"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

Pregnancy rocks a middle-aged woman's world in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company show



Kim Kivens in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew.” photo by sarah whiting.

Kim Kivens in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew.” photo by sarah whiting.

AUGUST 20, 2018 — 9:49PM - by Rohan Preston

Actor Kim Kivens does not hold up a picture of an aborted late-term fetus in “What I Thought I Knew,” a solo show that opened Saturday at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Playing a medical clinic employee, she describes what happens to the fetus in low-key, clinical terms.

It’s chilling. At Saturday’s opening, some audience members winced and recoiled.

But even as those details pass, there’s hardly any escape from the harrowing larger story that is coolly unspooled over the 100 minutes of Alice Eve Cohen’s autobiographical one-act play. Performed with immediacy, power and occasional humor by Kivens, and staged with effective simplicity by Jennie Ward, “What I Thought I Knew” takes us on a gripping ride even as it raises moral and practical questions.

Cohen, a New York-based writer and theater teacher who adapted this show from a best-selling memoir, had been told all her life that she was infertile. So she adopted a child, even as she keeps up a regimen that includes hormone treatments.

Now, at 44, she has an unexplained growth in her abdomen. Her doctors think it may be a tumor, something related to menopause. After a battery of tests, she finds out she is six months’ pregnant.

All sorts of questions arise.Cohen has had no prenatal care. Ultrasounds reveal a fetus with a number of complications. Cohen considers her options, from abortion to adoption to keeping the child. She often seems alone in her deliberations, though she has a partner — amusician who’s 10 years younger and always on the road — as well as her daughter, who is now 8.

There’s not much of a set on the stage of the Highland Park Community Center, where MJTC’s shows are performed. There’s a chalkboard on which the narrator writes chapter headings, and a floor lamp that represents Cohen’s 8-year-old.

Kivens starts the show by wheeling in an expandable table that contains a picnic basket, which has some sustenance for her. Then she takes us into the story, playing all the characters with their accents, gestures and idiosyncrasies.

A one-person play is one of the most daunting challenges an actor can take on. There is no scene partner to give the performer a cue or to serve as a crutch. The actor has to generate all the emotions herself. And she has to master reams of text, or at least flub her lines with honesty.

But the risks are worth it when you have a skilled performer like Kivens, who has performed some fetching characters at Children’s Theatre. She holds us spellbound, even if we grimace here and there. Understated and with assurance, she takes us inside the emotions that rock a confident woman whose assumptions about herself and her world are totally upended.

“What I Thought I Knew” is a very specific story. But there’s insight for any of us who might be blindsided by unexpected news.

What I Thought I Knew
Who: By Alice Eve Cohen. Directed by Jennie Ward for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul.
When: 1 p.m. Tue. & Sun., 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat. Ends Aug. 30
Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org.