The narrator of Alan Berks’s one-man show Goats, presented by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Hillcrest Center Theater, is invited to visit a local rabbi while on a backpacking trip to Jerusalem. He laughingly attributes this honor to the “general all-around profundity” he believed he had as a self-indulged twenty-something. We sense the irony: he was not, in fact, particularly profound. And yet it seems that “general all-around profundity” is exactly what Berks was going for with Goats. It is a humorous and touching story of one young man’s spiritual journey in Jerusalem (and with a hundred or so of Jerusalem’s goats), although at times it hangs heavy with metaphors and philosophical aphorisms.
We are introduced to Berks’s young Jewish character at the tail end of a long European backpacking adventure, where he finds himself at the Western Wall waiting to feel something. He doesn’t, of course, and appears to leave Jerusalem even less of a devout Jew than as he entered. He travels Europe some with his forgettable (so forgettable that by the second act I forgot she’d been in the story) girlfriend Katherine, and after an embarrassing night getting plastered in front of some native farmers and their British hosts in northern France, our character finds himself pulled back toward Jerusalem when his morning hangover is punctuated with news of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He takes up work as a goatherd for a local man named Shy who makes the best cheese in the area (and who also claims to be over 2,000 years old).
|goats, presented at the hillcrest center theater through march 27. for tickets and information, see mnjewishtheatre.org.|
The narrator of Goats has three loves in his life. In reverse order of how well they sustained my interest: his girlfriend, his religion, and his goats. All three, peppered with ongoing political strife during his stay in Israel, help Berks (his character is unnamed) reach some personal realizations that remain not altogether convincing. I don’t attribute this to the fact that spiritual awakenings in 24-year-olds cannot be legitimate and profound, but rather that there seemed a strained attempt to connect the events in the play with Berks’s newfound insights.
Berks himself draws attention to this; at one point his narrator pointing out that a particularly dreary moment atop the mountains above Jerusalem would be the point in the story when the external environment begins to match his emotional state. But pointing it out doesn’t make it any less kitschy, and by the end of the performance I found myself unconvinced by Berks’s bemoaning his cowardly, wasted life because the audience never saw such a man. All of Berks’s insight ducks were in a row, and swimming in just the right sort of mystical atmosphere to foster such insights, but left me wanting for more justification, and more faith in the audience as well (I was pretty well capable of figuring out that Berks’s realizations among the goats were “Exactly like Shy had said” without being told). Watching a stoned Berks fumble with trying to milk a row of goats only to have him suddenly start yelling about all the innocent lives lost in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict felt a little like getting whacked in the back of the head with the metaphor broom.
I was delighted, however, by the laugh-out-loud funny relationship Berks had with his wayward herd of goats. Leaping from rock to rock hoping the one stray kid would follow him home, or thinking he’d hit a breakthrough in communication whilst reading aloud to the herd from Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares only to have one of the goats unceremoniously chew the cover off the book, showed a level of genuine vulnerability that I found to be both relatable and hilarious. Ryan M. Lindberg’s performance as the narrator was stunning; sustaining a one man show for two hours surely must be exhausting, but Lindberg’s wry demeanor, sharp comedic timing, and conversational tone reminded me of advice my high school speech coach always gave us: make your audiences forget they’re watching a performance. At times I absolutely did forget, and by the second half when we had thankfully morphed from memoir to engaging travelogue, I really wanted to know what happened next. Despite Goats‘s lack of faith in the audience’s ability to formulate our own interpretations, I think you will find that Goats is funny and familiar for audiences of any religious leaning, or none at all.