Minnesota premiere of 'Actually,' a play about rape on campus, is compelling


FEBRUARY 17, 2019 — 5:29PM


MINNESOTA JEWISH THEATER COMPANY Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson in “Actually.”

MINNESOTA JEWISH THEATER COMPANY Miriam Schwartz and JuCoby Johnson in “Actually.”

Every 98 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in this country, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. That's 321,500 annual victims of sexual assault, with more than half of those in the 18-34 age range. Those staggering numbers are getting increased attention from the press and law enforcement in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

The epidemic of sexual violence also is getting more attention from artists, including playwright Anna Ziegler. Her 2017 drama, "Actually," made its regional premiere Saturday at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. The play fleshes out the grim statistics with complicated humans. But the case presented by Ziegler is far from black-and-white, although it centers on a white Jewish woman and a black man.

Set at Princeton in 2016, "Actually" revolves around students Amber (Miriam Schwartz), a squash player who speaks multiple languages, and Tom (JuCoby Johnson), a classical pianist who does not seem to know the words please and thank you.

Attracted to each other and juiced by alcohol, they hook up one night. Neither has clear memories of what transpired between them, and both remember it differently.

Tom thinks that things went great and that she's really into him. Amber feels that the night was fraught. "He practically raped me," she tells a friend. Her friend, deeply concerned, files a report.

"Actually" is a 90-minute two-hander that gives us the two parties' back stories, including their sexual histories. The two characters give testimony to a university panel.

The show marks the directorial debut of Harry Waters Jr., who played Belize in the premiere of "Angels in America" and who teaches at Macalester College. He and his team evoke the Princeton campus with brutalist concrete blocks with projected ivy — Michael Hoover designed scenography and Michael Wangen the lights. C. Andrew Mayer created sound design to suggest a college party atmosphere.

Amber and Tom, as played by Schwartz and Johnson, are engaging. The two actors deliver characters who are sympathetic, smart and compelling. They also are strong scene partners, which we only see in brief moments because most of the play is delivered as monologues.

That feels like a cop-out by the playwright, one of several unsatisfying choices.

Amber has blind spots that seem out of character for someone so smart. She tells Tom that he only got into Princeton because of a spot reserved for someone like him. She got in, she says, because of the spot reserved for mediocre squash players. "Has it been very hard for you being black?" she asks.

Assertive but bordering on predatory, Tom, too, has a lot to learn. As he and Amber flirt in the first few minutes of the play, he tells her: "I'm gonna kiss you now." She says, "Oh, OK." Then they make out.

"Actually" is about the many ways in which two young people are awakening.


What: By Anna Ziegler

When: 1 p.m. Tues. & Sun., 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat., through March 10

Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul

Tickets: $23-$38, 651-647-4315, info@mnjewishtheatre.org

Twitter: @rohanpreston

Facebook: rohanpreston

Rohan Preston covers theater for the Star Tribune.

rpreston@startribune.com 612-673-4390 @rohanpreston

Original Source: http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-premiere-of-actually-a-play-about-rape-on-campus-is-compelling/505970032/

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.

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 mnjewishtheatre.org

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.

Original Source: http://www.startribune.com/boy-meets-girl-gets-a-sweet-twist-in-minnesota-jewish-theatrepremiere/

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 mnjewishtheatre.org.

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.

SOURCE MATERIAL: http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-jewish-theatre-company-s-collected-stories-takes-sharp-look-at-writerly-theft/475297893/