Boy-meets-girl gets a sweet twist in Minnesota Jewish Theatre premiere


REVIEW: Hasid meets girl in the charming new play "Natasha and the Coat."
By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune
APRIL 24, 2018 — 9:41AM

Provided Kim Kivens as Felicity and Miriam Schwartz as her intern, Natasha, in  Natasha and the Coat  by Deborah Stein, April 21-May 13 at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. 

Provided Kim Kivens as Felicity and Miriam Schwartz as her intern, Natasha, in Natasha and the Coat by Deborah Stein, April 21-May 13 at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. 

“Sometimes the very old tales are the very most true ones,” elderly Jewish dry-cleaner Mordy confides to the audience at the beginning of “Natasha and the Coat.”

It’s an apt introduction for that oldest of stories — boy meets girl — in a show getting its world premiere at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company through May 13. Playwright Deborah Stein takes a pair of mismatched lovers and sets them smack dab in the middle of the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Natasha (Miriam Schwartz) is new to the neighborhood, having just graduated from college and landed a coveted internship with a vintage clothing
wholesaler. Yossi (Avi Aharoni) has spent his entire life there, working in his family’s dry-cleaning business. With his traditional black suit, side curls and ritual fringes, he seems to come not just from a different world from Natasha but a different century.

When Natasha spills coffee on a valuable coat, she asks Yossi to clean it before her boss can find out. His job transforms the garment, leading her to bring him more and more work. The two forge an unlikely romance, while Yossi’s parents look on with disapproval and Natasha’s boss grows increasingly suspicious.

Stein’s strong characterizations and humorous dialogue overcome some unlikely plot devices, while director Miriam Monasch and a capable cast lend warmth to this sweetly funny tale. Michael Hoover’s set ably accommodates scenes that shift regularly between the dry-cleaning shop and the clothing “atelier.”

Liz Josheff Busa’s props and Lisa Conley’s costumes add color, context and some stunning vintage dresses to the mix. Much of the play’s energy derives from the study in contrasts between Natasha and Yossi. Schwartz embodies the brash confidence and flighty, nervous energy of a young woman giddily poised to jump into the adventure of adulthood. Yossi, on the other hand, wavers between worlds. Aharoni beautifully conveys this tension in a scene in which Yossi trades his suit for jeans and a T-shirt, admiring himself in a mirror with shy wonder.

The other three cast members offer solid support. Kim Kivens is delightfully nasty as Natasha’s steelyeyed and egotistical boss, positively quivering with disdain and ever ready with an acid remark or a cold stare. Muriel Bonertz is equally intimidating as Yossi’s mother, a woman determined to stand as a bulwark against change, while Charles Numrich’s Mordy provides a softening influence as Yossi’s father, firm in his faith but tormented by his son’s dilemma.

Overall, this production’s strong acting and warmhearted charm open up an unfamiliar world while providing a unique twist on a very old story. 

Natasha and the Coat
Who: By Deborah Stein. Directed by Miriam Monasch. Produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends May 13.
Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315 or

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.

Original Source:

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 'Collected Stories' takes sharp look at writerly theft


REVIEW: Sharp Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production bursts with ideas about art and appropriation. 

By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune
February 27, 2018 — 11:24am

MJTC Collected Stories 1 (medium size).jpg

“Collected Stories” at Minnesota Jewish Theater stars Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo. Photo by Sarah Whiting. 

If a writer tells another person’s story, is it an honor or an appropriation? That question lies at the heart of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” currently receiving a sharp and compelling production by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Margulies’ two-hander, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997, charts the relationship of two women over the course of several years. Ruth (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) is an established writer and professor, confident, imperious and impatient. Lisa (Ashley Rose Montondo) is a student in her writing class, gawky, voluble and insecure. Despite some initial reservations, the prickly Ruth recognizes Lisa’s budding talent and agrees to serve as her mentor.

As their relationship deepens over six scenes, we see various emotional permutations build between mentor and mentee. At times they seem almost like mother and daughter, drinking lemonade on the balcony or squabbling over mislaid paperwork. At other moments, hints of rivalry emerge, as Lisa resists Ruth’s attempts to guide her course and pupil begins to surpass teacher.

