On the fringe

Every year, connoisseurs of avant-garde theater expect the San Francisco Fringe Festival to knock their socks off. This year, Karen Weinberg hopes to leave ’em totally barefoot with her one-woman show, “Faker,” which makes its West Coast premiere Friday, Sept. 10.

A commentary on society’s impossible standards of beauty, the Hollywood star-maker machinery and good ol’ fashioned Jewish guilt, “Faker” is a tour-de-force for Weinberg. In addition to writing and starring in the show (she plays multiple characters), she also co-wrote six songs for it.

With its savage humor and lesbian subtext, “Faker” is anything but a typical musical revue.

“The lead character, Hava Nagila, is my alter ego,” says Weinberg. “She’s a nerdy, awkward child, self-conscious about her looks. When she grows up she decides to get a ton of plastic surgery, becomes almost plastic herself and finds success as a movie star.”

She’s not kidding about the alter ego thing. Not only does much of Hava’s life parallel Weinberg’s, but periodically in the show a “truth buzzer” goes off, breaking down the so-called fourth wall between actor and audience. As Weinberg notes, the buzzer sounds “whenever the story comes close to reality.”

Her own reality began in a middle-class Jewish home in Oak Park, Ill., outside of Chicago. Weinberg admits she’s “a terrible Jew,” but she remembers fondly the Jewish atmosphere her parents created in the home. By age 13, she was determined to get a nose job, and by her 17th birthday, she got her wish. “I had a fine Jewish nose,” says Weinberg. “There’s a grandmother character in my play who figures in to the guilt I feel sometimes about getting a nose job and getting rid of ethnicity.”

From an early age, Weinberg wanted to act. She earned a degree in theater at Indiana University, going on to a successful career on the Chicago stage. She’s done everything from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” to “99 Bottles of Queer” for GayCo, a Chicago-based LGBT theater company (another lesbian review she did was called “Weddings of Mass Destruction”). She also co-wrote a play, “43 Plays for 43 Presidents,” which has since been published.

She’s done a few film and TV projects, which she dubs “the sad things: cheesy commercials, stuff that will come back to haunt me.”

But for much of last year, Weinberg poured her energy into “Faker,” which she premiered at the Chicago Improvisation Festival and later performed at the city’s Single File Solo festival.

“It started as sketch comedy with peripheral characters,” she says. “But I’m from such a traditional theater background, I like a story that people can grab onto.”

As for reinvigorating her Jewish life, Weinberg is growing more curious. “I learned I have family in Russia who are Holocaust survivors. I want to know who they are, learn about our connection.”

As for her professional life, Weinberg is content — for now — to remain in Chicago, which has always been a great theater town. But she hasn’t ruled out relocating to New York or California, depending on how the career-winds shift. “The big picture is to be able to keep doing this,” she says, “then get discovered by Harold Ramis.”

“Faker” runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival from Sept. 10 to 19 at the EXIT Theater, 156 Eddy St. Times vary. Tickets: $5. Information: (415) 673-3847 or www.sffringe.org.

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.