From Speed Levitch, A Quirky Radio Play About the Founder of Israel

Levitch premieres "The Birth of New Ghetto" at FronteraFest

Theodor Herzl at the Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1901. Credit: Central Zionist Archive/Simon Wiesenthal Center

Timothy “Speed” Levitch gained a kind cult celebrity when, as a quirky and animated New York City tour guide, he became the subject of the 1998 documentary “The Cruise.”

Given to philosophical ruminations and brimming with arcane knowledge, the cartoonish, verbose Levitch conducted his tours as a kind of avant-garde performance, made all the more distinctive by his manic, pinched, nasal voice.

Levitch caught the attention Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater who cast Levitch in the animated docu-fiction film “Waking Life.” Levitch plays a version of himself. Linklater also cast Levitch in “School of Rock.”

Speed Levitch in the Richard Linklater-directed series “Up to Speed.”

And the two teamed up in 2012 for “Up to Speed,” a Linklater-director six-episode historical travel documentary series on its own Hulu channel that had Levitch conducting virtual tours of American cities.

Now, Levitch lands in Austin with “The Birth of the New Ghetto,” a live radio staging of Levitch’s podcast of the same name. Written and produced by Levitch, “The Birth of the New Ghetto” tells the story of Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian playwright, political activist and journalist regarded today as the founding father of modern political Zionism.

Levitch says “it took a failed playwright to foresee that the anti-Semitism of 19th-century Europe was just a dress rehearsal for something much more terrible to come.”

The show is a part of FronteraFest’s Long Fringe and plays Jan. 28-Feb. 2 at the Ground Floor Theater. Tickets are $17.

Levitch plays Herzl, and the cast includes Juliette Bennett and Austin actor L.B. Deyo. Sound effects are by Buzz Moran, the Austin-based sound artist.

Herzl’s story is “just a laugh riot comedy,” says Levitch in an interview on his podcast. “For whatever reason I always understood (the story) to be a comedy.”

Herzl’s accomplishments, Levitch says, are “a triumph of naivité.”

“It’s also the story of a theater person. It’s about what a man of theater can do when let loose in the geo-political world… His intense want/need to be a playwright did lead to his greatest theatrical invention, which he invented out of thin air, the Zionist Congress — just a pure theatrical invention of a mad man of the theater.”