Hip-hop meets vaudeville in 'Stateless'

There’s something strangely healing about “Stateless: A hip-hop vaudeville experience,” the season opener at The Jewish Theatre (formerly the Traveling Jewish Theatre), co-produced by the Hub at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

It’s not just that it’s a wildly entertaining and eclectic blend of two seemingly disparate cultures as represented by its creators, two fine hip-hop artists: Dan Wolf, who’s Jewish, and Tommy Shepherd, who’s African-American.

It’s also that it’s so appealingly good-humored. The Wolf and the Shepherd, as they call themselves, are having an enormously good time, and somehow they manage to include us in it, and not merely by generating a bit of audience call-and-response (which they do) but, more importantly, by being so guilelessly honest with each other and with us.

They’re joined by a charismatic Keith Pinto, who takes on various roles as needed and provides upstage electronic musical
accompaniment.

On a journey with plenty of zany side trips, the pair goes from New York to Europe and back, seeking roots.

In Hamburg, Wolf uncovers some family history: his great-grandfather was half of a vaudeville team called the Brothers Wolf that wrote a musical ditty eventually considered so emblematically and popularly Germanic that Jews were forbidden to sing it. It’s a poignant coda that the performers relate without sentimentality.

Ironically, Shepherd’s quest to connect with his ancestors is more amorphous, leading him to a cemetery in Louisiana.
The two stories are abstractly told through raps and songs (from klezmer to blues and more). Most are original, by One Ring Zero, but a few are from the Brothers Wolf’s repertory.

Slapstick routines, clowning, beatboxing, hip-hop dance (choreographed by Pinto) and other physical theatrics follow, with characters, inanimate objects and movement sequences all morphing in ways that are fresh and funny and at times revelatory.

The stylistic mish-mash is surprisingly effective, and the overriding theme — the “stateless” performers’ longing for connection to the past — is never strident.

Under director Ellen Sebastian Chang’s light and knowing touch, the show unfurls in a crackling 70 minutes on a simple set (by David Szlasa) that gleams with a series of ghost lights and is enhanced by a token red curtain and assorted props and video projections.

Allen Willner’s lighting design beautifully dramatizes the lightning-quick changes of mood and setting.

We want to believe that, in our human desire for home and history, we’re all united — and through their artistry, Wolf and Shepherd seem to prove it.

 

THEATER REVIEW

Stateless: A hip-hop vaudeville experience

Presented by The Jewish Theatre

Where: 470 Florida St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes Dec. 6
Tickets: $15 to $45
Contact: (415) 292-1233, www.tjt-sf.org
Note: Wolf and Shepherd will not perform Nov. 12-15; in their place will be One Ring Zero and special guests.

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