During one of these scenes, Ruth reveals her deepest secret to Lisa — a youthful affair with poet Delmore Schwartz. She’s devastated when Lisa later uses that relationship as the story line of her first novel. Lisa tearfully claims that she intended the act as a gift, not a theft. Ruth, on the other hand, characterizes Lisa’s novel as not just emotional but also cultural appropriation, substituting what Lisa perceives as Ruth’s richer Jewish heritage for her own WASPy suburban background.

Director Jennie Ward offers a nicely paced production that wisely allows her two strong actors all the time they need to develop the nuance and complexity of these characters. Pistner delivers a razor-sharp, often blistering performance as Ruth. It’s a delight to watch her initial haughty, tightly controlled and world-weary attitude toward her awkward and effusive student soften almost reluctantly into friendship. At one point in the second scene, after deliberately wounding Lisa’s feelings, we see her stiffly wordless yet eloquent sense of regret as she stands in the darkness and steels herself to mend fences.


In contrast, Montondo’s Lisa is a whirlwind of ebullient and unrestrained emotion. She’s the bull in the china shop of Ruth’s cozy, book-filled Greenwich Village apartment (beautifully evoked by set designer Michael Hoover), spilling tea cups and tears in equal measure. Montondo skillfully details her character’s slow yet inevitable progression out of Ruth’s orbit as she absorbs the older woman’s life lessons.

What: Collected Stories
Who: Written by Donald Margulies. Directed by Jennie Ward. Produced by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu.; 8 p.m. Sat.; 1 p.m. Sun. Ends March 18.
Tickets: $23-$38, 651-647-4315 or

This solid production, with its two masterfully executed character studies, powerfully communicates both the intellectual conundrum that “Collected Stories” presents and the emotional maelstrom that underlies it.

Lisa Brock is a local freelance critic.


Review: Play 'Via Dolorosa' presents one man's journey through the Palestine quagmire

REVIEW: David Hare's "Via Dolorosa" views the conflict on a human scale. 

By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune

AUGUST 21, 2017 — 2:20PM

David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa” takes its name from the path in Jerusalem that Christ traveled to his crucifixion. It translates as “Way of Sorrow,” an apt title for a play that maps Hare’s painful journey through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The English playwright traveled to Israel in 1997 to research a play about the British administration of Palestine in the 1930s-’40s but wound up writing a solo show about his trip, his impressions of the people he met and his insights into the conflicts that shaped the then-50-year-old state of Israel. He himself performed the work in London and New York and won a Drama Desk award for best solo performance in 1999, despite the fact that his only other acting experience was a school production of “A Man for All Seasons.”

Robert Dorfman takes on Hare’s role in a thoughtful production directed by Raye Birk for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Over the course of 90 minutes, Dorfman conjures a variety of locales and people while moving around Michael Hoover’s spare set, which consists of a couple of tables and a wall of file boxes, augmented only by Paul Epton’s occasional lighting effects and Anita Kelling’s sound design.

Hare’s text is filled with sensory impressions of the places he travels and the people he meets, and Dorfman ably captures the visual quality of the playwright’s language. He summons an air of mischievous disbelief when he describes a settlement as having an air of suburban normality more characteristic of Bel Air or Santa Barbara than of the dangerous frontier he had expected. His evocation of the Golden Dome of the Rock and its rich religious significance for both Muslims and Jews is rendered with poignant emotion, while his visit to Israel’s Holocaust museum conjures wrenching anguish.

Equally fascinating are the people he encounters, from Eran Baniel, co-director of a “Romeo and Juliet” in which Jews played the Montagues and Palestinians the Capulets, to Shulamit Aloni, a former Knesset member who believes nothing but bloodshed lies ahead after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Birk, in his directorial debut, modulates the pace and tone of this talky play to keep it from devolving into a lecture.

“Via Dolorosa” runs the risk of appearing dated in its focus on events and situations that were headline news 20 years ago, in a pre-9/11 world. This strong production, however, reminds its audiences that Hare’s focus on the perils of religious extremism is, if anything, even more pertinent.

Via Dolorosa

Who: By David Hare. Directed by Raye Birk.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 27.

Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul.

Tickets: $39. 651-647-4315 or

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.