February 16, 2006
Monologuist Pulls Plug on Ben Franklin
Josh Kornbluth grew up in a secular, communist household in New York City. He says that he's not trying to be flippant when he notes that his parents had an almost "Talmudic reverence for Marxism." Though he never set foot in a synagogue and wasn't bar mitzvahed, "I was circumcised," he says, adding, "I did sacrifice something."
Yes, Kornbluth has sacrificed a lot over the years, including sometimes his own career prospects. Aspiring to be a mathematician, he quit math as a major in college because when he started calculus, "I wasn't even in the ballpark of doing it."
He switched his major to political theory and "did everything except graduate." He froze up when writing a senior thesis. "I couldn't face it," so he dropped out of college. "I was floundering."
Sometimes out of such humbling circumstances, though, a person can attain a level of success, even if it's not the greatness of Ben Franklin, the subject of Kornbluth's one-man show, "Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged," which is having its Southern California premiere at the Rubicon Theater in Ventura.
In the show, Kornbluth shows both the rigorous and creative sides of the man who has been mocked by some for his almost yuppie-like desire to better himself, yet showed a fertile imagination in inventing the Franklin stove, discovering electricity and helping to revolutionize the nation.
Onstage, Kornbluth opens a refrigerator that is neatly packed with Franklin paraphernalia, each box, each parcel in its own precise slot inside the appliance. He also shows flashes of insight, signaled by spotlighting and a sound akin to chimes.
One of those onstage epiphanies occurs when the stocky, bald Kornbluth recounts his discovery while shaving one morning that he looks like Franklin. Though his face may be more cherubic than the famous man's, Kornbluth does share the same shiny dome and paunchy midsection.
"Unplugged," like Kornbluth's entire repertory of monologues, developed through improvisation. He workshopped the work with David Dower, a director based in the Bay Area, before he finally performed it in 1998 in San Francisco. He staged it across the country at obscure venues like a Jewish community center in Washington, D.C., and Public School 122 in New York.
He may still be on the fringes of legit theater, but in conjunction with this year's tercentennial of Franklin's birth, Kornbluth and Dower have brought the show back, reconceiving it in a number of ways. In the original production, there were "some boxes, a table and a rolling chair."
The new production features a stage that is "like, though a little bit nicer than, the apartment I was living in" years ago, Kornbluth says. The set is a '50s-looking kitchen, with cupboards filled with documents, the aforementioned refrigerator and decorated with muted yellow wallpaper.
But the changes are not limited to the set. In the first act, Kornbluth wears a purple, floral T-shirt that reminds one of the psychedelic era. Where he once wore a vest and white shirt in the first act to give a hint of the colonial transformation to come in act two, his new garb shows "the way I usually dress. All the shirts are made by my wife."
The wardrobe difference suggests a more comfortable Kornbluth, one who has a greater understanding of himself and Franklin.
"It's evolved where I continually feel more of a kinship with Franklin. Not to compare myself to him but to be close to him," he said.
Beyond Spalding Gray, whose monologues Kornbluth first saw at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., Kornbluth says he has been influenced by the Borscht Belt comedians like Mel Brooks: "They had almost a hysteria in being out of control but not completely out of control."
When Kornbluth comes out in the second act of "Unplugged" wearing knickers, stockings and bifocals, he shows a bit more of a physical brand of humor, like his legendary Jewish comic forebears.
And Jewishness informs his work in other ways. He talks incessantly on the phone with Aunt Birdie and regales us with stories about Stalin, the blacklist and even Jewish savories: "This is the only theatrical presentation involving Franklin to have a matzah brie joke."
Josh Kornbluth performs "Benjamin Franklin: Unplugged" at the Rubicon Theater, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura, through March 5. For information, call (805) 667-2900.