From his first minute on stage of his one-man show, Yisrael Campbell acknowledges he's a fish out of water. He points to his hair, his clothes, his long beard, his accessories -- not your typical performance artist in SoHo. It's those distinctions are what separate Campbell from the rest of us, and similarly what set his show apart from other biographical tales.
For his story "Circumcise Me," Campbell combines the comedic style and tone of Lewis Black with the inquisitiveness of an individual on a spiritual quest. Campbell also throws in a touch of multimedia -- with some Photoshop "masterpieces" -- to add some visual flavor to his act. Throughout all the funny, serious and whimsical moments in the play, Campbell makes it known that he's "in" with the audience on both the jokes and the dramatic touches. Campbell's one of us, laughing along and comforting us when his story grows rougher.
In short, the play is Campbell's life story. His shift from an alcohol-addicted Christian-raised Philadelphia teenager named Christopher Campbell to the 40-something hasid who stands before you today. The story is not solely about the meaningfulness and significance of Campbell's Jewish identity; rather, it's more a retelling of the inner struggles and frustrations that prompted him to go searching and a hilarious recollection of the external setbacks and obstacles he endured while trying to find himself and his place. Three circumcisions later, he's staging it all off-Broadway.
Campbell's transformation and journey is defined by his naivete and rife with misinformation, both stemming from his own impulsiveness and need to live life to an extreme. As a result of his honesty about his alcoholism and the resulting darkness and his brief, yet doomed, first marriage, Campbell comes across as incredibly sympathetic. However, rather than pity him for having to endure and make sense of the memories of his younger days, the audience winds up admiring the man for his remarkable spiritual progress, sparked by his self-awareness and self-recognition.
That's the thing that makes this show so heartwarming: Campbell tells you everything. While some audience members might feel a bit queasy when hearing about an adult circumcision, Campbell includes every aspect of it -- what it is, what it felt like, what it meant to him. From his early days until the present, Campbell confesses he always asks "Why?" before taking on a new tradition, or ritual, or even a religion. When the answers confuse him, he makes light of them in the funnier sections of the performance. And when an answer sits well with Campbell, he seems to at last find his inner peace, inspiring others to seek out their own.