Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Stimulating Evening of Ben Franklin Unplugged
Josh Kornbluth has brought his one man show Ben Franklin Unplugged to the Magic Theatre. Josh's Love and Taxes was so popular with audiences in the Bay Area that it seemed a good time to bring back his 1999 piece. Unplugged has been revised in this new production in collaboration with producer Jonathan Reinisis and director David Dower. All of the richest words are by Josh as he tells us the story of the great patriot's penetrating relationship with his Loyalist son during the War of Independence.
Josh says that one day he looked into his bathroom mirror while shaving and suddenly became aware that he looked like a Jewish Ben Franklin. Both were plump, had round faces and wore round glasses. The balding patterns were the same. The artist thought that if Hal Holbrook could play Mark Twain successfully, why could't he play Ben Franklin in a solo performance. Josh's "unofficial" agent, his Aunt Birdie, thought it was great idea so she approached MSNBC to get a job impersonating the great American on spots for the television network. The network thought it was great idea. However, Kornbluth realized he knew very little about the great man.
Josh approached a local bookstore and found many titles on the life of Franklin and chose a little Penguin Books autobiography. The actor found that the American Revolution was hardly mentioned and Franklin's son William was only mentioned four times in the book. William was at first a loving son who helped Ben with the famous kite experiment, but each time William was mentioned, Franklin senior was distancing himself further. Kornbluth became a detective, and he unearthed more and more facts about the relationship. When working on the film 1776, I became intrigued with the father-son relationship since Howard DeSilva as Ben Franklin in the film says that he no longer has a son because William had gone over to the Royalist side and was the Royal Governor of New Jersey. In the film, the character of Ben merely states "My son is now our enemy," and Franklin never forgave his only son. Even when William was captured by the Rebels and jailed in Connecticut, Ben refused to let William out of solitary confinement to go to the funeral of his beloved wife Elizabeth. There never was reconciliation. William ended up in Great Britain, hated by Americans and suspected by the British for been Ben's son.
Ben Franklin Unplugged is not a lecture, but a show of various forms. In this hilarious presentation, Kornbluth talks about his own revenge story when getting his own son back from Yale University, which had refused the son admission because he "was unlikely." There are wonderful political jokes about his Communist mother and a storage bin full of the actor's belongings that his mother has been paying for over 18 years. Josh talks about a marvelous 81-year-old woman from Belgium named Claude who translated many of Franklin's letters from French to English for the Yale Franklin Library. Kornbluth equates the Ben-William relationship with his relationship with his own very eccentric father who died 20 years ago.
Ben Franklin Unplugged is a two hour performance with one intermission. Josh comes out in the second act dressed as the famous inventor. He tells of filming for MSNBC in New York and of a hilarious encounter on the streets of Manhattan with some right-wing militia men from Michigan. There is a wonderful story about a conversation with his mother in restaurant which turns into a yelling match.
Kornbluth tosses off zingers so fast that sometimes it is hard to grasp. However, the man never loses sight of the total picture. He takes a different spin on the great man toward the end and finally shows he believes that the patriot was the forerunner of Communism. Sometimes the actor becomes possessed, jumping and running around. He certainly is an intense and probing actor, and he keeps the audience on its toes. (On opening night, Josh got a painful muscle spasm in his left calf and he had trouble hopping about the small stage; he also announced that the producer is flying out the eccentric Claude on November 6th where she will appear with the actor).
Ben Franklin Unplugged is an enlightened and poignant evening, even if we know very little about the many faces of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The production is presented in cooperation with Z Space Studios and runs through Sunday, November 28 at The Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco. You can obtain tickets by calling 415-441-8822 or visiting www.zspace.org.