`Ben Franklin,' insight from obsession

Kornbluth's solo show is smart, funny with a touch of academic

Theater Review

March 05, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Follow your fixations. Follow your obsessions." That's the advice given to performance artist Josh Kornbluth two-thirds of the way into his solo show, Ben Franklin: Unplugged.

It's advice that the Berkeley-based monologist has followed, not only in this piece - currently at the Theatre Project - but in his entire body of work. For example, there was his fixation on his relationship with his New York Jewish Communist parents (Red Diaper Baby), and there was his fixation on becoming a mathematical genius, which came to an abrupt halt when he was an Ivy League freshman (The Mathematics of Change).

Vestiges of these previous obsessions crop up in Ben Franklin: Unplugged, a smart, funny work created by Kornbluth in collaboration with his director, David Dower. The parent-son relationship is the central theme of this monologue, and his epiphany about Franklin occurs at another Ivy League institution.

Kornbluth's interest in Franklin begins one day when he looks in the mirror while shaving and makes the startling discovery: "My God, I look like Ben Franklin." The similarity is undeniable - from the wispy hair framing his large, balding pate to his pudgy physique, little spectacles and overall affable manner. After intermission, when he shows up in Franklin garb, he could step right into a Founding Fathers tableau.

He comes to discover, however, that Franklin's affability, or in Kornbluth's words, his image as a "lovable icon," may be a sham. Kornbluth begins his research reluctantly (he has considerable trouble plowing through the man's autobiography). But he eventually delves in, pulling an all-nighter amid the 30,000 Franklin papers at Yale University.

His zeal is triggered by the realization that, though Franklin began his autobiography with the words, "Dear Son," he changed his references from second person to third when the book got to the Revolutionary War. The illegitimate offspring of a "low woman," William (Franklin's only son to live to adulthood) grew up to be a fervent Loyalist; in other words, he became his father's enemy.

At one point, Kornbluth finds himself unexpectedly delivering an unorthodox academic lecture at Yale, but his show is far from academic, particularly when he is re-enacting one of his conversations with his enthusiastic aunt-turned-agent, or his escapades with a 77-year-old Belgian Franklin scholar named Claude-Anne Lopez, or even Franklin's famed kite-flying scene.

The funniest bits occur after his aunt gets him a gig impersonating the "lovable" Franklin in modern-day New York for a series of MSNBC spots: Ben at a dating service ("Hello, I'm Ben; I'm a single, white Founding Father ... "), Ben at a comedy club, Ben at the U.N., etc.

The meat of the piece comes when Lopez, despite - or perhaps because of her eccentric nature - takes Kornbluth's interest in the less-than-lovable Franklin seriously. It is she who urges him to follow his fixations, and, most importantly, tells him that he must find his Franklin. When he does, he also gains insights into his bond with his own parents. And fittingly, when he looks in the mirror at the end, it is no longer Franklin he sees, but himself.

The only time the pace flags is when Kornbluth reads, at some length, the last letters exchanged between Franklin and William. For the most part, however, the performer has the infectious delivery of a born storyteller - someone who can't wait to share what he's learned and who has the craft to catch your attention and hold it.

During his stay at the Theatre Project, Kornbluth is developing his newest piece, Love & Taxes. Described as a monologue about his "complicated relationship with the U.S. Tax Code," it is scheduled to open in San Francisco in the spring and in New York in the fall. Theatergoers who would like to catch an early glimpse of his latest obsession - and perhaps pick up some dubious tax tips before April 15 - can attend free workshop performances at 8 p.m. tonight and Sunday. Indeed, Kornbluth appears to be a man of serial obsessions. After all, it was Ben Franklin who wrote, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

Ben Franklin: Unplugged

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15

Information: 410-752-8558

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