Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller
The Marsh
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of Colossal, The Realistic Joneses, Swimmers, and Mothers and Sons and Eddie's recent review of Talking Heads

Joan Jeanrenaud and Charlie Varon
Photo by David Allen
Plaintive, lower chords merge into slowly picked notes that then give way to faster rhythms and phrases higher on the scale of the cello's strings. All the while, a bearded man watches the cellist with a look of reverent amazement. That same man and prime creator of the story to be relayed over next seventy-five minutes, Charlie Varon, then turns to the compact Marsh audience and begins telling another chapter in his nascent cycle about residents in a fictitious San Francisco, Jewish, retirement community (the Marsh's Feisty Old Jew was the first installment, and this the second, of what his fans hope eventually will be many).

Today, the subject is ninety-two-year-ole Ben Rosenau, a member of the "greatest generation" and a former bomber pilot who once flew missions across the English Channel into Hitler's Germany. As the story begins to unfold, its words are punctuated; its moods pronounced; and its sentiments echoed by the cello. World-renown cellist Joan Jeanrenaud (a twenty-year veteran of the Kronos Quartet), acts at times as a kind of Greek chorus to respond to Ben's words and at other times as an independent voice to carry the story's themes a bit farther and deeper than words alone can take it. A two-year collaboration between the two artists and co-developer/director David Ford has resulted in this Marsh premiere blending words and notes into Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller.

Ben's memories of his days as a pilot begin as a trickle and then increasingly pour in a steady stream as he speaks into the flickering video camera of a high school boy, Seth, there for a history project, a reluctantly given favor by Ben to the boy's grandmother. Telling a story he has held inside for seventy years, Ben introduces bombastic, foul-mouthed but bravely heroic pilot Lou Combs, quotes the words of Churchill that he and other fly boys used to hear over the air waves before their missions, and speaks with sad fondness of his gunner pal Charlie Mine.

But there is also a current story. The old curmudgeon Ben and the shy, teenage-awkward Seth begin to form and then cement a relationship that, over the several sessions of video recording, begins to change them both for the better. In the beginning, Ben's frustration with a son he never sees and who has taken grandchildren he does not know to live in Israel's West Bank erupts into an ingratitude he generalizes to an entire generation of "spoiled brats," of which he suddenly makes Seth a prime member. "Don't you see what we did for you? We fought, bled, and died for you," he shouts at the startled boy whose neck the angered Ben imagines is trapped on the floor under his foot. But something snaps, and Ben opens up more than he ever imagined as in his mind he hears a voice saying, "Why not say everything? Why not tell everything before going to the grave?" With hopeful eyes that look into some distant land, Ben leans forward and creates a scenario that this high school video might one day find its way to Israel and to a couch full of grandkids who would finally meet their zayde.

The story's title, Second Time Around, comes from a Duke Ellington song and refers to the third story within the above stories, a love affair Ben is building in his mind based on "a gaze he had not seen before" from Selma, a fellow resident whose every mention of her name by Ben brings forth a recurring cellist's theme of joyful melody. At the same time, Ben is increasingly opening up to Seth, he is putting new zing into his ninety-two-year-old self as he with a wink tells us, "I'm an old man with a teenage heart." As the Duke sings with the help of Ben's shaky, gravely voice and with the cello replacing the normal big band, "Love is lovelier the second time around ... just as wonderful with both feet now on the ground."

When, in Ben's story, Seth asks the question, "What advice do you have for my generation?" at about the same time his beloved Selma shows up at his front door, the answer he gives leads to a climactic ending in which storyteller and cello join in a duet of alternating tears and laughter. It is at that moment that the combination of instrument, spoken word, and watching the slumped over, heaving body of the teller works the best of the entire piece.

Throughout, Ben has told his tale in the third person, only occasionally breaking that pattern to speak in voices as himself or the characters of all three of the interconnecting stories. Personally, I was disappointed in this choice of delivery. As an avid Charlie Varon follower, I have come to love and expect from his past tales his intriguing mimics of the lovable and quirky characters his stories introduce. And while the inclusion of such a celebrated cellist and her score created especially for his flowing words is fascinating and at times both enlightening and moving, the several pauses taken to allow the cellist to play in solo while the storyteller watches on the side slow the pace and, to some extent, disrupt the story's momentum.

Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller is an experiment worth seeing. I personally hope, however, that it is not a trend that master storyteller Charlie Varon will use in his next chapter about the residents of some unnamed home for the elderly Jews of San Francisco.

Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller continues through April 17, 2016, Saturdays at 8:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm at the San Francisco Marsh, main stage, 1062 Valencia Street. Tickets are available at or by calling 415-282-3055 Monday - Friday, 1 - 4 pm