Theater review: 20-year-old ‘Via Dolorosa’ still relevant, rewarding​​​​​​​

By DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA | Special to the Pioneer Press

August 21, 2017 at 2:40 pm

Events and individuals in the Middle East have swept past since British playwright David Hare traveled to Israel and Palestine in late 1997 and since he first performed his one-man play, “Via Dolorosa,” a year later: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was still alive back then. Benjamin Netanyahu was serving his first term as the Israeli prime minister. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — one of Netanyahu’s predecessors — was still fresh in the mind of the world and especially the consciousness of Israelis.

But the roots of conflict in a land riven by political and religious conflict, of course, go back millennia, so a 20-year-old play has much that still resonates on the topic. The complex, multifaceted story gets strong service in a complex-but-accessible production by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, in which local actor Robert Dorfman assumes the role Hare wrote and originated.

The play draws its name from a street in Jerusalem that Christians believe to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Hare trod this road (and was disappointed), but his journeys took him much farther — from cosmopolitan Tel Aviv to a remote settlement in occupied Israeli territory; from the impoverished Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip to Ramallah, the Palestinians’ de facto capital.

It’s a lot of geography and history and politics, and if none of the names in the first paragraph of this review aren’t even remotely familiar to you, the show may be tough sledding. But both the playwright and the production offer ample entries into the story, so comprehending and appreciating “Via Dolorosa” doesn’t require undergraduate work in Middle Eastern studies, either.

And though the play draws on a handful of different perspectives in its attempt to contextualize the conflict, this is not your typical one-performer/multi-character tour de force. Dorfman intentionally doesn’t labor to affect Hare’s English accent or cadence, nor does he try for vocal or physical verisimilitude with the Israeli, Palestinian or miscellaneous other characters he represents.

When speaking as a 40-something wife and mother living in a settlement, for instance, Dorfman simply crosses his arms across his chest in a manner that suggests self-protection. As an especially ardent proponent on one side or another of the issue, he might let his eyes grow wild; his gestures sharper and more animated.

More than anything else, the 85-minute presentation — staged on Michael Hoover’s simple set made up of a pyramid of bankers’ boxes, a deskand an office chair — feels like a conversation with your smart friend trying to unravel a Gordian knot of geopolitics: At Sunday evening’s performance, in fact, an older woman in the front row felt sufficiently comfortable to provide her conversational offerings — an occurrence director Raye Birk probably did not count on in a show that unveils itself gradually and leisurely. Dorfman — poised, infinitely kind and without breaking character — deftly acknowledged and engaged with the patron on a few occasions, then adroitly steered the show back onto the road.

Though Hare postulates that the nature of the conflict in the Middle East changed fundamentally in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967 — during which Israel took control of a significant amount of territory — “Via Dolorosa” does not strongly back one particular perspective. Instead, the play almost journalistically reports on the complexities of the conflict, mulls the excruciating difficulties of finding stability and implicitly but unmistakably calls out for civility in dialogue, even during the most polarizing of times.

All of which makes this 20-year-old play about an ancient conflict half a world away seem both contemporary and close to home.

Two decades later, 'Via Dolorosa' remains a powerful and provocative work on Palestine and Israel

Tuesday, August 22, 2017 by Jay Gabler in Arts & Leisure 

The character played by Robert Dorfman in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Via Dolorosa recounts a story he heard during a trip to Israel and its occupied territories. A man falls from a burning building, and lands on another man, breaking the latter’s neck. When the man who absorbed the impact complains that his neck is broken, the man who fell protests that it wasn’t his fault — the building was on fire — and then begins breaking the man’s other bones to try to get him to stop complaining.

It’s a grim allegory, but it encapsulates the way many Palestinians feel about Israel, while also capturing the compounding tragedy of the continuing violence in a nation that was itself founded in the wake of an unimaginably vast atrocity. When will the bleeding stop and the healing begin? The answer to that question is at the core of David Hare’s probing one-man play, which debuted in 1998 but remains brutally timely.

Via Dolorosa came about as the result of a trip that Hare himself took to Israel, initially with the idea of researching a play about the political machinations between the first and second world wars. Instead, Hare found himself gripped with anxiety and fascination about the Israelis and Palestinians he met, and wrote a one-character script in which he would play himself, recounting his travels.

It’s a testament to Hare’s skill that a seemingly sui generis exercise holds up two decades later, with the British writer played by an American actor. Under the capable direction of Raye Birk, himself a well-known local actor, Dorfman doesn’t try to imitate Hare; he doesn’t even use an accent. Instead, he concentrates on telling the story, which takes us from Tel Aviv to the West Bank to Gaza to Jerusalem, where he walks the eponymous street that follows the footsteps of the condemned Christ.

Or does it? The narrator observes that we can’t really know exactly where the crucifixion happened, which invites a wider consideration of the significance of place. What are the Israelis and Palestinians fighting over, he asks: stones or ideas? The question seems abstract, but in fact it’s of critical importance to people, like a couple who live confidently and comfortably in a disputed settlement. They tell the playwright that they feel unequivocally entitled to the land. How can you void a deal with God?

