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

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FEBRUARY 17, 2019 — 5:29PM

Rohan Preston@ROHANPRESTON

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.


“Actually”

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


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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/

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/

Talkin' Broadway Regional Reviews: The Last Schwartz

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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Last Schwartz
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of ScapinOleannaI Come from Arizona and Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn

Heidi Fellner and Emily Dussault   Photo by Sarah Whiting

Heidi Fellner and Emily Dussault
Photo by Sarah Whiting

Ritual gatherings to commemorate family milestones are often fraught with emotions that strain family ties. Such events have a way of reinforcing old roles and strictures that, in the rest of their lives, family members have left behind. For some families these are the only times the entire group gets together. The unveiling service commonly practiced by American Jews is such an occasion. It marks the installation of a memorial stone at the departed family member's gravesite, held any time after the sheloshim, or thirty-day mourning period until the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death. An unveiling is a far less ritualized event than a funeral, with only immediate family and the closest friends typically present, and has no set liturgy. Ritual without structure.

The Last Schwartz, Deborah Zoe Laufer's play impressively mounted by Minnesota Jewish Theater Company, is set on the occasion of the unveiling for Emanuel Schwartz. Manny's four grown children gather in their childhood home, a house built by their grandparents in rural upstate New York. Norma assumes the position of family head and keeper of traditions. Among them, she alone still practices Judaism with any fidelity. She is also self-appointed guardian of their parents' home, constantly barking things like "get your feet off Mama's table." She takes charge of organizing the unveiling service, assuming none of the others care. She is right, but her presumptions still grate on the others.

Brother Herb is a financier, who doesn't seem to have strong feelings about much, except a desire to keep things low key and keep Norma off his back. Herb's weepy wife Bonnie can never do anything to suit Norma. Bonnie's dream of having children has gone unmet after several miscarriages. Youngest brother Gene is an aspiring director whose career thus far has taken him to TV commercials. He arrives in the unexpected company of Kia, an air-headed, well-endowed model he cast in a recent ad campaign.

The fourth Schwartz sibling, Simon, sits silently, dressed in white and peering through a telescope. Eventually, we realize that he is possibly autistic. He was never diagnosed and is high functioning—in fact, he is an astronomer and had been working at an observatory in Australia—but none the less, his mind marches to its own beat. He is also going blind and is developing intolerance to tactile stimulation.

As in most such plays, an array of issues surface during the family's brief time together, including the future of the ancestral house itself. Norma wants to keep the house and pass it on to the children. Herb wants to sell it, a burdensome expense they will never use, and besides, he points out, "what children?," noting the absence of a new generation of Schwartzes. This launches Norma on a harangue about the survival of the Jewish people. Simon calmly interjects that not only Jews, but the entire human race, are not much longer for this earth. Other issues course among them, as secrets and long ago hurts spill out. Amid this brood, Kia is a loose cannon, stirring a mix of clueless indelicacy and cunning mischief.

In the early going, The Last Schwartz feels like a well-written domestic comedy, with frequent laugh lines and the personality of each character quickly established so that we can catch the humor in their true-to-form responses to each other. As we get deeper into the collective Schwartz psyche, we are shown that a residue of pain is part of their family inheritance. Laufer's adept writing handles this transition with tenderness, while keeping the play aloft with humor so that it never bogs down in maudlin excess.

It is also extremely smart. For example, when Gene begins to be embarrassed by Kia's non-stop, vapid chatter, he tells her "you seem different to me here than in the city." She assures him she's the same person, and he realizes she is right—it is he that is different. The vestiges of his family have rekindled standards he has allowed to lapse. In spite of himself, he is still the youngest son of the Schwartz family, at least in the presence of their company.

Warren Bowles directs with an affectionate hand for these people, all well-meaning, given the roles and circumstances life has handed them. Their flaws which could easily cause us to turn away, yet each Schwartz family member—even brittle, judgmental Norma—reveals a deep core of humanity that asks us to care about them. There is something of an enduring Schwartz family essence, even without any of them knowing what that is. But it is rapidly fraying, and one of them may well be the last Schwartz.

Laufer gives the female actors in more to work with than the males. Laura Stearns Adams is superb as Norma, a fireball of angry righteousness who sees it as her duty to uphold family and Jewish identity, keeping the shadows of her own heartache well hidden. She is calling Kia and Bonnie back to their assigned table-setting tasks, disgusted by their dereliction of duty. Later she reveals the deep hurt that she carries with her and draws us to her side, even after it has been so easy to hate her. Heidi Fellner plays Bonnie, impressing early on as a whimpering, needy and dependent woman, but revealing depth and strength as we learn more about the path she has traveled. Emily Dussault is hilarious as totally self-absorbed Kia, whose belief system is based on having fun and whose lack of boundaries is shockingly genuine. When a moment arises for Kia to show actual feelings for someone else's plight, Dussault makes palpable Kia's mighty effort to attain a semblance of empathy.

