Jew Review: ‘The Chanukah Guest’


by Orit Ackerman

December 4, 2018

Bradley Hildebrandt and Kim Kivens in The Chanukah Guest 3 - medium.jpg

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.

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Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s ‘What I Thought I Knew’ is compelling, engaging​​​​​​​

Kim Kivens portrays 38 characters in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Sarah Whiting

Kim Kivens portrays 38 characters in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Sarah Whiting

By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press

August 20, 2018 at 12:03 pm

In 1999, Alice Eve Cohen got a big surprise. The 44-year-old solo theater artist and teacher became ill, and the assessments of doctors ranged from typical menopause symptoms to the possibility of ovarian cancer. Not until she underwent a CAT scan was it revealed that what was inside her was not a tumor but a fetus entering its third trimester.

Her experience became an award-winning memoir that Cohen then adapted into a one-woman show, portraying 38 characters from her odyssey through the American health care system and the tough terrain of a high-risk pregnancy. Her play has also won awards, and now Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is presenting the first production of “What I Thought I Knew” that doesn’t feature Cohen herself on stage.

Taking on this daunting task is Kim Kivens, an actor whose most memorable local performances have come while crafting uproariously funny characters. And Kivens’ comedic skills definitely come into play in “What I Thought I Knew,” but this is a performance of tremendous depth and breadth, taking the audience to Cohen’s most disarmingly intimate thoughts and vexing sorrows. Over the course of 95 intermission-less minutes, the story unfailingly engages, its pace and vivid characterizations making it the theatrical equivalent of a page turner.

While intensely personal, Cohen’s play also bears many a touchstone of commonality for audience members. Parents will offer knowing nods as Kivens describes the emotional peaks and plummets of pregnancy, and anyone who’s ever been exasperated by the American medical system will find that pot stirred within them. And seeking spiritual assistance through a difficult time will no doubt ring true for many, Cohen articulating well how her relatively dormant Judaism was activated during this process.

Director Jennie Ward has done a splendid job of helping shape Kivens’ characters, but may have erred in her decision to leave the house lights up throughout the performance, likely for the purpose of making the piece feel more like conversation than theater. If in darkness, I think the opening-night audience would have laughed a lot more and felt free to verbalize their reactions, thus increasing the energy level inside the Highland Park Community Center’s theater.

Yet there’s plenty of energy onstage, Kivens flowing fleetly through 28 chapters of this story, writing the titles of each on a chalkboard. The settings are only subtly suggested, all the better for quick changes between the New York apartment our protagonist shares with her fiancé and the young daughter they’ve previously adopted to the multifarious clinics she visits, never quite finding diagnostic skills and bedside manner in the same doctor. And Kivens really shows her versatility in the classroom in which Cohen is teaching solo theater skills, rapidly transforming into a disparate group of students, one of whom forges a very touching bond with the teacher.

The journey takes us through suicidal thoughts, internal debates about abortion and adoption, questions about having an intersex child or one with a disability, the harrowing “home stretch” of the pregnancy and beyond. In addition to crafting an endearing companion in Cohen, Kivens transforms into such colorful characters as her young daughter, the tough-talking older male doctor who lays out her options, a dancer designing her end-of-life experience, and a Borscht Belt comedian of a doula.

So fast-paced is the story that it wasn’t until afterward that I contemplated that Kivens and director Ward could have made more palpable Cohen’s crisis of faith about modern medicine, the words conveying a sense of crushing disappointment but genuine sadness kept at arm’s length. That might have made this rich experience even richer, but the story is so compelling, the performance so strong, that you’ll want to join her on this journey.

If You Go

  • What: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew”

  • When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28-30

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

  • Tickets: $38-$23, available at 651-647-4315 or

  • Capsule: A compelling one-woman show about a pregnancy and the American health care system.

Comment /Source
Pioneer Press, Rob Hubbard, What I Thought I Knew, , Alice Eve Cohen, Kim Kivesn, , Jennie Ward, Anita Kelling, Paul Epton, Barbara Brooks, St. Paul, Minnesota, , Jewish Theater, One Woman Show, Performance


Pregnancy rocks a middle-aged woman's world in Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company show



Kim Kivens in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew.” photo by sarah whiting.

Kim Kivens in the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “What I Thought I Knew.” photo by sarah whiting.

AUGUST 20, 2018 — 9:49PM - by Rohan Preston

Actor Kim Kivens does not hold up a picture of an aborted late-term fetus in “What I Thought I Knew,” a solo show that opened Saturday at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Playing a medical clinic employee, she describes what happens to the fetus in low-key, clinical terms.

It’s chilling. At Saturday’s opening, some audience members winced and recoiled.

But even as those details pass, there’s hardly any escape from the harrowing larger story that is coolly unspooled over the 100 minutes of Alice Eve Cohen’s autobiographical one-act play. Performed with immediacy, power and occasional humor by Kivens, and staged with effective simplicity by Jennie Ward, “What I Thought I Knew” takes us on a gripping ride even as it raises moral and practical questions.

Cohen, a New York-based writer and theater teacher who adapted this show from a best-selling memoir, had been told all her life that she was infertile. So she adopted a child, even as she keeps up a regimen that includes hormone treatments.

