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Jewish Journal

Fear and Loathing in ‘America’

by Keren Engelberg

January 16, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Iris Bahr is pretty, but you could watch her for the full span of her 54-minute one-woman production and still manage to miss that. 

With the help of a masculine hairdo (she cut her hair for the show, and wears it slicked back) and some minimal wardrobe changes, Bahr morphs into no less than seven different characters, each with individual, and often hilarious, accents. The show is called "Planet America, or Are You Carrying Any Fruits of Vegetables?" and Bahr's characters bring differing perspectives to the themes of American isolationism, xenophobia and racism. 

The issues are particularly timely, but for Bahr, who was recently nominated for an L.A. Weekly best solo performance award, they were also personal. She said she'd finished the first draft prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Growing up in Riverdale, N.Y., and Herzliya, Israel, she said, "I have the advantage of having lived in two very different cultures." It made her conscious of issues like terrorism and immigration long ago.

The homogeneity of Israeli society when compared with heterogeneous America was something else that resonated with her. So was the American term for illegal immigrants: "aliens."

The story centers around Violet Star, a repressed 25-year-old virgin, who aspires to work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to help rid her country of "hypersexed Latin sluts" like the one whom she blames for her parents' divorce. Her first day on the job brings encounters with a colorful bunch. It also includes many telephone calls from her nagging Israeli mother, who, to Violet's acute distress, also happens to be a recent and enthusiastic Christian convert. 

The exaggerated characters emphasize various points. Muscovite Svetlana reminds Violet that "you only have one mother." Black-hatted Yankel tells of his rebbe's favorite isolationist saying, "If curiosity kills the cat, it slaughters the Jew." Paraplegic Jimmy O'Riordan's brogued verbal seductions reveal to Violet her own handicaps.

In the end, Bahr's appearance may get lost to her characters, but her piece still bears a personal stamp. "I'm not kind of wishy-washy and new agey. I don't think everyone could get along," she said. "It's really hard not to sound preachy," but one message is that "isolation is a basic part of the human condition and it's common to everyone."



8 p.m. $15. Tuesdays through Feb. 4 at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 858-7535.

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