Jew Review: ‘Shul’ Expertly Wrestles With Modern Judaism

Charles Numrich and Nancy Marvy in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Charles Numrich and Nancy Marvy in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

One of the brilliant parts of Shul at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is that you don’t know what city the play is set in. It’s playing in the cozy confines of the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul, but it could be in any inner city, anywhere in America. The only setting for the show is the dilapidated inside of Eitz Chaim, the synagogue at the heart of the show that had its world premiere on April 27. It’s the themes that emerge that make it a timeless story built for modern-day Judaism.

Opening night of the show did start on a somewhat somber note, with Artistic Director Barbara Brooks dedicating the show the victims of the Poway, Calif., Chabad shooting earlier that day – six months to the day of the Tree of Life (Eitz Chaim) in Pittsburgh.

But from there, the small-but-mighty cast took over, and first-time director Robert Dorfman – an MJTC acting veteran – brought the struggle that playwright Sheldon Wolf put on the page to life. The shul, like many small inner-city congregations, is left to reckon with its future. Move? Sell? Share space with another religious institution?

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

At the heart of it all, to some degree, is fear of change. The world is changing around the shul, and the characters have all grown up in the neighborhood to watch it happen – for better or worse. Even without seeing anything outside of the walls of Eitz Chaim, the actors vividly describe the crumbling of the neighborhood around them.

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

With only eight characters, the interactions have to be crisp, and over the course of the two acts, Nancy Marvy’s Miriam and Raye Birk’s Nate lead the cast through an emotional ride. Nate talks of curling up next to his father under his tallit on the pews, while Miriam talks of the comfort she found at Eitz Chaim in tough times. Ivey Award-winner Charles Numrich brings incredible levity to the show as Ezra, the Yoda-esque wise elder. Avi Aharoni plays Abe, the millennial president of the synagogue (“We had an election. I lost,” he griped), who has the challenging responsibility of ushering his dwindling congregation to a decision they don’t want to have to make.

Dexieng Yang and Jôher Coleman bring wit to Heidi and John – two of the unexpected characters to the show. Nathaniel Fuller’s Golden wears his anger well, and Paul Shoenack’s Friedman is the utility player who brings levity and seriousness.

One of the great debates in the show – and seemingly Judaism itself – is the idea of purpose. What purpose does a crumbling building serve? What purpose do we have in our congregations or our communities? These ideas are wrestled with throughout the show and are well articulated. Hope may be a dangerous thing, as Ezra reminds the congregation, but after all, isn’t hope part of faith?

Although the ending – literally the last thing that happens before cutting to the black – felt somewhat unsatisfying – everything that led to it was wonderfully done. The MJTC is closing its 24th season on a high note.

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Jew Review: ‘Actually’ At The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

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ARTS + CULTURE

Guest Post, Orit Ackerman, February 20, 2019

Actually

Miriam Schwartz as Amber and JuCoby Johnson as Tom in the MJTC show “Actually.” Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Miriam Schwartz as Amber and JuCoby Johnson as Tom in the MJTC show “Actually.” Photo by Sarah Whiting.

I will be the first to admit I am a complete script snob when it comes to theatre. I don’t believe an audience member should have to do any preparation before entering the world of the show, whether it’s an experimental performance piece or classically-done Shakespeare. Presenting the story and its complexities is the job of the playwright, actors, directors and production staff. With the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s new show Actually, this job is done with skill and care by director Harry Waters, Jr. and all those involved in this stunning show.

Amber and Tom are freshmen at Princeton in 2016, trying to figure out what they are doing with their lives. In a sentence, the show is about date rape; but there is no way one sentence can describe this show that hits you in the stomach, the heart, and the head multiple times. A story about two 18-year olds just beginning their adult lives resonated with me, as many of us know age doesn’t always fix our insecurities. In addition to being a show that is very specifically about consent, it is also a show about how we see ourselves. It’s a show about the cycle that gets created when we don’t trust ourselves to be ourselves. How people treat us shapes our behavior, which shapes how we see ourselves. The serious subject of the show was well-balanced with softer, even humorous moments of character memories and musings, allowing us an occasional break from the tension of such a daunting subject. In addition to the expected adult themes, strong language adds an appropriately jolting layer of force to the dialogue.

The show’s energy was electric on Sunday afternoon, the second performance of the four-week run. I can only imagine the previous night’s opening was magical. I have every confidence each performance will equal or exceed the previous. JuCoby Johnson gave Tom a vulnerability rarely allowed to male characters in any medium. It was not just refreshing, but so necessary in our world. He was engaged with the audience to the point where I was sure he was looking right at me several times. Amber, played by Miriam Schwartz, comes across as a stereotypical neurotic Jewish female character. Yet…she was exactly all of us. She just wanted to find herself – to feel comfortable in her own body. The honesty of feeling so unsure of yourself so much of the time was uncomfortably familiar. Schwartz let you see her character’s confidence and confusion, and the complexities that exist when desire is wrapped up in our own insecurities.

While the script and actor choices thrilled me, I was must admit I was less enthusiastic about the set. The performance area at Hillcrest Community Center has its challenges, but after seeing dozens of shows there over the years I wanted something that anchored the show a little bit more in a specific time and space. At the same time, I can recognize the ambiguity of the set works with some of the ambiguity of the show itself. What the set lacked in giving us a specific sense of place and time, the sound design fulfilled while setting the tone for the moment. Tom’s love of music was beautifully highlighted by the show’s score, letting us see its importance in his life.

