oboe teacher. Other parts of the show, however, seem to be completely out of place in relating to the ultimate message at hand, which, in itself, can be difficult to determine.

This theatrical work is a strange one, to say the least. It is a mostly monologue-filled piece with random musical breaks, sing-along revolution songs, Torah stories (and reenactments), Marxist jokes and oboe reed making. All of the stories told are meant to ultimately lead up to Kornbluth’s bar mitzvah in the Negev Desert at age 52. Kornbluth’s storytelling and stage presence is undeniably exceptional, the musical quartet plays beautifully and Resnick’s acting humors. However, due to the many contrasting elements, the play ultimately struggles to weave together cohesively. This, in turn, makes the production rather awkward and confusing at many moments — especially if you’re not familiar with particular details of the Jewish faith or lyrics to old folk songs.

All in all, Kornbluth’s latest piece is also a very unique one. “Sea of Reeds” definitely has its flaws, but it still carries much potential. In any sense, it is a mostly-one-man-show that revolves around the religious journey of a lifelong atheist in finding his Jewish faith, all while in his 50s, as told by a natural storyteller and underlain with music.

Presented by Shotgun Players and Jonathan Reinis Productions, Josh Kornbluth’s “Sea of Reeds” will continue playing on the Ashby Stage from until Aug. 18.

Contact Michelle Lin at [email protected].