Now, at 44, she has an unexplained growth in her abdomen. Her doctors think it may be a tumor, something related to menopause. After a battery of tests, she finds out she is six months’ pregnant.

All sorts of questions arise.Cohen has had no prenatal care. Ultrasounds reveal a fetus with a number of complications. Cohen considers her options, from abortion to adoption to keeping the child. She often seems alone in her deliberations, though she has a partner — amusician who’s 10 years younger and always on the road — as well as her daughter, who is now 8.

There’s not much of a set on the stage of the Highland Park Community Center, where MJTC’s shows are performed. There’s a chalkboard on which the narrator writes chapter headings, and a floor lamp that represents Cohen’s 8-year-old.

Kivens starts the show by wheeling in an expandable table that contains a picnic basket, which has some sustenance for her. Then she takes us into the story, playing all the characters with their accents, gestures and idiosyncrasies.

A one-person play is one of the most daunting challenges an actor can take on. There is no scene partner to give the performer a cue or to serve as a crutch. The actor has to generate all the emotions herself. And she has to master reams of text, or at least flub her lines with honesty.

But the risks are worth it when you have a skilled performer like Kivens, who has performed some fetching characters at Children’s Theatre. She holds us spellbound, even if we grimace here and there. Understated and with assurance, she takes us inside the emotions that rock a confident woman whose assumptions about herself and her world are totally upended.

“What I Thought I Knew” is a very specific story. But there’s insight for any of us who might be blindsided by unexpected news.

What I Thought I Knew
Who: By Alice Eve Cohen. Directed by Jennie Ward for Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul.
When: 1 p.m. Tue. & Sun., 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. Sat. Ends Aug. 30
Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315 or

Comment /Source
Star Tribune, Rohan Preston, , , What I Thought I Knew, Alice Eve Cohen, , Jennie Ward, Highland Park Community Center, St. Paul, Minnesota, Jewish Theater, One Woman Show, Twin Cities Theater, Theater, Performance, Pregnancy


Boy-meets-girl gets a sweet twist in Minnesota Jewish Theatre premiere


REVIEW: Hasid meets girl in the charming new play "Natasha and the Coat."
By LISA BROCK Special to the Star Tribune
APRIL 24, 2018 — 9:41AM

Provided Kim Kivens as Felicity and Miriam Schwartz as her intern, Natasha, in Natasha and the Coat by Deborah Stein, April 21-May 13 at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. 

Provided Kim Kivens as Felicity and Miriam Schwartz as her intern, Natasha, in Natasha and the Coat by Deborah Stein, April 21-May 13 at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. 

“Sometimes the very old tales are the very most true ones,” elderly Jewish dry-cleaner Mordy confides to the audience at the beginning of “Natasha and the Coat.”

It’s an apt introduction for that oldest of stories — boy meets girl — in a show getting its world premiere at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company through May 13. Playwright Deborah Stein takes a pair of mismatched lovers and sets them smack dab in the middle of the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Natasha (Miriam Schwartz) is new to the neighborhood, having just graduated from college and landed a coveted internship with a vintage clothing
wholesaler. Yossi (Avi Aharoni) has spent his entire life there, working in his family’s dry-cleaning business. With his traditional black suit, side curls and ritual fringes, he seems to come not just from a different world from Natasha but a different century.

When Natasha spills coffee on a valuable coat, she asks Yossi to clean it before her boss can find out. His job transforms the garment, leading her to bring him more and more work. The two forge an unlikely romance, while Yossi’s parents look on with disapproval and Natasha’s boss grows increasingly suspicious.

Stein’s strong characterizations and humorous dialogue overcome some unlikely plot devices, while director Miriam Monasch and a capable cast lend warmth to this sweetly funny tale. Michael Hoover’s set ably accommodates scenes that shift regularly between the dry-cleaning shop and the clothing “atelier.”

Liz Josheff Busa’s props and Lisa Conley’s costumes add color, context and some stunning vintage dresses to the mix. Much of the play’s energy derives from the study in contrasts between Natasha and Yossi. Schwartz embodies the brash confidence and flighty, nervous energy of a young woman giddily poised to jump into the adventure of adulthood. Yossi, on the other hand, wavers between worlds. Aharoni beautifully conveys this tension in a scene in which Yossi trades his suit for jeans and a T-shirt, admiring himself in a mirror with shy wonder.

The other three cast members offer solid support. Kim Kivens is delightfully nasty as Natasha’s steelyeyed and egotistical boss, positively quivering with disdain and ever ready with an acid remark or a cold stare. Muriel Bonertz is equally intimidating as Yossi’s mother, a woman determined to stand as a bulwark against change, while Charles Numrich’s Mordy provides a softening influence as Yossi’s father, firm in his faith but tormented by his son’s dilemma.

Overall, this production’s strong acting and warmhearted charm open up an unfamiliar world while providing a unique twist on a very old story. 

Natasha and the Coat
Who: By Deborah Stein. Directed by Miriam Monasch. 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 May 13.
Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315 or

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities critic.

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