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Of Oboes and Activism

August 20, 2007

On Saturday night, Josh Kornbluth and I played oboe duets for 20 minutes or so before the monologist's opening night performance of his latest solo show, Citizen Josh.

The most striking thing about the evening was the fundamental similarity between Josh's style as an oboe player and his style as a monologist.

This might seem like an odd thing to say given the fact that Josh, a very seasoned monologist with a network TV show, a feature film, and a string of successful solo productions to his name, has barely picked up the oboe in the last couple of decades. Yet he seems to approach both worlds with something of the same energy.

Josh and I have met several times in the past couple of months to play oboe duets. He is very reticent and almost self-apologetic in person. He talks quietly. He seems almost standoffish at times. He has an understated handshake. As far as playing the oboe goes, he frequently changes reeds in between pieces, apologizes a lot, and shies away from having to hit anything below an E above middle C. He seems to enjoy playing, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from his demeanor. During rehearsals, I felt like I had to enthuse for both of us. I kept saying things like "gee, that was fun!" and "great!" and "we must do this more often." He would gently smile and nod.

Yet underneath all of this self-effacing stuff, it is possible to tell that Josh is having a good time playing the oboe and, moreover, is a great player at heart. The main giveaway is his tone, which, despite little practice in 25 years, is rich, smooth and full of soul. Then there's the fact that he plans to preface each Saturday performance of Citizen Josh with oboe duets in Berkeley Rep's courtyard. Finally, he says his next solo show is going to be all about playing the oboe and plans to take up reed-making again. Because of this, playing oboe duets with Josh is a serene, inspiring experience. His technique might be rusty and his tuning dicey at times, but you feel complete confidence in his playing nonetheless.

On the face of it, Josh's style as a monologist couldn't be more different. He's in full bloom on stage. Erudite and charming and down to earth, he's in complete control. Every movement feels choreographed and yet natural at the same time. One of his greatest strengths as a performer is his ability to knit big issues together with the flotsam and jetsam of his own life experience. We journey with him through stories about his kid brother Sam, his relationship with the Dean at Princeton, his argument with a neighbor over the broken equipment in the local playground, the day he found himself sitting next to Al Gore at a seminar for animators. By the end of it all, we feel both close to him and, in the case of this show in particular, struck by a feeling that each of us can play a part in making the world a better place. Josh's performance glows with deep-rooted inner confidence. That confidence rubs off on us too.

Yet the nebbishy, self-deprecatory quality carries over from his oboe playing to his stage performance. The entire show is built upon his lackadaisical attitude to writing his senior thesis at Princeton. He's constantly making fun of himself. He makes us believe that he's incapable -- the kind of guy who desperately wants to lead an overnight vigil for equal rights, but only manages to stick to his guns for half an hour. He ingratiates himself with the audience by making them identify him as a schlemiel. After all, there's a good reason why Lynn Hershman Leeson cast the performer in the role of the dweeby guy who gets seduced by the cyborg Tilda Swinton in Teknolust.

Ultimately, playing the oboe and performing a show at Berkeley Rep are on a continuum for the performer. Beneath the eccentric, frazzled exterior of a man who characterizes himself, by the end of his performance, as someone who tilts at windmills, is a super-being. He's the type of person, in other words, who finds it natural to tune up an entire orchestra with a steady A.

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