Writer and performer Charlie Varon believes we’re losing a generation of Jews who were fighters – fearless, tough, street-smart. Varon has a word that perfectly describes the type; he calls it a “good Anglo-Saxon word: feisty.”
In his latest 70-minute performance piece, Feisty Old Jew, opening today at the Capital Fringe Festival 2014, Varon allows his character, Bernie, to inhabit his body and spirit. Brooklyn-born, Varon has spent the past two decades in San Francisco, where he has been creating an eclectic collection of characters, many of whom are Jewish – like Rabbi Sam; Sol Shank, a Jewish filmmaker who struggles with his cultural and religious identity; and his latest, Bernie, an 83-year-old, would-be surfer who rails against the gentrifying world he finds himself in in San Francisco, where a cup of coffee costs six bucks. Both Varon and Bernie remain inveterate East Coast Jews, New Yorkers, even though much of their lives have been spent out West in San Francisco.
“I never know where my characters come from,” Varon said. “They arrive in my imagination, and I don’t ask questions. I just try to follow them wherever they go. I’ve been doing theater for over 30 years, and I have to say, maybe more than any other character I’ve ever derived, Bernie has energized me. I really just had to get out of the way and let him take me on this ride.
“It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer and some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a performer. Just getting inside of somebody who has that much energy at 83, that much mischief. He’s incredibly difficult and opinionated, but at the same time has such a strong life force flowing through him.”
Varon’s stage work has been seen in the region both at Theater J and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. His brief stopover at the D.C. Fringe Festival precedes another show this coming season at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center.
In recent years, as Varon has observed his own parents grow older and set in their ways, he has become fascinated with a group of elderly Jewish characters who share a roof in a retirement home. Feisty Old Jew is the first in what Varon hopes will become a cycle of narrated pieces on a variety of elderly Jews.
“I didn’t really know it at first, but what it really is is a love letter to my parents and that whole generation of American Jews,” he said. “I’m lucky my folks are still around and in good shape. My mom is 90, my dad’s 87. They’re still in the Bronx. I send them my stuff to read. One time my dad said, ‘Well, keep writing, this gives us an interest in longevity.’ ”
Part homage to a generation of working-class Jews who grew up poor in the Depression era but built lives of relative comfort and ease in the expanding post-World War II suburban generation, Feisty Old Jew also wrestles with the growing gentrification and bifurcation of urban centers, as the millennial generation transforms working-class urban neighborhoods with deep roots into hot spots populated with yoga studios, fancy cafes, high-priced sushi restaurants and a dearth of service-oriented merchants like hardware stores and barbers.
“It’s not just happening in San Francisco,” Varon acknowledged. “In one way, anybody who knows the world as different from the one we’re now living in has some natural resistance to that [change], but imagine what it would be like to have grown up in the Depression with nothing and see what it’s like [now]. To see the kind of excess, to see the $6 cups of coffee and the chi chi restaurants with the truffle butter and aioli and all of these artisanal items.”
Bernie, that feisty old Jew, has a line that’s emblematic of this attitude: “These people made money off of nothing and spent it on nothing. They don’t know the value of a buck.”
Varon has come to love Bernie, perhaps more than any other character he’s invented. “There is an element of him that’s cranky, but he’s not the kind of cranky guy who sits at home. This is a guy who, even though he lives in a retirement home, gets out and is always looking for the next thing, whether it’s the next business venture, the next thing he can invest in, the next deal, the next stranger he could put something over on. He’s not alive unless he is climbing some ladder, even at 83.”
And Varon continues to write about off-the-wall characters from Bernie’s generation. He can usually be found working at a table at Thorough Bread and Pastry, a little European-style coffee shop on Church Street in San Francisco. And the coffee? “No,” Varon said, “it’s definitely not six bucks.”
Feisty Old Jew will be onstage at Capital Fringe Festival 2014, July 17, 7:45 p.m., July 18, 8:45 p.m., July 19, 12:30 p.m., July 22, 6:00 p.m. July 23, 9:15 p.m. July 25, 7:45 p.m., at Caos of F, 923 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets $17. Visit www.capitalfringe.org for tickets and more information on passes.