San Francisco Symphony

Charlie Varon: Storytelling from the Stage

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Charlie Varon

By Akshay Govind
Associate Editor

Bernie Schein lives in a Jewish retirement home in San Francisco. He hates yoga, boutique shops, $6 cups of coffee and the people who drink them. Bernie, at 83 years young, has just hitched a ride from a trio of Tesla-driving 20-somethings and bet them $400,000 he can catch a wave his first time surfing. Writer and actor Charlie Varon gives us an engaging blend of humor and social commentary through Bernie’s colorful story, Feisty Old Jew, which he performs as a solo stage work at The Marsh Theater (1062 Valencia St.) in the Mission. It runs on weekends between now and July 13 and is well worth the $25-$35 ticket prices, available at www.themarsh.org.

Varon and his work have been featured on KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny and in the SFGate. In short, Feisty Old Jew is a joy to watch, and Varon is a master at using the physical space of the stage, the dynamics of his voice, and beautifully chosen language to paint vibrant images of his characters and their predicaments. Bernie is one of several imaginary elderly folks living in the same retirement home, and Varon has recently found himself writing volumes about their eccentric views and life experiences, which he refers to as a love letter to his parents’ generation.

When I spoke with Varon, we discussed what makes the theater-going experience so unique. After all, why should anyone bother changing out of their pajamas, battling crowds and buying tickets to a play when they can access a nearly unlimited supply of movies, television shows and other entertainment virtually for free these days?

Vigorish

Vigorish. The word was used several times during the performance. It sounds strong, hardy, bold. At the end of his performance, Varon asked the audience how many people thought it was a real word. I snickered as nearly half the audience raised their hands. He followed with who would be willing to define it, and majority of the hands dropped. A few stayed up in the air, and I braced myself as I expected someone to be humiliated.

“The vigorish, or the vig, is the cut taken by the bookie during a bet,” said a man. I got what he was doing—saying something completely unrelated to draw attention away from the minor embarrassment of having pretended earlier that he knew the word.

“That’s exactly right,” replied Varon. I was stunned. There was no script to how Varon, the audience, or the man would react. Some laughed, some offered their gambling habits as reasons they had heard the word, but everyone did something—all together. It is this real time interaction among humans all in a room together that makes the experience of live theater so magical. In our discussion, Varon quoted Mark Kenward, also a Marsh writer and performer, “our audience is going to leave with more energy than they walked in with.” I know I did.

Writers’ Workshop at UCSF?

This got me thinking about the stories we are privileged enough to hear about or to be a part of in healthcare, and how great a medium the stage would be to tell them. I discussed the idea with Varon, who would be open to holding a workshop for writers to adapt their stories to be read on stage. The project would culminate in a night of medical theater, either at UCSF or at The Marsh, depending on availability and interest. We would require some sort of financial support as well as enough interest from writers, performers, and theater-goers. If you would like to be part of this in any capacity, please send me an email at Akshay.Govind@ucsf.edu, and in the meantime, get thee to a theater.

Akshay Govind is a third-year resident in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

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