Belly of a tale: One-man play takes dialogue straight from eight Jews

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For actor-playwright Jonathan Bender, realism in the theater just wasn’t enough. He wanted reality.

That’s why the dialogue for his latest play, “In the Belly of the Whale,” was taken verbatim from interviews he conducted with eight diverse Jews. Very diverse.

From the ultra-Orthodox mother to the aged Holocaust survivor to the doubting secular Jew, Bender captures and performs them all — male and female — in his one-man show, which is set Jonah-like in the belly of a whale.

Bender describes it as an exploration on the perplexities of being Jewish today, with nine characters (including himself), 18 opinions and one actor.

“In the Belly of the Whale” makes its Bay Area premiere in a run at this year’s San Francisco Fringe Festival, starting Sept. 6 at the EXIT on Taylor.

What’s with the Jonah metaphor? Bender explains it stemmed from an interview with an Orthodox mother who had given birth to a mentally retarded child. It shook her faith, leaving her feeling like Jonah swallowed up by the great fish.

“It was such an evocative image,” recalls the playwright. “I thought what if it really took place in the belly of a whale. It represents this place where you don’t know where you’re headed.”

Though he infused his play with plenty of theatricality, Bender did not stray from the words spoken by his subjects.

“There’s a power in using real people’s experiences and words,” Bender says. “I wanted to know what Jewish is, so I interviewed as wide a range as possible. The message is about actively engaging with your Jewish identity, whatever it is, and wrestling with the questions.”

The play grew out of his theater training at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. Under the tutelage of Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project (“The Laramie Project,” “I Am My Own Wife”), he developed his approach to interview-based theater.

The Fringe Festival run of “In the Belly of the Whale” is a homecoming of sorts for Bender. Now a resident of Boulder, he lived in Berkeley for many years, and he soon will relocate back to San Francisco to become artistic director of the Illuminated Theatre.

Originally from New York, Bender grew up in Phoenix. As for Judaism, he says he was raised “Reform lite,” though he always had spiritual leanings. He earned a bachelor’s in theater at U.C. Berkeley, and became a regular in the local poetry scene. He was also a member at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

He went on to earn a master’s in performance studies at Southern Illinois University and later an MFA at Naropa. An early version of “In the Belly of the Whale” was his MFA thesis.

Bender presented the play at a national theater conference in Chicago in August 2006, and at the Boulder International Fringe Festival. It was also performed at a Jewish conference in New Mexico last year.

In addition to his theater work, Bender teaches and coaches public speaking via his company, WholeSpeak.

That’s his vocation. His avocation — his passion — remains theater, especially when it is based on something real.

“There’s something amazing when you take something from everyday life and you put a light on it,” Bender says. “It can be incredibly profound.

“In the Belly of the Whale” plays Sept. 6 through Sept. 14 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., S.F. Tickets: $9. Information: www.sffringe.org.

More Fringe

“In the Belly of the Whale” isn’t the only Jewish-themed play at this year’s San Francisco Fringe Festival, which runs Wednesday, Sept. 3 through Sept. 14. Also on tap:

“Jew Must Be Crazy,” a one-woman comedy written and performed by Abby Schachner. It plays Sept. 3, 5, 7, 9, 13 and 14 at the EXIT Stage Left, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco.

“Punchline,” written and performed by Alicia Dattner, is a one-woman show about life in the standup comedy universe, with some Jewish grandmotherisms thrown in. It plays Sept. 6, 7, 9 and 13 at the EXIT Stage Left, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco.

“Sonderkommando,” an interdisciplinary dance piece written and directed by Wolfgang Thompson, tells a surreal tale about three dybbuks (Jewish spirits) and the Holocaust. It plays Sept. 4, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13 and 14 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco.

“Exit Sign: A Rock Opera” is a rock-and-roll adventure about a daughter (played by Jewish actress Jamie Ben-Azay) and her Jewish father traveling through experiences of time, mortality, death and love. It plays Sept. 6, 11, 13 and 14 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. At least 50 percent of the tickets for each show are available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis starting 30 minutes before the show. For tickets and information, go to 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.