World premiere 'Shul' weighs legacy, stereotypes at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company


By Rohan Preston Star Tribune

MAY 3, 2019 — 5:09PM

After a synagogue attack in California, Minnesota Jewish Theatre opened on a sober note. 

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni and Raye Birk in “Shul” at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Photo credit: Sarah whiting

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni and Raye Birk in “Shul” at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Photo credit: Sarah whiting

The tensest moment in “Shul,” playwright Sheldon Wolf’s new drama that premiered over the weekend at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul, comes just before intermission. That’s when a potential buyer for a dilapidated synagogue with an aging congregation shows up at the Jewish place of worship. He’s excited and ebullient, but that’s not what the people gathered in the temple immediately notice about John.

The first impression, and one that stops everyone in their tracks, is that John (played by Jôher Coleman, a master of accents and alumnus of the sitcom “Head of the Class”), is wearing a turban. He looks like he could be an imam. Hmm. Should the congregation really go through with selling the building now?

Appearances are not always what they seem in “Shul,” which is less a dramatic work than a humor-laced disquisition on stereotypes and expectations on the one hand, and tradition and legacy on the other. This particular “shul” — Yiddish for “school” or gathering place — has been a site of many memories. If the congregation votes to sell it, does that mean it’s losing its legacy? Or does the culture truly reside within the people, scattered as they are to the wind?

It’s a question confronted not only by churches, temples and synagogues but also by declining small towns and neighborhoods that people have abandoned to chase better opportunities.

“Shul” marks the directorial debut of Robert Dorfman, who has done fine work as an actor at the Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre and elsewhere in the Twin Cities after a New York career that included “The Normal Heart” and “The Lion King.”

Dorfman has a proficient and experienced cast, although he doesn’t do much with them. They loiter around Michael Hoover’s thematic set and talk. But it’s not his fault, really. The script, like the production, is full of charm but lacks animating tension.

Dorfman’s seasoned ensemble includes Raye Birk, who plays old-timer Nate while Nathaniel Fuller delivers congregation member Golden with a patrician air (and a nice suit, thanks to costume designer Rebecca J. Bernstein).

The cast is rounded out by actors Nancy Marvy as neat-freak Miriam, Charles Numrich as half-crazed but wise Ezra, Avi Aharoni as concerned congregation president Abe, Paul Schoenack as wisecracking joke-teller Friedman and Dexieng Yang as an earnest would-be real estate agent Heidi.

“Shul” is a big deal not just for playwright Wolf, a long-toiling writer who also had a career in museum communications. It’s also a big deal for the producing company, now on the cusp of its 25th year. MJTC scheduled the opening for the last day of Passover. It was supposed to be about remembrance. Instead, the high holy day was marred by the violent assault on a California synagogue.

At the outset of Saturday’s performance, theater founder Barbara Brooks dedicated the show to the victims and families in Poway, Calif. This “Shul” is instructive, resonant and, sadly, all too timely.

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Theater review: 'Natasha and the Coat' crackles with sexual tension

Friday, April 27, 2018 by Jay Gabler in Arts & Leisure

Avi Aharoni as Yossi and Miriam Schwartz as Natasha. Image courtesy Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

Avi Aharoni as Yossi and Miriam Schwartz as Natasha. Image courtesy Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.

When you're walking into a St. Paul community center holding a ticket printed with what sounds like the name of a picture book for beginning readers, you're probably not expecting to see the most genuinely erotic show of the season. Natasha and the Coat will surprise you, though, just as the eponymous fashionista surprises Yossi when she walks into his family's dry cleaners.

The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, on their home stage in the Highland Park Community Center, are presenting the world premiere of Deborah Stein's play about a halting romance between two young adults in Brooklyn circa 2005. While parts of her story are a stretch, Stein succeeds at holding a captivating tension around the slow-burning relationship between an unlikely couple.

Yossi (Avi Aharoni) and his family are Hasidic Jews, focused on serving fellow members of their conservative community. Natasha (Miriam Schwartz) takes an internship at a high-end vintage shop down the street, and rents an upstairs room from Yossi's family. When she accidentally spills coffee on an expensive fur coat, she becomes a regular customer as well: She's forced to get dozens of items cleaned on her own dime after shop owner Felicity (Kim Kivens) realizes Natasha lied about what happened to the coat.

The business with Felicity, a cartoonishly bad boss whose blackmail scheme relies on the weirdly extended fiction of Natasha rejuvenating the coats solely with her skin's "youthful oils," is the show's glaring weak spot. Fortunately, Stein and director Miriam Monasch fare far better with their other characters. That includes Muriel Bonertz and Charles Numrich as Yossi's parents, written and portrayed with a nuance and integrity that goes far beyond the simplistic disapproving-elder archetype it would have been easy to fall into.

The play's beating heart, and pulsing loins, come from the languorous flirtation that develops during exchanges the young pair share over the shop counter. The theater's small size allows both actors to keep the volume low and their movements slow as they creep along a deliciously slippery slope. Yossi isn't even supposed to be alone with Natasha, so when they get close, electricity crackles without the two even having to touch.

Both actors are exceptional. Aharoni is true to his sheltered character, but finds a confident good humor that makes us believe Natasha's attraction is genuine. That creates a space for Schwartz to deliver an incredibly compelling performance that's all the more impressive because hers is not a showy role: watch how she finds variety and depth in even the most routine line readings. The subtlety of the duo's interactions lends this production a fascination that could easily crumble away in a less nuanced staging.

Allusions to generation and gentrification help establish the setting, but Stein's decision to virtually ignore any personal relationships beyond those we see on stage (an omission that's particularly noticeable because of the urban setting, with constant references to community and society writ large) makes this fundamentally a hothouse drama about an achingly forbidden liaison.

Fittingly staged at an athletic facility, you might need a cold shower afterwards.

IF YOU GO: Natasha and the Coat
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Through May 13


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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