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

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (enhanced) MEDIUM.jpg

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

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

Church & State Actors Matthew Rein and Miriam Schwartz.jpg

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.

Talkin' Broadway Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Via Dolorosa
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Philemon and Baucis: A Planet in Peril

Robert Dorfman
Photo by Sarah Whiting

In November 1997, esteemed English playwright David Hare (PlentySkylightStuff Happens), travelled to Israel and Palestine to gather research for a proposed play about the British Palestinian Mandate, the League of Nation's award to Great Britain of supervision over the former Ottoman territory following World War I. The Mandate lasted through World War II, when Great Britain exited and a United Nations vote divided the territory and created the state of Israel. Once there, however, Hare found himself overwhelmed by the challenges he observed at every turn, from the grim determination of Jewish residents of West Bank settlements to strife over access to the Temple Mound in Jerusalem, from the desperation of Palestinians in Gaza to the manic hedonism of Tel Aviv. He put aside his history play in favor of soaking up all he could about the land's volatile present. The result is his one man play, Via Dolorosa, currently running at Minnesota Jewish Theater Company.

In Via Dolorosa, Hare has not created characters. The only character on stage is Hare himself, who is quick to claim from the start that he is no actor. He is simply reporting what he learned from his interviews and observations. He repeats conversations but does not try to "play the part" of anyone but himself. Instead of a cavalcade if Israeli and Palestinian types we have only Hare, an English gentile, striving to distill this bombardment of input into some kind of logical understanding.

Of course, David Hare is not on stage in Saint Paul. He is played by Robert Dorfman, a sensitive and ingratiating actor who projects a generosity of spirit and openness to conflicting ideas. For much of the play's ninety minutes, Dorfman portrays the playwright as intrigued, charmed and amused by the intensity and hopelessness he encounters. Not that he is dismissive of generations of pain, distrust and intransigence, but rather that his response to Israel and Palestine's existential crisis is one of tenderness, and also of distance: their terrible problems are not his. Only near the end, upon visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum, does he appear shaken. Finally, he sets aside the plight of Moslems and Jews to wonder about Christians—surprised that they seem to matter so little in this land that gave birth to their faith, too. Here the play reaches its namesake, the Via Dolorosa, thought to be the path walked by Jesus to his crucifixion, a walk meant to bring about redemption to the sins of humanity. Hare seems to make a connection between ancient tribal acrimony and his own history.

Directed by Raye Birk, the play follows a gradual but steady rise that gathers intensity, along the same arc as Dorfman's Hare. The backdrop is a wall made up of banker boxes—scores of them—containing Hare's notes from his journey, a visual representation of the massive amount of input, ideas, words and images that, for all their volume, led to no solution. There are subtle lighting shifts as Hare describes movement from one location to another, and sound cues—his arriving jet plane, Tel Aviv traffic, squawking sounds of a Palestinian village, the Mediterranean surf in Gaza—help to establish each place.

Things have gotten no better, and some would argue they have gotten worse, since 1998 when Via Dolorosa premiered in London, with Hare playing himself, followed by a Broadway mounting in 1999. At that time, the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who championed them (by another Jew—unthinkable!) were still very much front of mind for the Israelis. The brutal reality that resulted from the transfer of Gaza to "limited self-government" was a fresh wound to Palestinians, and Yasser Arafat was still a living, active player. And yet, the myopic rhetoric by which each side justifies its position, and the fatalistic responses of "I don't know" when Hare asks his interview subjects, "What is the way forward?" sound like today's news.

Though we have seen and heard much of this before—just last August, Minnesota Jewish Theater gave us the riveting DAI (enough)—and Hare's facts are not the most current, his engaged reportage cuts to the bone. Hare adds to that imagery, comparing the jarring contrast between Israel and Gaza to leaving California and entering Bangladesh. Another time, Hare is taken aback upon seeing Jews in West Bank settlements floating in their swimming pools while Palestinians walk on dusty roads hauling buckets of water to their homes. The dilemma for Jews is well framed by a former military leader who opines that conquering land is a very un-Jewish thing, the result of the game-changing Six Day War in 1967 and that the quandary now bedeviling Israel's soul is to decide "what really matters, stones or ideas."

Via Dolorosa is a potent addition to the canon of theater that deals with the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, a crisis without end. Given the venue, one would expect that most audience members will arrive fairly familiar with Hare's topic, if not all the names and places he gives us. What they will gain is Hare's crisp, incisive and untarnished depiction of the landscape and the people whose lives and futures are depend upon its resolution.

Via Dolorosa continues through August 27, 2017, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota. Tickets: $39.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by David Hare; Director: Raye Birk; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume and Properties Design: Liz Josheff Busa; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Stage manager: Haley Walsh

Cast: Robert Dorfman (The Author)