Review - The Whipping Man - Minnesota Jewish Theatre - They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore - 5 stars

By Matthew Everett
Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The original review can be read HERE.

The Whipping Man is a quiet little surprise of a theatrical production, and that is a most welcome thing.  I missed Penumbra Theatre’s regional premiere of Matthew Lopez’s play eight years ago but it’s easy to see how it became one of the most produced plays in regional theaters around the country in recent years.  And it’s not just because it’s a single set, three-person show that makes it logistically easier for a theater to produce.  They don’t really write plays like The Whipping Man much anymore, which makes me appreciate it even more fully.  

“You don’t get to be free.  You work to be free.”

The Whipping Man is a play that just allows three richly drawn characters to exist in the same space together in varying combinations, and over the course of the story, these three people just keep revealing new things about themselves, one layer at a time.  The revelations keep coming right up into the very closing minutes of the play.  And it’s not filled with a lot of melodrama or wailing and bombast.  These characters feel things very deeply, and have a lot of cause for grievance, but they don’t get what they want with a lot of yelling and screaming.  It’s the quite moments in The Whipping Man that are the most telling, including that final, very loaded moment when the lights begin to the fade at the end of the play.  A moment filled with a strange kind of hope.  A hope we desperately need right now.  Put a story like this in the hands of a talented director - Sally Wingert - and three skilled actors - Warren C. Bowles, JuCoby Johnson, and Riley O’Toole - as the Minnesota Jewish Theatre does, and you’ve got a powerful piece of theater.

“Don’t question me about the history of this house.  I know the history of this house.”

The Whipping Man takes place at the end of the Civil War (I know, I know, I had the same knee-jerk “Oh man, I’m not sure I want to go there right now” response, but go there, you get an enormous payoff).  A young Jewish Confederate soldier (yes, apparently we had those, I feel slightly remiss in my education) Caleb DeLeon (O’Toole) returns to his family estate to find it looted and in ruins. But an oldfaithful family servant, Simon (Bowles), now a free man rather than a slave thanks to President Lincoln, still stands guard over the house. A younger freed slave who is Caleb’s age named John (Johnson) also soon makes an appearance.  John has been helping himself to the contents of unguarded neighboring estates and now returns to the DeLeon place, which was also once his home.  Though absent, Caleb’s father, and Simon’s wife and daughter, all cast long shadows over the memory and relationships of the three men taking refuge in the ravaged homestead.  Caleb has been wounded in one of the Civll War’s final battles and it’s up to Simon and John, who can no longer be commanded, but only asked, to help keep Caleb alive.  All these men have something to fear, and all these men have something to hide.  But at the same time they all have something to hope for.  And that’s what ultimately makes The Whipping Man such a satisfying experience.

“War is not proof of God’s absence.  War is proof of God’s absence from men’s hearts.”

To say too much more would give away some of the many interesting surprises and turns in the plot and character revelations, and in the case of The Whipping Man, it’s really best to go in blind and go on the journey.  Honestly, I heard “beloved Twin Cities actress Sally Wingert makes her directorial debut” and I didn’t even care what the play was.  I wanted to see it.  The three actors involved just sweetened the deal. 

“You did it because you could; simple as that.”

[Strange side note: the only other time I’d heard of The Whipping Man was in the context of the show Thatswhatshesaid, a performance art piece that touched down twice in Minneapolis before heading home to Seattle and causing no end of controversy. The premise was simple: take TCG’s list of new plays most produced by regional theaters around the US in a given season; thread together the lines and stage directions dealing with the female characters in those plays. First the plays written by women (the minority), then the plays written by men. Off to the side of the stage, someone performs the idea of turning the pages of the play, seeking out the next line for a female character. The Whipping Man was on the most produced list.  The Whipping Man has no female characters.  For the section having to do with The Whipping Man in Thatswhatshesaid, the audience got to sit and listen to the sound of 72 pages being turned.  On to the next play…]

“Like it or not, we are a family.”

The Whipping Man deals with the thorny topics of race, privilege, free will, and the human family large and small in ways that are so firmly rooted in these particular characters whom we care about, that you feel the impact, for better or worse, of the choices these people make and the society in which they make them.  We don’t get sidetracked so much by what they say, and are able to focus on what they do, and what it means.  The Whipping Man deals in hard truths in a surprisingly gentle but still powerful way.  It doesn’t spare the audience, but it also doesn’t attack them.  Nor does it leave the audience without hope.  These days, that’s a great and necessary thing for a piece of theater to do.  We could use more theater like Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s production of The Whipping Man(running through February 26, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

DAI (enough) | Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

by Arthur Dorman
Talkin' Broadway
Thursday, August 25, 2016

The small stage of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has been transformed into a modest café or coffee shop in Tel Aviv with five bistro tables, each accompanied by one, two or three straight-back chairs. Hanging on the backs of the chairs are various garments, silently awaiting their purpose. In the course of DAI (enough), a shockwave of a play, each of those garments will come to life for nine or ten minutes, only to have that life pulverized by the deadly force of a bomb, courtesy of a suicide bomber.