Matt Sciple is rock solid as Herb, long suffering in abiding Bonnie's neediness, and long suffering in tolerating Norma's shrewish dominance over the clan. We feel his pain in listening to Bonnie's rehash of her suffering, even as he distractedly works on a crossword puzzle, as well as his anxious cringe every time he fears that Norma is about to lower the boom. Damian Leverett is charming as Gene, easygoing with everyone, then feeling sabotaged by the dormant clutches of family expectations and pecking order so that he begins to feel uncomfortable with himself. Corey DiNardo is especially affecting as Simon, using a lack of affect in his voice to draw all the more importance to what Simon says. At first we hear Simon as uttering nonsense, adrift in an interior world beyond reason, but little by little DiNardo reveals a logic in Simon's perception, until it holds as much logic as the tightly wound Jewish observance and reverence for imperfect parents that drives Norma's life.

Michael Hoover has designed a modest living-dining room for the Schwartz family home, with the cozy feel of a house that has served three generations and is full of the books, photos and tchotchkes acquired over that time span. Michael Wangen's lighting is especially effective as night descends, when the Schwartz family—unable to sleep—have their darkest exchanges.

Throughout The Last Schwartz's swiftly moving ninety minutes I kept wondering about Simon. The circumstances of his life are not clearly rolled out. How does he function away from his family? How did he make it so far in life in spite of being in an orbit outside the rest of the family, and for that matter the rest of society? The ending leaves that question as a puzzlement, suggesting that perhaps it is by being outside the orbits of familiar and societal norms that survival is possible. Laufer has crafted a play that is funny, moving, authentic and provocative, and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has given it an excellent production that is well worth seeing.

The Last Schwartz, through November 11, 2018, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer; Director: Warren C. Bowles; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Robert J. Smith; Stage manager: Mark Tietz

Cast: Laura Stearns Adams (Norma) Corey DiNardo (Simon), Emily Dussault (Kia), Heidi Fellner (Bonnie), Damien Leverett (Gene), Matt Sciple (Herb).

ORIGINAL SOURCE: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/minn/minn784.html

Minnesota Jewish Theatre finds laughs in drama about a fractured family

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STAGE & ARTS
OCTOBER 24, 2018 — 11:20AM

SARAH WHITING. Above: Heidi Fellner and Matt Sciple in “The Last Schwartz.”

SARAH WHITING. Above: Heidi Fellner and Matt Sciple in “The Last Schwartz.”

Rohan Preston@ROHANPRESTON

She lit one up, and then things got a lot more relaxed.

It's just a moment in "The Last Schwartz," the latest production from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, but the whole energy of the narrative shifts when a guest at a Jewish family's country home lights a joint from the candle burning in memory of the clan's patriarch.

This family, beset by sorrows and sordid secrets, could stand to lighten up.

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer's one-act comic drama is culturally specific: It takes place around the ­yahrzeit, a Jewish mourning ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of a death. But this well-acted production by director Warren Bowles is universal in that it contains struggles over identity and legacy that vex many families.

When we meet the Schwartzes, they are all in different worlds, each of them busily talking but none of them listening.

The eldest child, Norma (Laura Stearns Adams), is a disciplinarian and enforcer who once called the cops on her now estranged son and has taken on the role of trenchant memory preserver. The oldest of her three brothers, Herb (Matt Sciple), a financial whiz who thinks money is the solution to nearly everything, is accompanied by his ignored and ambivalent wife, Bonnie (Heidi Fellner). Gene (Damian Leverett), a hot TV director, has brought along his actor girlfriend, Kia (Emily Dussault). And Simon (Corey DiNardo), an autistic astronomer, dreams of ­settling on the moon — peering through a telescope even as he's losing his eyesight.

They remain on the outs through much of the show — especially about how to care for or even to keep the family place and the complicated character of their late father — until Kia unwittingly provides that moment of levity.

The action takes place in Michael Hoover's neat, small-scale set depicting the interior of a home in New York's Catskill Mountains. Because of the rural setting, some have likened "Schwartz" to Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." "Schwartz" is closer to comic soap opera than the great dramas of yore.

While Laufer's script includes sensitive dialogue about miscarriages and abortion, there are also misfires, including a cringe-inducing sequence of jokes about conjoined twins.

Strong performances make this a show worth seeing. Dussault virtually steals the show as the breezy Kia, who snagged a part in a commercial directed by Gene and cares more about getting roles than anything else. Using physicality and phrasing, Dussault is casual but commanding as she fleshes out a thinly written beach-bum character into a full-blown deux ex machina.

Norma also is underwritten, but Adams finds some light in the grim personality of the family enforcer. As the gathering winds down, Norma seems to better understand her siblings, even if she believes they have let the family down. Sciple is a stitch as Herb (a name that may or may not be a pun), delivering stage business with expert timing and wit.

The acting company is fairly well-rounded. Fellner carries us on an emotional journey as she lays on the heart-tugging waterworks, while Leverett brings a touch of TV charisma as Gene and DiNardo imbues Simon with dreams and wonder. His character brings clarity to it all: Legacy may be important, but he would much rather look to the future.


The Last Schwartz

Who: By Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Warren C. Bowles for the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

When: 7:30 p.m.-Thu. and Wed., 8 p.m. Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 11.

Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul.

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


Rohan Preston covers theater for the Star Tribune.

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

ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-jewish-theatre-finds-laughs-in-drama-about-a-fractured-family/498428002/