Jewish Journal


March 29, 2007

Theater: ‘Brother Theodore’ back from the dead


Brother Theodore was born Theodore Gottlieb, a well-to-do Jewish German publishing scion whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Gottlieb survived Dachau and tried to transmute his pain into a one-man show that gained a cult following. His moniker derived from his ubiquitous black turtleneck shirt, thought by Merv Griffin to resemble priestly attire.

Equal parts existentialist rant and theater of the absurd, Robert Trebor's "The Return of Brother Theodore," now playing at the Skylight Theater, honors the late monologist, who died in 2001 at 94, with a performance that combines the deceased's black-comedy act with some of Trebor's own writing.

Like Brother Theodore, the palindromically named Trebor also underwent a name change, when he was a student at Northwestern because another actor in Chicago had a surname similar to his, Schenkman.

Since then, Trebor, 53, has appeared in such diverse film and TV projects as "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Talk Radio" and "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys." A character actor, he has long thrived on using different accents in his many roles -- Russian, French and, of course, German.

As Brother Theodore, he sounds a little like one of the 'Hitlers' lining up to try out for the Führer's part in Mel Brooks' original film, "The Producers."

Trebor comes onto the stage preceded by over-the-top organ music right out of a Vincent Price/Roger Corman production from the 1960s.

With the same squat build and all-black outfit of his namesake, who performed a midnight Saturday show for years at the 13th Street Theater in Greenwich Village, Trebor's Brother Theodore sounds off on the big topics -- life and death -- and the role played by food in those matters.

He interacts with the audience in a seemingly improvised fashion, lasering his flashlight on a few attendees, asking to be "flashed" by another. But the show is scripted quite carefully.

There are no references to the Holocaust until the very end, when a tape plays Brother Theodore's imagined conversation with a wartime reparations commission; on that tape he accepts payment for the plasma and body parts of his murdered relatives. It is only then that Trebor's character removes his ironic smile and listens with horror to a kind of Shylockian "pound of flesh" exchange.

Whether or not you remember Brother Theodore from his appearances on the "Tonight Show," "The Merv Griffin Show" and "Late Night With David Letterman," "The Return of Brother Theodore" will shock and rivet you with its digressions, malapropisms and dark irony.

"Brother Theodore" plays through April 14, Saturdays, 10 p.m, at the Skylight Theater, 1816 1/2 Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (310) 358-9936.

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