Knock on Wood
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
May 20, 2005
Is storytelling theatre, in and of itself? If you sit at a bar on a Friday night and a stranger next to you starts telling war stories, are you at a theatrical event? Now remove the bar, sit the stranger on a stage, pay him fifteen dollars, sit yourself in the house, and listen to the same stories facing him. Is it now theatre? Does separating talker from listener by the edge of a stage automatically vault the story to a higher level of sharing? I’m not so sure, after seeing Samuel Calderon’s autobiographical recollection of his Israeli army service during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, called Knock On Wood, now in its American premiere at 13th Street Repertory.
Calderon’s wartime experiences are inherently powerful, and what he went through deserves nothing short of respect. Likewise, respect should be bestowed no less generously upon his 30+ year career in Israeli theatre, where he has done Knock On Wood over 1,000 times. He is extremely comfortable drifting through his tales—perhaps too comfortable. He stands up from his chair exactly once, and this act manages to qualify as quite an event; it shouldn’t. He broke from his train of thought to compliment a chuckler in the front row for “getting it. It is a comedy. I like you.” We were too serious, he chided us—the Yom Kippur War was over 30 years ago. Perhaps as Calderon continues to search for connection with American audiences, he will realize that war isn’t the quickest way to ha-has in a country trapped in one that was supposed to be over two years ago.
On a more global level, a key element to levity no matter what country you’re in is pace. Calderon must drive the stories forward, instead of letting details hang in the air above us like chandeliers for our admiration. Calderon could have taken a timing lesson from another audience member, who broke the actor’s digression about his jolly friend in the front row with an exasperated shout, “So…what happened?!” Certainly, any good storyteller knows that some details are simply too good to rocket through, but any good listener knows that such decelerations only signify if they contrast with the overall pace of the story. Spencer Tracy gave sage acting advice when he said “Know what to throw away.” This is not being disrespectful or advocating the deletion of text, it merely acknowledges that stories have layers, and the really important stuff at the core has to be distinguished from the rest of it somehow—this is the actor’s job. If Calderon could find a tighter rhythm to Knock On Wood, the fine line distinguishing “guy telling war stories on a stage” from “one-man play” would dissolve.
Still, Calderon passionately seizes his emotional connection with the material in a way that is immediate and courageous. When recalling emotional moments—particularly his wounded friend screaming “I’M ALIVE!” to battlefield medics preparing him for corpse removal—his face settles into a riveted stare across time, as if he is deliberately seeing it all again in order to translate every exact detail down to the number of hairs on each soldier’s head. Other moments that he attempts to recreate literally, such as dialogue between two people, seem much more opaque and un-theatrical. He does not distinguish between the speakers with posture, location on stage, voice differentiation, lighting, or any other choice from the myriad of options available to a stage piece. The tiniest bit of spectacle can go a long way in a show featuring four things to look at for an hour-and-a-half: one casually-dressed man, one chair, one table, one coffee mug. Spalding Gray, the great monologist, armed himself with little more than these physical elements, plus a microphone, to describe events infinitely more mundane than being shot at, but he also incorporated light, sound, and voice changes to avoid the greatest peril in solo work—stagnancy. It is regrettable that Calderon is not so deft.
Near the end of the play, Calderon describes his story as “every man’s”. It is true. The themes he dwells on—friendship, mercy, memory, death—are known to all who have conscience and a heart. He does not waste time with an arid recitation of the affairs that led Egypt and Syria to invade Israel on Yom Kippur 1973. What he describes could happen to the emotions of any soldier stationed today in Baghdad, Kabul, or anywhere where young men and women are ordered to kill, shoulder-to-shoulder with those they’ve grown close to. But universality does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with captivation. Other fundamental tools must be used to keep hold of an audience; vigorous delivery is a big one that is missing here. In these desensitizing days of constant body counts from the Middle East, Calderon’s is a story that needs telling another 1,000 times, but doing so in a theatre requires more than he is giving at 13th Street Repertory.