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

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's 'Collected Stories' takes sharp look at writerly theft

 
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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

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“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/

‘Collected Stories’ gathers compelling ideas, performances

 
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Ashley Rose Montondo, left, and Maggie Bearmon Pistner are in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “Collected Stories.” (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2018 at 3:35 pm | UPDATED: February 26, 2018 at 11:52 am

In a two-character play, each of the actors has a lot riding on her shoulders. A strong show requires stellar performances. Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Ashley Rose Montondo show us how it’s done in “Collected Stories” from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Pistner vividly portrays a famous Jewish author (Ruth Steiner), as prickly as she is brilliant, who mentors promising young students from the college where she teaches. Montondo aptly conveys the anxiety and awkwardness of an immature college girl (Lisa Morrison) who desperately wants to impress the author she worships.

That intersection of an aging, irritated diva with a dorky, raw talent sets up lots of plot-driving conflict while grappling with questions of ethics in writing, professional jealousy, the sad march of time and how the events of our lives — and the people we meet — profoundly shape us.

Literary questions about truth and fiction resonate in our era of supposed “fake news.” If an author exaggerates or makes up events when talking about her real life, is that permissible fiction — or lies?  If an author mines her life for people and plot points to turn into fiction, is that acceptable in spite of whom she might hurt, or is it too close to reality?

Every novel has a disclaimer at the front which states that it’s a work of fiction and any character’s resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental. But what if the resemblance is NOT coincidental? What if the author steals sensitive and private material from someone else’s life, spewing it out there for all the world to see?

These are questions worth grappling with, and playwright Donald Margulies sets them up well. He also preemptively signals the show’s finale when Lisa tells Ruth that she doesn’t like the ending of her latest story and Ruth replies that real life is not always tidy or happy; it’s messy.

The ending to the play seems unfinished because the relationship between the two characters is not resolved after the final onstage conflict. That feels disappointing, but is in line with Ruth’s (and presumably Margulies’) philosophy on fictional denouements.

In addition to staging a compelling production that she cast brilliantly, director Jennie Ward partnered with talented production artists who add much to the show.

Michael Hoover’s elaborate design of Ruth’s apartment really conveys the personality of the author and gives Ward many different places to play with the characters, keeping the one-set production dynamic. The costume, lighting, sound and prop designers also deserve kudos for bringing the scenes — and ’90s era — to life.

“Collected Stories” is a fascinating show of conflict and ideas with spirited characters — and an ending that doesn’t put a period on their story.

If you go

  • What: “Collected Stories”
  • Where:  Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
  • When: Through March 18
  • Tickets: $38-$23; 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org
  • Capsule:  Compelling performances and ideas

ORIGINAL SOURCE: https://www.twincities.com/2018/02/25/theater-review-collected-stories-gathers-compelling-ideas-performances/

‘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