Miriam Schwartz is the entire cast of DAI (enough), playing nine different customers at that café, as well as a British television journalist who interviews all of them. Slipping into a shirt, or skirt, or jacket, with appropriately matched shoes, Schwartz uses accents, posture, gestures and pacing to make each of these characters—eight women and two men—to life. It is a tour de force performance, capturing the essence of each of these characters—their worries, their joys, their quirks, and most of all, the commonality they share, in spite of their differences.

At the start of DAI (enough), Schwartz is journalist Christiane Saloniki on assignment in Israel. Her recent interviews of Arabs in Lebanon brought charges against her that she was biased in their favor and could not provide fair and balanced perspective on Israeli viewpoints toward the stand-off in the Middle East. Talking with her producer in London—who is also her boyfriend—Christiane asserts that she could not possibly be anti-Semitic, since all people of the Middle East—Arabs as well as Jews—are Semites, and she herself is part Syrian. She goes over her strategy for conducting the interviews, and is ready to go ... and then ... the first explosion.

Each of the other characters, the customers at the café, in turn speak as if Christiane is interviewing them, diving into monologues that lay their story and perspective bare. There is a Latina actress who claimed to be Jewish to win a movie role; a kibbutznik seeing his younger son off to military duty while his older son was left a cripple from his army service; a flamboyant, self-satisfied ex-pat living on Long Island and scornful of Israel, who has come to see her ailing mother; a Brooklyn-born West Bank settler, her many young children in tow, arguing vehemently against withdrawal from the occupied territories; a German gay man who came to Israel to be with his Israeli boyfriend; a Russian prostitute; a young American who volunteered in the Israeli army after her parents, holocaust survivors, passed away, and learns she has two aunts, also holocaust survivors, in Israel; a "raver chick" passing out flyers for a "party for peace"—a party at which ecstasy erases the barriers of race, language, religion and history; and a Palestinian professor struggling to keep her son out of the influence of extremists.

Serious as the overall sensibility of DAI (enough) is, there is humor woven into some of the monologues, such as Alma, the ex-pat, bragging that she has been welcomed back to Israel like the Queen of England. There also are startling insights. When Svetlana, the Russian prostitute, admits that she and her husband are not Jewish and had to pay $50 in Russia for false papers to present themselves as Jews in order to immigrate to Israel, she adds, "Can you imagine, paying $50for a paper that says you are a Jew. When in history did that ever happen before? Never!" That speaks volumes about the unique place Israel holds in the Jewish world.

Warren Bowles's direction maintains the necessary fluidity to overcome the trauma as each character is literally stopped dead in his or her tracks, with no time to reflect or question what just happened, underscoring the reality that amidst constant threat of violence, even death, life must go on. Playwright Iris Bahr lived in Israel from age 13 through her mandatory military service. Perhaps that contributes to writing that is extraordinarily sharp, true to human nature, and respectful of each speaker's specific point of view about their life and their presence in Israel, whatever the circumstances.

Miriam Schwartz's performance gives flesh and voice to Bahr's words. As she wordlessly slips from one character's garb into another each time the bomb explodes, we are completely convinced of her transition—or perhaps it is a resurrection—to a wholly new person. Last year, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company launched its season with another one-woman play starring Schwartz, Becoming Dr. Ruth, about the iconic sex therapist. Schwartz was charming, and effectively conveyed the wide scope of Dr. Ruth's biography, but her work in DAI (enough) reaches a whole new level, placing her among the very best among the richly talented Twin Cities community of actors.

Every element of this production works. Michael Hoover's spare set is perfect for the occasion, with shelves of pottery—jars, bowls, cups—across the back of the café signifying the fragility of life in those environs. Liz Josheff Busa's costumes perfectly represent each character and enable Schwartz' transition, in view of the audience, from one to another. Paul Epton repeatedly provides the burst of light that accompanies each explosion, while Anita Kelling creates the horrific sound of the bomb's force, each time followed by a cacophony of sirens, screams, wailing babies, and God knows what. Their work brings a visceral response from the audience, and is humbling in the face of those who have actually lived through such terrible events.

Dai is the Hebrew word for "enough." The meaning of the title might be interpreted in different ways. There has been enough (far more than enough) killing. There is enough common humanity among these people, among all of us, to make a case for laying down arms. Just ten minutes with each character is enough to know them as a real and whole person, to recognize both the unique and common aspects of being human. It is noteworthy that DAI (enough) was first performed (by the playwright) ten years ago. None of the ills depicted in the play have abated, and one can easily make a case that conditions have worsened.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has scheduled DAI (enough) for a very short run of two weeks. That leaves little time to get the word out about this powerful play and extraordinary performance. If not too late, you will want to make this high priority theater. Otherwise, perhaps MJTC will be able to bring this production back so that a wider audience can be enriched by its essential message and unflinching artistry.

