"Actually" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson (photo by Sarah Whiting)

I don't think there's ever been a time in our culture in which we've been so aware of the issue of consent. It wasn't a thing when I was growing up. But thanks to the #metoo movement, there's much more discussion and awareness of consent in the last several years, so naturally it has made its way into theater too. In Anna Ziegler's new play Actually, receiving just its fourth production at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, two college students find their lives upended by their (mis)understanding of consent. Featuring two of #TCTheater's best young actors, Actually is a powerful and incredibly timely play that will hopefully get audiences thinking and talking about this important issue.

We meet Princeton first year students Amber (Miriam Schwartz) and Tom (JuCoby Johnson) on their first date, a little drunk and flirty and having a good time getting to know each other. The perspective then shifts to a later time looking back on what happened that night, which they both remember differently. When they went back to Tom's dorm room and things got heated, she didn't exactly say no, what she said was "actually" as she pulled away, but she didn't say yes either. She tells her friend that Tom "practically raped" her, her friend reports it to their RA, who reports it to the appropriate authorities. Tom is called in for violating the college's sexual misconduct policy, and there's a hearing to determine the truth. But unlike a criminal trial that must prove guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt, Tom is told that in this hearing, if it's 50/50 as to whom to believe, if a feather comes down on either side, that's where the decision is. The play doesn't tell us which side that feather of justice lands on, rather it explores both perspectives and lets the audience make their own decision. The issue is further complicated by race, as both parties are aware of the implications and historical context of accusing a black man of assaulting a white woman (see also Emmett Till).

The play is structured as a duologue, my new favorite word to describe these kinds of two-hander plays in which the two characters mostly deliver separate alternating monologues, only occasionally interacting in scenes together. It's a true "he said, she said" as we learn about each individual's life, past, and perspective. Both characters are flawed but sympathetic. Tom is a musician who spends the first months of college sleeping with as many girls as he can, but connecting with none of them. Amber is awkward and smart (she can't decide if her favorite book is Gone Girl or The Iliad) with some unpleasant encounters in her past, but eager to make a new start at college. The characters and dialogue are very real, frank, and honest, and both actors give raw, present, and truthful performances, often speaking directly to the audience, that make you believe each character when they're speaking.

It surprised me to learn that this is #TCTheater artist Harry Waters Jr.'s local professional directorial debut, he's such a fixture that I assumed he'd directed already. He's done a great job navigating the shifting timelines and tones of the play (there is some humor amidst the drama and trauma), and gets wonderful performances from both of his actors.

The setting of the play is in various dorm rooms, classrooms, and other college locations, but instead of trying to represent each location, the set (designed by Michael Hoover) is a blank canvas of stone gray squares and platforms of varying height. This allows the dialogue and performances to be the focus, while the imagination fills in the rest. Lighting cues (designed by Michael Wangen) help us with the perspective changes from monologue to scenes to flashbacks.

Consent is a complicated issue and we need to do a better job of educating our young people about it. On the night I attended, there was a talkback and a group of college students in the audience who really seemed to relate to it and wished all of their peers could see it. There were also older people who could relate to it as well, because obviously this has been happening forever, we just didn't have the proper language to talk about it until now.

Actually continues through March 10.

Original Source: http://www.cherryandspoon.com/2019/02/actually-by-minnesota-jewish-theatre.html

"Via Dolorosa" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Center Theater

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In 1997, British playwright David Hare(whose work was recently seen in the Twin Cities via Park Square Theatre's production of Amy's View) traveled to Israel and Palestine to do research for a play about British involvement in the area. What he came away with was a one-man play in which he, the playwright, tells stories from his journey there. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting Via Dolorosa to begin their 23rd season, and wow, is it fascinating. I realized just how little I know about the subject, and felt like I should have been taking notes for this engaging lecture. Vaguely familiar phrases like Six-Day War and Oslo Peace Accord sent me scurrying to Wikipedia this morning for details, but it would take weeks, months, years of study to understand all the complexities and centuries of history. This play doesn't attempt to spell everything out, but rather give one man's impression of the land he experienced and the people he met.

On his journey, Hare talked to people on both sides of the conflict, people with vastly different opinions even within one side. People who were young and old, famous and not. He seems to truly like most of the people he met with and presents their stories without judgement. As the original director of the play said, rather than taking a side, what Via Dolorosa speaks out against is extremism. There's a great sense of sadness in the piece, as there doesn't seem to be any end to the conflict in sight. Even now, 20 years later, it continues.

Although the playwright did perform his own work originally in London, subsequent productions, of course, have cast an actor (despite one of the first lines of the play being "I am not an actor"). I can think of no better #TCTheater actor to perform this role than the great Robert Dorfman (with an excellent TC directing debut by actor Raye Birk). Robert is so natural that you almost forget that he isn't the person who lived this experience. With that trademark twinkle in his eye, he brings the audience right into his story with warmth and humor, making it all the more powerful when the twinkle goes out and the story turns dark. The house lights are up for most of the show, so it does feel like an intimate conversation as Robert looks directly at the audience and even responds to audience reaction. It's such a pleasure to go on this at times difficult and complicated journey with him.

The show is performed on a mostly bare and empty stage, against a backdrop of many, many boxes, a few of which he unpacks as he tells his story, perhaps representing the mountains of history, writings, and opinions about Israel and Palestine (scenic design by Michael Hoover).

The world is so big, and so old, and so filled with people and their stories. I don't know if I'll ever have the chance to visit Israel, but I'm glad I got the opportunity to experience it, even a little, through theater (as I do so many things). Only four performances remain in the limited run of Via Dolorosa, so act fast to see this compelling, thought-provoking, moving play.