Review: Circumcise Me! (Harold Green Jewish Theatre)

It was such mazel to get to see landsman Yisrael Campbell’s show Circumcise Me! last night at the Jane Mallett Theatre. You might not agree, but then, I’m Jewish – sometimes I don’t even agree with myself.

If the first sentence of this review made sense to you, and the second elicited a knowing chuckle, then takeh, you’ll love this show. If not, well? Maybe not.

Yisrael Campbell is a great storyteller and a funny guy, with great comic timing and an easy, hey-let’s-go-again stage presence. Circumcise Me!, which ran eight months off-Broadway, is designed to play to his strengths – a borscht-belt style sense of humour and a slight wickedness around the edges, more naughty than outright dirty. He works well with the material.

In terms of material, I’d say it’s both the great strength and potential weakness of the show. It’s great that Campbell recognizes that he can’t please everyone with this piece, which is full of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish cultural humour, and so he’s decided to make a piece that Jews, and people with a high level of Jewish cultural competency, will enjoy.

Even though part of me feels a little uncomfortable with work that’s maybe 60% accessible to your average non-Jew off the street, the rest of me adores it that much more – how nice to have work full of complicated, high-context jokes. What a pleasure to enjoy them with Campbell, a man who has worked for every bit of cultural fluency, with three conversions to Judaism (and the three circumcisions to go with them) under his belt.

The show is not entirely comedy. There are some difficult parts – an awkward, stuttery bit at the beginning in which Campbell details his early alcohol use is just not quite on. Then later, a darkly fluid and moving section about a terrible personal tragedy brings the audience to its emotional knees before Campbell, just before it reaches the maudlin, switches gears and has us laughing at the ridiculous excesses of baby-clothes retailers.

There’s a substantial technical element in this show – projections, rather like a PowerPoint presentation – that are supposed to graphically support Campbell’s various points, I assume. Honestly, I hated it. Very not my thing. It seemed all wrong for the show, which struck me as so intimate and honest it could have been told just as well over dinner (if a table full of Jews could be trusted to stay quiet long enough for such a thing). I didn’t need a Photoshopped image of the pseudonymous business that Campbell worked at when he graduated high school, really.

(Though the wedding video at the very end was a nice touch, I have to say. That, I’d keep.)

Overall, Circumcise Me! hits a lot of high points, and I laughed helplessly more than once at his trenchant observations. If you’re keen, and not Jewish, think about taking a Jewish friend and getting whisper translation.


Circumcise Me! runs until 6 November at the Jane Mallett Theatre, new home of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company. Call 416.366.7723 to purchase tickets, or visit the St. Lawrence Centerbox office.