Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s ‘What I Thought I Knew’ is compelling, engaging​​​​​​​

Kim Kivens portrays 38 characters in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Sarah Whiting

Kim Kivens portrays 38 characters in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Sarah Whiting

By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press

August 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm

In 1999, Alice Eve Cohen got a big surprise. The 44-year-old solo theater artist and teacher became ill, and the assessments of doctors ranged from typical menopause symptoms to the possibility of ovarian cancer. Not until she underwent a CAT scan was it revealed that what was inside her was not a tumor but a fetus entering its third trimester.

Her experience became an award-winning memoir that Cohen then adapted into a one-woman show, portraying 38 characters from her odyssey through the American health care system and the tough terrain of a high-risk pregnancy. Her play has also won awards, and now Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting the first production of “What I Thought I Knew” that doesn’t feature Cohen herself on stage.

Taking on this daunting task is Kim Kivens, an actor whose most memorable local performances have come while crafting uproariously funny characters. And Kivens’ comedic skills definitely come into play in “What I Thought I Knew,” but this is a performance of tremendous depth and breadth, taking the audience to Cohen’s most disarmingly intimate thoughts and vexing sorrows. Over the course of 95 intermission-less minutes, the story unfailingly engages, its pace and vivid characterizations making it the theatrical equivalent of a page turner.

While intensely personal, Cohen’s play also bears many a touchstone of commonality for audience members. Parents will offer knowing nods as Kivens describes the emotional peaks and plummets of pregnancy, and anyone who’s ever been exasperated by the American medical system will find that pot stirred within them. And seeking spiritual assistance through a difficult time will no doubt ring true for many, Cohen articulating well how her relatively dormant Judaism was activated during this process.

Director Jennie Ward has done a splendid job of helping shape Kivens’ characters, but may have erred in her decision to leave the house lights up throughout the performance, likely for the purpose of making the piece feel more like conversation than theater. If in darkness, I think the opening-night audience would have laughed a lot more and felt free to verbalize their reactions, thus increasing the energy level inside the Highland Park Community Center’s theater.

Yet there’s plenty of energy onstage, Kivens flowing fleetly through 28 chapters of this story, writing the titles of each on a chalkboard. The settings are only subtly suggested, all the better for quick changes between the New York apartment our protagonist shares with her fiancé and the young daughter they’ve previously adopted to the multifarious clinics she visits, never quite finding diagnostic skills and bedside manner in the same doctor. And Kivens really shows her versatility in the classroom in which Cohen is teaching solo theater skills, rapidly transforming into a disparate group of students, one of whom forges a very touching bond with the teacher.

The journey takes us through suicidal thoughts, internal debates about abortion and adoption, questions about having an intersex child or one with a disability, the harrowing “home stretch” of the pregnancy and beyond. In addition to crafting an endearing companion in Cohen, Kivens transforms into such colorful characters as her young daughter, the tough-talking older male doctor who lays out her options, a dancer designing her end-of-life experience, and a Borscht Belt comedian of a doula.

So fast-paced is the story that it wasn’t until afterward that I contemplated that Kivens and director Ward could have made more palpable Cohen’s crisis of faith about modern medicine, the words conveying a sense of crushing disappointment but genuine sadness kept at arm’s length. That might have made this rich experience even richer, but the story is so compelling, the performance so strong, that you’ll want to join her on this journey.

If You Go

  • What: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew”

  • When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28-30

  • Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul

  • Tickets: $38-$23, available at 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org

  • Capsule: A compelling one-woman show about a pregnancy and the American health care system.