Actually is the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at its finest. The show is beautiful, complicated, and honest. It plays now through March 10 at the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul. Tickets can be purchased online, or by phone at 651-647-4315.

Original Source: https://tcjewfolk.com/jew-review-actually-at-the-minnesota-jewish-theatre-company/

Jew Review: ‘The Chanukah Guest’

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by Orit Ackerman

December 4, 2018

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Kim Kivens and Bradley Hildebrandt star in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's presentation of "The Chanukah Guest." (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

We own The Chanukah Guest, the Eric A. Kimmel book that playwright Jenna Zark based the show currently running at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, but I have never been to the staged production before. The Chanukah Guest made its premiere at MJTC in 2014 and I can see why it’s become a favorite holiday show for MJTC.

Sunday I had the pleasure of taking my daughters (ages 11 and 8) to the opening performance of the run. Most of the live theatre my children have seen has been in bigger theatre spaces, and it was great fun to listen to them ‘ohh and ahh’ over the set, props, and lighting instruments in the intimate space. Familiar with the book, they enjoyed pointing out props and costume pieces that they knew would be integral to the story. Kirby Moore’s warm and colorful set design gave us plenty to discuss while waiting for the show to begin.

The show starts with an interactive pre-show that was delightfully age-appropriate for young viewers who might be newer to live theatre. Not to mention a fun way to highlight some of the less obvious but important roles of a theatre production: sound and light design and the ever important stage manager!

Audience participation continues throughout the show at a wonderful pace, mixing music and fun within the original story. Kim Kivens did a lovely job as Bubba Brayna, the most-spritely 85-year old I’ve ever seen. She’s joined on stage by Bradley Hildebrandt, the nicest and hungriest bear around. Hildebrandt kept the children squealing with delight. Highlights included his table manners (or lack thereof) and dancing skills. The actor I had the most familiarity with is the young Josh Bagley, a 7th grader at Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School in St. Louis Park whom I’ve seen a few times onstage with the Sabes JCC Youth Performance Program. Bagley and Kivens have a sweet chemistry on stage playing grandmother and grandson. I particularly liked the ritual they have around making each other promises. Whether it’s in the script or something created in the rehearsal process, it was the kind of intentional detail that made this show as enjoyable for the adults in the audience as well the under 10 crowd.

After the performance ended, the cast waited patiently in the hall to take pictures with eager youngsters, my 8-year-old included. She continued to talk about the show for the rest of the day. At an hour long, this show is a great way to spend time with those in your life who are young at heart, regardless of their age.

The Chanukah Guest plays now through December 18th at the Hillcrest Community Center in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul. There is a new performance added for 3 p.m. Dec. 9. Tickets are available online.

Original Source: https://tcjewfolk.com/jew-review-the-chanukah-guest/

‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ a Family-Friendly Winner

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Actors Joe Wiener as “fat goblin” and Charles Numrich as “Hershel of Ostropol” in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins." (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ a Family-Friendly Winner

by Lonny Goldsmith in jewish organizationsTheater December 8, 2017

There’s an intimacy of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s performance space at the Highland Community Center that lets the audience sit a few feet from the actors on stage. When it’s children that sit in those seats, as they did at the Dec. 7 opening of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, they were able to get up close and personal with an imaginative and fun production.

This is the fifth time that the MJTC has put on the show based on the book by Eric A. Kimmel and directed by Shelli Place. The show opened a couple minutes prior to the ticket time, as the four townspeople (played by Neal Beckman, Kim Kivens, Julie Ann Nevill and Joe Wiener), came on stage and began setting up their props, asking stage manager Matthew Meeks to test out sound effects and lighting, and even getting the input from the audience to bump up some of the lightning sound effects late in the show.

Artistic Director Barbara Brooks said that she wrote that new open for the show as a way to make theater feel more accessible to the children – and it was successful. The classes that walked over from a nearby elementary school were instantly engaged.

Once the show starts, the audience becomes members of Helmsbergville, the Eastern European village where the Hanukkah goblins inhabit the synagogue and prevent the townspeople from celebrating the holiday. The actors – the four townspeople and Hershel of Ostropol (played by Charles Numrich) rely on the audience to play a part to keep the show moving. To the credit of the audience on opening morning, the feedback from a crowd of children didn’t hold up the show at all.

The show clocks in at just over an hour and moves along at a good clip, although it feels like it drags a bit where Hershel interacts with the goblins, which are beautiful puppets designed by Ivey Award-winner Chris Griffith. But what helps is how well the actors who play the townspeople use the goblin puppets. It adds a layer of physical comedy to the well-delivered script.

Overall, the show is really a winner. It’s fun and funny, with even the occasional pun that flew over an elementary schoolers head. But at the end of the day, you get accessible entertainment that embraces the miracle of Hanukkah.

Performances: Sundays, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. (Dec. 17 only), Monday-Friday, 9:45* and 11:45* a.m.

*Limited availabiity, please call in advance. For school group opportunities, please contact the box office at 651-647-4315.

All performances held at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul, MN 55116. The theater is fully accessible.

To order tickets, call the Box Office at 651-647-4315 or contact www.mnjewishtheatre.org