Actress takes on 12 lives

Though she qualified for Social Security years ago, the ageless Naomi Newman is today at the top of her game. As co-founder of Traveling Jewish Theatre, and veteran of countless productions there, she brings more life to the stage than many actors half her age.

Her latest creation is “Fall Down Get Up,” a one-woman show comprised of short vignettes, 12 characters and several musical numbers. With minimal costuming and props, Newman peoples the stage with memorable women, giving a bravura performance only an actress of her stature could pull off.

“Fall Down Get Up” opened at Traveling Jewish Theater Sunday night, March 7.

Newman created most of these characters for previous TJT productions over the years, including “Snake Talk” and “Crossing the Broken Bridge.” Though some are based on historical figures and Newman’s own family members, she makes each one her own.

The characters include everyone from an African American slave to a street hag with a gift of prophecy. Most are Jewish, among them a pair of real-life Yiddish poets, an Auschwitz survivor, and a Yiddish theater vaudevillian, complete with derby and cane.

Each character recounts times in her life of great storm and stress, and how she ultimately prevailed. Some did so more successfully than others. Fredl Shtock, one of Newman’s Yiddish poets, went mad. The African American character, brought to the New World on a slave ship, obviously did not overcome. She merely “gets used to it.”

Newman is at her best, and funniest, portraying herself and her sister in a re-creation of her coming out. Ping-ponging between characters with seamless ease, Newman drew screams of laughter, especially when depicting her sister’s shock and horror at learning the whole gay truth. (“You’ve run out of ways to be different,” clucks the sister.)

Other characters did not quite click. Shoshanna, the Holocaust survivor, recounts the ride on the cattle car and arrival at Auschwitz, but Newman’s dialogue echoes so many other similar testimonies, there was little resonance.

The hag, while artfully realized (Newman contorts her voice to a gravelly bark) is a little too wise to be believable. The all-knowing street person comes off as a bit of a stretch.

But most of her characters work fine. Portraying her own mother — first as a traumatized immigrant punishing her daughter for praying like a Christian, then as a dying crone — Newman conveys honest pathos borne of experience. And breaking the “fourth wall” to lead the audience in a collective “Oy vey!” was an interactive delight.

Newman is remarkably athletic, torquing her limber body from character to character in a heartbeat. And her musical talent, as both a singer and harmonium player, is used to maximum effect. She doesn’t have the best voice in the world, but she knows how to use what she’s got. The Yiddish melodies strike deep, and Newman’s original songs are surprisingly touching and well-wrought.

Other quibbles? Newman might employ a few judicious edits here and there (slowly chanting the entire Kaddish seemed unnecessary). Playing the Yiddish classic “Vos Geveyn Iz Geveyn” for laughs demeans a truly moving song. The vaudeville sequence, complete with cornball jokes and musical interludes, seemed sluggish and not madcap as intended. Finally, the connective thematic thread woven through the show’s sequences is not always apparent.

But the net effect is very upbeat, positive and exhortative. “Fall Down Get Up” is Newman’s prescriptive pep rally for a weary world. Judging by the long standing ovation she received on opening night, it would appear some have gotten the message.

Fall Down Get Up” runs through Sunday, March 21, at Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida St., S.F. March 25-28 at Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $18-$30. Information: (415) 285-8080 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.