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Open: 06/03/09- Close: 06/11/09 The Burning Bush!
Reviewed for By: Lauren Wissot

Like the very best preachers Tracey Erin Smith in her one-woman dynamo show “The Burning Bush!”, which follows a rabbinical school dropout named Barbara who discovers the true meaning of spirituality at the Tit for Tat strip club – and takes both miraculous message and exotic dancers on tour to spread the holy word – doesn’t actually preach to her congregation. Instead the exuberant and passionate Smith actively listens to her audience, connecting, engaging and adjusting as she segues effortlessly from embodying the uptight Barbara to becoming a variety of diverse characters. There’s Christie, a Marilyn clone who worships Madonna, Sammy the homegirl stripper, a southern Jewish Martha Stewart, a Texas handyman who’s a dead ringer for Matthew McConaughey – and even the nebbish Jackie Mason himself who serves as Barbara’s guide and inner compass. Smith has taken Barbara’s revelation that strippers “listen” to their customers while giving lap dances to heart.

And what a bighearted production “The Burning Bush!” is. Within a black box and on the barest of sets (a table, an area for changing, and a stripper pole make up the bulk of the minimalist design) that smartly stays out of Smith’s whirlwind way, the critically acclaimed actress/writer and real-life rabbinical student is on a theater-as-enlightenment mission. Shaped by Anita La Selva’s go-go directing, and accompanied by Rebekah Wolkstein on violin and the yarmulke-wearing Drew Jurecka on accordion, Smith paints pictures with her animated face and body, bringing Barbara’s vivid story, a perfect blend of poignancy and lunacy, to life. (L’chaim! Where else can you get raucous spiritual hymns, klezmer covers of Madonna tunes, and Jackie Mason impersonations – once while “Don’t Stop Believin’” played in the background – all in one night?)

Like an Old Testament tale Barbara’s narrative is both idiosyncratic and universal. After being pushed off the rabbi track for being “too serious” she’s led to the strip club by her guardian angel Jackie Mason. There she encounters Christie who wants to understand Kabbalah so she can have something to discuss with Madonna when she meets her idol someday. But it’s the strippers who end up teaching Barbara about sacredness, as she learns to talk to everyday people in their own language. (Even if that means using Madonna’s lyrics for Torah study. “We become the Burning Bush – the Lucky Star!” Barbara raves.) As Mason chastises Barbara when she grows frustrated explaining something as complex as Kabbalah to an exotic dancer, “You’re the one who isn’t able to communicate – who’s stupid? Maybe you’re stupid.” And with the Catskills comic as her own inner Torah Barbara finds that the fear of death is really a fear of being reborn as she mentally prepares to take the plunge and reveal all for amateur night (which she describes as “a naked Jerry Lewis telethon”). “What if the path to holiness isn’t adding rules but stripping them away?” Barbara ponders, suddenly aware that, “The more layers you strip off the lighter you get.”

In the end Barbara learns to revere her congregation, not to condescend (not to mention see the similarities between churches and strip clubs, relayed in a tumbling monologue that includes the observation that they’re the only places where money is actually collected during the show). Deciding that the titillation of the strip clubs and the spirituality of the temple should be combined and harnessed she takes her show on the road. Barbara’s ability to find holiness everywhere, and to express gratitude for everything from the Grand Canyon to a lap dance, reverberates in the Texas handyman’s assertion that “Language is only a metaphor.” So if the Hebrew translation of sin is “missing the mark,” as Barbara tells us, then “The Burning Bush!” is one hell of an act of salvation.

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