Dorfman is often seen (on both stage and screen) as a character actor, but he’s more than equal to commanding the stage alone for 90 minutes. His great gift, here, is to combine a very real gravity with an impish sense of humor. His performance acknowledges the absurdities of his journey, while also telegraphing authenticity and empathy. Via Dolorosa isn’t one of Hare’s best-known plays, but it’s a powerful and provocative work that should be seen. You won’t get a better opportunity than this very fine production.

Theater review: “We Are the Levinsons” is about sending parents on their last journey

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: April 23, 2017 at 1:36 pm | UPDATED: April 24, 2017 at 11:29 am

The original article can be found HERE. 

Our parents bring us into this world — and we often have the challenge of doing the opposite, helping them to leave.

The transition can be painful or redemptive, but is usually filled with deep emotions — as is the powerful and touching world premiere, “We Are the Levinsons”, from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Although the title suggests a very personal story about one family — and indeed, it was inspired by playwright Wendy Kout’s last years with her parents — its theme resonates universally.

The “we” in the title could actually apply to all of us; we are the Levinsons, dealing in our shared humanity, whatever the circumstances, with joy and grief as we struggle to live with — and without — those we love.

We first meet Nancy Marvy as Lil, the lively and advice-spewing matriarch of the family, and center of her husband Lenny’s universe, on her birthday. She and her daughter Rosie rub each other the wrong way, and Rosie and her daughter Sara’s antagonistic relationship seems to mirror that dysfunction.

Robert Dorfman is spectacular as Lenny, who becomes the pivot point of the play. His sense of humor and mischievous smile soften Lil and Rosie’s clashes. But as age and loss take their toll, his loving relationship with his only daughter also changes. Dorfman keeps the character riveting and sympathetic throughout.

Melinda Kordich is strong and believable as the stressed daughter Rosie, and Adelin Phelps makes a convincingly angry and contemptuous Sara.  Alyssa DiVirgilio gives transgender caregiver Grace the virtue of her name, as she helps to midwife the family into new lives.

Kout’s play stresses the importance of family — of love — even when the members of a clan don’t always get along. Grace provides a wonderful outsider’s perspective that eventually helps Rosie and Sara to grasp the preciousness of their bond.

As the story takes unexpected turns, director Kurt Schweickhardt helps us navigate shifts in a way that feels natural. Emotional intensity retains strength without the interruption of an intermission.

This is heartbreaking stuff, but there are also wonderful laughs and likable characters that imbue us with hope. It leaves you with a sense that new beginnings are possible, even in the wake of difficult endings.

IF YOU GO

  • What: “We Are the Levinsons”
  • Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy, St. Paul
  • When: Through May 14
  • Tickets: $20-34
  • Information: mnjewishtheatre.org; 651-647-4315
  • Capsule: A wonderful world premiere, with humor and heart 

Review: 'Promised land' takes on new meaning in tale of Jewish slave owner

By LISA BROCK | Special to the Star Tribune
FEBRUARY 6, 2017 — 2:27PM

The original article can be found HERE.

Near the end of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Whipping Man,” three men sit on the floor of a ransacked Southern mansion after the Civil War, celebrating a makeshift Passover meal.

One, a recently freed slave, segues from reciting the ritual language of the Seder into singing the African-American spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” It’s a moment fraught with pain and illumination that binds together this play’s disparate threads as tightly as a knot.

Matthew Lopez’s play delves into a little-considered facet of history: Many Jews in the South owned slaves and raised them in their beliefs. At the same time, Lopez takes a hard look at the legacy of slavery, the dynamics of power and the meaning of faith, giving this work a sense of immediacy.

The play opens in a thunderstorm as Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Riley O’Toole) staggers home, wounded and delirious, at the end of the Civil War. He finds his house in ruins and his family fled, leaving behind only Simon, a former slave played by Warren C. Bowles. The two men are soon joined by John (JuCoby Johnson), another former slave who’s taken to looting abandoned homes and bingeing on stolen liquor. Over three days, while these men deal with such grim tasks as the amputation of Caleb’s gangrenous leg, they reveal closely held secrets, lies and existential dilemmas.

Simon serves as the drama’s moral touchstone, a patriarchal embodiment of conscience, and Bowles lends the role a beautifully understated yet powerful authority. In contrast to his quiet rectitude and stoic faith, the two younger men flail in frenetic confusion. Johnson’s John is a mercurial gadfly whose scathing verbal repartee descends into stuttering incoherence as he reveals the physical and psychic damage lifelong slavery has inflicted upon him. O’Toole teeters between arrogance and tears as Caleb is forced to examine the ugly reality behind his illusions of a romantic South.

“The Whipping Man” tends more toward talk than action (aside from the gruesome amputation) but noted actress Sally Wingert, in a solid directorial debut, maintains a taut pace right through to the harrowing conclusion. Michael Hoover’s set, the skeletal husk of an antebellum mansion, and Paul Epton’s atmospheric lighting reinforce the bleakness of these characters’ situations as they must each forge a new path.

Penumbra Theatre mounted this play in 2009, but MJTC deserves credit for recognizing that its timeliness and the powerful conundrum it embodies merit a luminous second look.