Reviewed: Miriam Schwartz Excels As 10 Characters In ‘Dai’

by Caleigh Gumbiner
Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s current production of Israeli-American performance artist Iris Bahr’s “Dai” (Enough) follows through on the company’s mission to and legacy of “Telling stories of our common search for identity”.

Running now until August 31, “Dai” is set in a café in 2006 Tel Aviv moments before a bombing. The show is comprised of 10 monologues from 10 characters performed by one actress, Miriam Schwartz. It was noted in the playbill the play originally featured 11, but one character was struck from the play at the author’s request.

With only outerwear to mark the various characters, Schwartz performs a range of identities from a young Israeli military man to an expatriated woman visiting from New York to a Palestinian professor. Directed by the decorated Warren Bowles, the production moves along at a steady, albeit frustratingly even, pace.

The show refers to itself as a solo performance rather than a play. While there are clear through-lines and connections between each of the characters, the performance avoids a single, linear narrative, which ultimately compliments the multiplicity of perspectives featured.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s producing artistic director and founder Barbara Brooks had a particular challenge when choosing the pieces this year. How would a Jewish theatre company focused on telling stories about common searches for identity respond to a rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, and a refugee crisis pushing more and more Americans towards lashing out in fear? Brooks and MJTC chose to push back with a piece that attempts to remind us of the humanity each person holds no matter how different they may be. With only one Palestinian character, the play feels a bit lopsided towards a Jewish perspective. However, considering the demographic of MJTC’s audience, this move proves a welcoming way to open a conversation, hopefully to be continued into an even more equitable dialogue.

Brooks’ choice reflects a special moment in theatre across the Twin Cities. More and more productions are consciously shining the spotlight on identities usually consigned to the outskirts of narratives.

Across the river back in Minneapolis, the Guthrie’s new artistic director, Joseph Haj, chose to stage “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar. This play follows a Pakistani-American man’s struggle with his ethnic and religious background in the face of racism and Islamophobia in a post-9/11 New York.

“Disgraced” and “Dai” take different approaches to identity politics. However, both productions stage Muslim, Christian, and Jewish characters together in the same space. These choices reflect a desire from these communities for equitable, intersectional dialogue. We want to talk to each other. We want to know each other. We are using our theatres as the first line of communication. Hopefully, these lines of communication will continue to extend past the theatres.

This review was made possible in part with support from the Howard B. & Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment, a fund of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Foundation, and Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. 

"DAI (enough)" by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at Highland Park Center Theater

by Jill Schafer
Cherry and Spoon
Sunday, August 21, 2016

When I returned from this afternoon's performance of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's DAI (enough), I sat down at my computer, opened up the internet, and saw the headline "Palestinian rocket strikes Israel, drawing Israeli reprisal." When will this decades-long conflict be over? When is enough enough? I'm not going to pretend to know enough about this issue to speak intelligently about it, but this new production by MJTC certainly does. Or rather, it tells the very specific stories of ten people gathered in a cafe in Tel Aviv in 2006, as portrayed by one actor. It's a devastating look at the impact of the never-ending violence on human lives, in addition to being a completely engaging and entertaining play.

Playwright Iris Bahr (who was born in the Bronx and lived and served in the military in Israel) has performed this piece around the world. But in this production we only have her beautiful, funny, dark, moving words; the performance is in the very capable hands of local actor Miriam Schwartz, under the clear direction of Warren C. Bowles. Having previously proven she can transform herself into a famous 69-year-old sex therapist, Miriam here transforms herself into people as varied as a British TV reporter, a German man, an Israeli kibbutznik, and a Russian prostitute. In a series of ten monologues, she brings these people to life as full and complicated characters, mastering the accent and attitude of each one.

Each monologue ends with a (spoiler alert) bomb exploding, with a flash of light and loud boom that startled me every single time, even when I knew it was coming (lighting by Paul Epton and sound by Anita Kelling). That's how caught up I was in the storytelling, that I forgot to brace myself for the upcoming shock. Liz Josheff Busa's costumes help Miriam easily slip into and out of character. Dressed in black pants and top, she dons shoes, shirt, and accessory and becomes someone else, until she sheds the character, letting it slowly drop to the floor before moving on to the next one. Michael Hoover's clean and simple set design of cafe tables and chairs, with a long shelf full of cool toned dishes, provides the backdrop for the stories.

DAI (enough) doesn't provide any answers to the conflict; some characters couldn't care less about it, they're simply in Israel to work or live or love, while others would sacrifice their life for their cause and country. But it does give voice to the people of Israel and their very human stories. This compelling, well-written, beautifully acted, devastating play continues through August 31.