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THEATER REVIEW : The Power of 'A Story' Well Told : LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL: "HOME, PLACE and MEMORY." A city-wide arts fests. :

August 24, 1993|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Has Corey Fischer got stories to tell. A veteran actor and one of the founders of San Francisco's A Traveling Jewish Theatre, he's also an exceptionally talented soloist. It's both this consummate craftsmanship and an infectious warmth that mark his beguiling "Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food."

"Sometimes . . . ," which played two shows at Pierce College on Sunday and begins a three-night stand at the Museum of Tolerance tonight, is the first major theater opening of the ongoing Los Angeles Festival.

A paper chain of tales that stretches from Ventura Boulevard to Prague's Jewish Quarter to the deserts and forests of millennia past, "Sometimes . . ." features a series of vignettes that segue imperceptibly from one into another, with no particular linear logic. Fischer jumps back and forth across time and place, juxtaposing contemporary scenes with cultural myths and historical parables and personal stories with snippets of thought from the likes of rabbis, mystics, critic Walter Benjamin and analyst James Hillman.

One minute, you're with Fischer at a Jewish cemetery in Prague, when the mighty Golem--the mythic beast of clay created by a rabbi to protect his people from pogroms--rises up and roars. Moments later, you're along for the ride in the back seat of Fischer's parents' " '51 Plymouth that smells of rye bread" as 7-year-old Corey quizzes his parents about mortality.

The narrative channel hopping not only keeps you listening, it also makes a point: Storytelling is a way to survive, and impart meaning, even in the face of death.

But it isn't even so much the tale told as it is the telling of the tale--and the compassion that goes along with that--that matters here.

Sentimentality, George Bernard Shaw once said, is unearned emotion. But Fischer avoids sentimentality because he seems, above all, to be a man who has earned the right to affect us, one who ably makes the case for the gentle power of the tale well told.

Even more striking than the emotional verity are Fischer's agile transitions and transfigurations. Sometimes Fischer even employs his nimble cross-cutting within the course of a single story, hopping from plot to plot or alternately embodying characters and narrating as need be.

In the show's last segment, for instance, he does a virtuoso turn with a multipronged tale of little boys and the old men they grow up to be. Fischer's voice quivers with age and laconic irony as he becomes his own 89-year-old father telling of the time he "crashed" a New York-to-London cruise. Then, with a simple shift in the angle of his head and a turn on his heel, Fischer becomes the wayward boy Corey, trudging miserably down Ventura Boulevard until his father materializes, out of nowhere, to scoop him up into the comfort of the family sedan.

The material is peppered with cultural references, and "Sometimes We Need a Story" may have particularly hit home with the mostly Jewish crowd at the Pierce matinee. But you don't have to be Jewish to understand and appreciate this show.

Fischer does go a little heavy on the schmaltz now and then, with several references too many to his need for paternal attention. But it's easy to forgive these momentary excesses because he's such an honest, eloquent performer.

* "Sometimes We Need a Story More Than Food," Peltz Theatre, Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A., Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Ends Thursday. $15. 1-800-FEST-TIX. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Written and performed by Corey Fischer. A Los Angeles Festival presentation of A Traveling Jewish Theatre production. Directed by Helen Stoltzfus. Technical Director David Welle.

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