Knock On Wood: One Man's Saga of War and Friendship
Last season in Golda's Balcony we were treated to the powerful recounting of Golda Meier's struggles with her decisions about the now infamous Yom Kippur War in 1973. In Knock On Wood, we get to see the other side of the coin: the viewpoint of a combat soldier in that war.
In 1973, Samuel "Schmulik" Calderon was a 22-year-old professional actor with the Haifa Theater in Israel. He was portraying a soldier named Jonathan in a production of A.B. Joshua's The Final Solution, when suddenly Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. He was called to duty and although he registered as a non-combatant, he is hurried to the front lines, where he meets - ironically,amazingly, surrealistically - a fellow soldier named Jonathan. His friendship with the 19-year-old grows close over the intense days of the conflict and the harrowing pains of wartime they experience together affect both their lives and are destined to remain with them forever.
This is a good time to mention this is not a work of fiction. Calderon wrote it, and guess what? He performs it, too. That being said, this is not a play, really. Rather, it is a monologue, not unlike the kind of performance pieces that Spalding Gray was known for. The unfolding of Knock On Wood feels like you've met Calderon at a dinner party; you chat casually, then he ends up telling you the story of his life.
The 50-ish Calderon sits still in a chair on an unadorned stage and cuts to the chase, quickly jumping with both feet into his narrative. Initially he is cool and matter-of-fact, but over the course of an hour and a half, Calderon has total command of his audience. His passionate, intimate and gritty delivery pulls you in and before you know it you're glued to every captivating word and awaiting the next chapter in the plot. His accent, which seems to have been influenced by his many travels, can take a little getting used to, but after a while he radiates a natural ease and you don't mind; in fact you're right on the battlefield with him. He's there, too, reliving each moment. You can see his wheels turning, sense his mind remembering, experiencing for the first time the sights and smells of war, the fear of dropping bombs, the witnessing of death, feeling lost upon his return to civilization, the guilt of abandoned friendship, the struggle to find meaning in life. When he lets out a final scream of pain it is earth-shattering. Knock On Wood is so real, so personal, it's actually palpable - a living, breathing catharsis for the man in the chair. In the performance I attended, you could hear a pin drop.
As a writer Calderon has crafted a thorough, riveting account filled with detailed descriptions, interweaving plotlines, time-jumping, beautiful character development and intense emotion. He has a knack for painting vivid portraits and capturing poignant moments. You can see his house when he comes home and you're there when his father hugs him. You feel the traumatic change in his friend Mike, who has the job of informing families of their son's deaths. You come to love Jonathan, who for Calderon represents so many significant things that he names his son after him.
Calderon isn't afraid to be vulnerable, to express his heart, to show empathy towards all soldiers – even those on the enemy side – and to search his own soul in order to find a path toward healing. He says, "It's our story, it's everyone's story." The power of this story lies in its simplicity and its humanity; this story belongs to all of us who are sharing this planet in these tremulous times. His is a story worth hearing and will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
KNOCK ON WOOD now through June 11, 2005. At the 13th
Street Repertory, 50 West 13th Street. For tix call 212-675-6677.