by Amy Lee Pearsall · August 14, 2014
Can an active spiritual life heal a devastated soul? At what point can religion and faith (or the lack of it) become vehicles for personal destruction? These questions and many others are examined in Michael Howard Studio’s production of Kiss Your Brutal Hands written and performed by Jim Shankman, currently showing at 64E4 Underground as part of the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.
Shankman’s one-man show introduces us to two characters on opposite ends of the Jewish experience, both in extreme states of spiritual crisis. First, we meet Izzy in his Park Avenue office. A secular Jew in high-end sneakers and a Bluetooth, Izzy is a director at an advertising agency. He is used to worshipping at the altar of the almighty dollar, and the stock market is in a tailspin. His relationship with his lover has become an unhealthy obsession, and the ashes of his father sit on his desk, continuing to judge him even from the grave. In a mad grasp to fill the gaping void of emptiness that his life has become, he turns to money, heroin, lust, and ritual in an attempt to fill it.
After a brief break in the action during which Shankman dons multiple pairs of pants, a dress, and a broken umbrella hat in full view of the audience, we meet Danny. Once a practicing Orthodox Jew, Danny is now a homeless paranoid schizophrenic living in Tompkins Square Park who may or may not have done ten years in Attica. He thinks he’s working on a film set, and hashes out the details of the project on a broken telephone with the voices in his head acting as his agent, his attorney, even his rabbi – all of whom answer to the name of Shulevitz. He is haunted by his sexual desires, and deeply laments at his being unworthy and unclean.
Prop master Ian Kevin Scott and director Craig J. George dress the stage with the suggestion of locales – a desk here, a shopping cart there; a polycom phone and a bench effectively bridge the two worlds. The ritual Jewish objects seen in the play are replicas, lest anyone take great offense at their use.
As directed by George, Shankman brings a devastating honesty to his portrayal of each character. In his writing, Shankman explores the ideas of sex, drugs, finance, and religion as vehicles for sin and salvation, and how we as members of humankind can sometimes cling to something even as it destroys us. In all, Kiss Your Brutal Hands is a study that has stuck with me days after seeing it, and is a solid contribution to this year’s FringeNYC.