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

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STAGE & ARTS

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.

See this before it’s gone: 'Collected Stories' at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

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By Pamela Espeland | 03/13/18

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Maggie Bearmon Pistner, left, and Ashley Rose Montondo in a scene from “Collected Stories.” Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Donald Margulies’ play is 22 years old, but it could have been written yesterday. The questions it raises – about authenticity, identity, cultural appropriation, and if it’s ever OK for one person to steal another’s story – are ones we’re asking today, with more heat.

In “Collected Stories,” now at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo turn in strong, layered performances as Ruth Steiner, a successful Jewish author, and Lisa Morrison, her klutzy but gifted protégé. Our first clue that Lisa sees Ruth as more than a mentor comes when Lisa says, “You were lucky. You had all that rich, wonderful Jewish stuff to draw on. … What do I have? WASP culture. Which is no culture at all.” To which Ruth replies, in one of many acid zingers, “Oh, really? Tell that to Cheever and Updike.”

Ruth’s stories are more interesting to Lisa than her own. Why not use them? And don’t bother running that idea by Ruth. After all, Ruth is always saying, “Don’t tell me about it, write it. … Telling takes away the need to write. It relieves the pressure.”  

The play is all conversation between the two women. Over time, their relationship shifts. Lisa becomes Ruth’s assistant; they are teacher-student, employer-employee, mother-daughter, friends, rivals. In what she assumes is a conf­­­­­­­­­­­idential moment, Ruth shares the story of her long-ago affair with poet Delmore Schwartz (a real person; we occasionally hear his voice and some of his poetry). Then Lisa bases her first novel on Ruth’s life.

The setting is Ruth’s sixth-floor Greenwich Village apartment. Filling it with books, art, a messy writer’s desk and comfortable chairs, scenic designer Michael Hoover makes it so inviting you don’t mind spending the evening there. It’s also thoroughly convincing. In the play’s first few moments, as Ruth struggles to open a sticky window, she leans out the opening and some audience members gasp. We’re already believing she’s high above the ground.

See this if 1) you enjoy plays about writers/artists, 2) you like smart, talky plays, 3) you want to explore the topic of appropriation, 4) you’ve wondered about Montondo. She made the news in 2013 when she stepped into the lead role of Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” at the Guthrie, after Erin Krakow backed out for a TV series the day before rehearsals were set to begin.

Four performances remain: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 1. FMI and tickets ($23-38); 651-647-4315.

SOURCE MATERIAL: https://www.minnpost.com/artscape/2018/03/see-it-s-gone-collected-stories-minnesota-jewish-theatre-company

Faith, politics, power under spotlight in strong staging of ‘Church & State’

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Matthew Rein and Miriam Schwartz are in “Church and State.” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press

October 23, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Was there a time when politics was about problem-solving instead of gaining and maintaining power? I know there was, but it sometimes seems a vague and hazy memory. So what happens when an incumbent U.S. senator, on the weekend before Election Day, decides to confront a personal crisis of faith in public? How will people react?

Well, for those invested in the Republican senator keeping his career on the ascent, the answer is obvious: “Are you crazy?” And maybe the fictional senator, Charles Whitmore, is, as he and his entourage struggle with the battle between belief and winning, playing the political game and trying to affect change.

That’s the central conflict in “Church & State,” a new play by Jason Odell Williams receiving its Twin Cities premiere in a very solid Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production. While only one of the three principal characters is Jewish — the senator’s exasperated and edge-of-panic campaign manager — the issues of faith, doubt and how to put your religion to work in your life are right in the company’s wheelhouse. While Williams’ script could be more nuanced and the production’s pace could flow more swiftly and naturally, this is a very worthwhile conversation-starter of a show.

So what set Sen. Whitmore off? Well, a gunman has shot up the elementary school his children attend, killing 29. When a blogger chats up the senator after a funeral, he’s stunned to find a man in power asking himself questions about how his view of God can co-exist with this tragedy. Like many, the senator is sick of this whole “thoughts and prayers” thing and is searching for ways to keep similar massacres from happening. And both his wife and campaign manager think that’s crazy.

Establishing the tone is tricky for this play, for at first it seems as if it’s going to be a political farce, what with its wisecracks and overlapping dialogue. But director Michael Kissin soon settles us into a place where the issues at hand get the airing they deserve without getting ponderous or preachy.

As Whitmore, Matthew Rein is every inch the career politician, projecting unflappability and friendliness, willing to toe the line of safety and predictability … until he isn’t. As campaign manager Alex Klein — a Jewish New York City Democrat hired because of her perfect track record in elections — Miriam Schwartz finds the sweet spot between toughness and vulnerability as she performs triage on a campaign she feels the senator is sabotaging.

But stealing the show out from under them is Kim Kivens as the senator’s wife, Sara Whitmore. A fascinating combination of stand-by-your-man Southern belle and Lady Macbeth of the Carolinas, Kivens’ Sara projects an air of smiling ditziness before it becomes clear that she’s the architect of her husband’s career. (“He may wear the pants in our house, but I choose the pants.”) She also expresses some very believable sympathy to her man’s crisis of faith in one of the play’s most absorbing scenes, as the two go toe-to-toe behind closed doors.

Yet don’t harbor the impression that this play is all reflection and rumination. There are a few significant plot twists within its 90 intermission-less minutes that send things off into unexpected directions. While it might eventually put too much faith in a system it’s been calling into question, that’s just one more subject for the post-show discussions you’ll likely want to have upon experiencing it.

IF YOU GO

  • What: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “Church & State”
  • When: Through Nov. 12
  • Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
  • Tickets: $38-$23; 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org/
  • Capsule: A solid staging of a thought-provoking play about faith and politics.

"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.