Religious Bitterness Searingly Examined in Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s “Shul” – Marvy & Fuller are Spellbinding


A central conflict that animates Shul by Sheldon Wolf is between two older members of a synagogue. They are Miriam, a Jewish woman struggling financially, and Golden, a wealthy Jewish man who has swept in out of the blue to wield influence about the fate of the synagogue that she has shaped her life around, but which he dismisses with contempt because of psychic wounds he has or thinks he has suffered because of Judaism as perceived through the lens of his childhood. Golden holds his blanket rejection of religion in a psychic vice grip, but the searing Miriam presses under the surface to expose the shallowness and aridity of what he self-deceptively thinks is an intelligent and enlightened view about that mysterious phenomenon called faith. He is blind to the fact that he actually declared spiritual warfare on Judaism long ago.

Charles numrich & nancy marvy. photo by sarah whiting.

Charles numrich & nancy marvy. photo by sarah whiting.

Nancy Marvy and Nathaniel Fuller are spellbinding in their portrayals. Miriam is nobody’s fool and sees the folly in rejecting time-tested truths out of hand. Golden presents himself as superior, thinking his moral relativism and vain materialism are truer. But Miriam cuts right to his soul, exposing the emptiness there. A dangerous moment of existential truth.

Fuller is stunning as a man who abruptly finds himself looking into the abyss. He fails to perceive that his godlessness, which is in itself a belief system of its own, has become an absolute truth. For a man as old as he is, Golden overplays the simplistic “religion is hypocritical” card far too loosely and petulantly. The glorious Marvy reverberates as a female Moses metaphorically hurling the tablets at the false god of the Golden Calf as she exposes him to himself.

Raye birk and nancy marvy. Photo by sarah whiting.

Raye birk and nancy marvy. Photo by sarah whiting.

Moreover, Miriam is a unique character in contemporary drama. Though we aren’t told where she stands on various political issues, she is an older woman grounded in traditional values. In her case, those values are rooted in Judaism. She is compassionate and flexible but not the obligatory stereotype of a narrow-minded conservative woman. In other words, like all the other Wolf characters, she is a flesh and blood human. Miriam is reminiscent of the Jewish wife in Finn & Lapine’s 1990s masterpiece, Falsettos, played beautifully by Eden Espinosa in it’s recent Broadway revival national tour at the Ordway. Both characters could be genuinely called a term which was bandied about 20 years ago—compassionate conservative.

Acclaimed actor Robert Dorfman has worn the director’s hat for this world premiere production. Clearly he is an actor’s director as every actor in his terrific cast feels the stakes are high right down to the marrow of their bones. Shul involves a group of elderly Jews whose crumbling and poorly funded place of worship and fellowship is dwindling in congregants and which lacks funds for repairs the facility sorely needs. In an American inner city, which has also been crumbling, their Eitz Chaim Synagogue has been the epicenter of their daily lives, and many evenings as well. Will it be sold or will they be compelled to share the space with those of another faith? Tough choices!

Raye Birk endears as a sweet man trapped in nostalgia. Paul Schoenack shines as Friedman, a good-natured man who fears that closure of the shul will mean moving on and moving in with inhospitable relations. Charles Numrich is ecstatically wonderful as Ezra, a wild man figure who sees the hole in the shul ceiling not as a flaw, but a window to G-d in heaven. If you’ve read Robert Bly, you know the type I’m talking about.

The savvy Wolf has captured how today’s volatile economic reality is affecting society across the generations. He contrasts the elders with three younger figures. A vibrant Avi Aharoni as Abe, the shul president, captures the essence of the wiser younger man the elders have entrusted their future to. Think of your favorite nephew. Through Abe we come to understand the real difficulties of trying to maintain a traditional religious institution in a time in which tradition is too often denigrated for no good reason.

charles numrich, avi aharoni, raye birk, nat fuller. photo by sarah whiting.

charles numrich, avi aharoni, raye birk, nat fuller. photo by sarah whiting.

Photo by Sarah Whiting.

Dexieng Yang gives a sharp edged performance as a young Jewish realtor whose seems to be headed down the same materialistic path as Golden. However, her financial paranoia stems from insecurity as opposed to making money her Golden Calf as Golden has done. That said, Wolf might consider writing a sequel about just where her attitudes and values will lead her.

Joher Coleman as a Sikh community representative seeking to buy out or share a religious space with Eitz Chaim, brings a vivid sense of integrity to his role. Of all the characters he is the only one who seems to have a footing in the possibility of a bright future. Will this become a Yamaka v. Turban ordeal or will they work it out? You’ll have to see Shul to find out. Indeed, Shul, whatever your faith is, or even if you don’t have a faith, is a compelling and substantive play about religious issues today.

Michael Hoover’s set exudes a sense of a once lovely building worn away, distressed by the passage of time and water. The shadows of its faded beauty have been artfully realized.

Original Source:

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.

Original Source:

Jew Review: ‘Shul’ Expertly Wrestles With Modern Judaism

Charles Numrich and Nancy Marvy in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Charles Numrich and Nancy Marvy in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

One of the brilliant parts of Shul at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is that you don’t know what city the play is set in. It’s playing in the cozy confines of the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul, but it could be in any inner city, anywhere in America. The only setting for the show is the dilapidated inside of Eitz Chaim, the synagogue at the heart of the show that had its world premiere on April 27. It’s the themes that emerge that make it a timeless story built for modern-day Judaism.

Opening night of the show did start on a somewhat somber note, with Artistic Director Barbara Brooks dedicating the show the victims of the Poway, Calif., Chabad shooting earlier that day – six months to the day of the Tree of Life (Eitz Chaim) in Pittsburgh.

But from there, the small-but-mighty cast took over, and first-time director Robert Dorfman – an MJTC acting veteran – brought the struggle that playwright Sheldon Wolf put on the page to life. The shul, like many small inner-city congregations, is left to reckon with its future. Move? Sell? Share space with another religious institution?

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

At the heart of it all, to some degree, is fear of change. The world is changing around the shul, and the characters have all grown up in the neighborhood to watch it happen – for better or worse. Even without seeing anything outside of the walls of Eitz Chaim, the actors vividly describe the crumbling of the neighborhood around them.

Charles Numrich, Avi Aharoni, Raye Birk and Nathaniel Fuller in “Shul” from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

With only eight characters, the interactions have to be crisp, and over the course of the two acts, Nancy Marvy’s Miriam and Raye Birk’s Nate lead the cast through an emotional ride. Nate talks of curling up next to his father under his tallit on the pews, while Miriam talks of the comfort she found at Eitz Chaim in tough times. Ivey Award-winner Charles Numrich brings incredible levity to the show as Ezra, the Yoda-esque wise elder. Avi Aharoni plays Abe, the millennial president of the synagogue (“We had an election. I lost,” he griped), who has the challenging responsibility of ushering his dwindling congregation to a decision they don’t want to have to make.

Dexieng Yang and Jôher Coleman bring wit to Heidi and John – two of the unexpected characters to the show. Nathaniel Fuller’s Golden wears his anger well, and Paul Shoenack’s Friedman is the utility player who brings levity and seriousness.

One of the great debates in the show – and seemingly Judaism itself – is the idea of purpose. What purpose does a crumbling building serve? What purpose do we have in our congregations or our communities? These ideas are wrestled with throughout the show and are well articulated. Hope may be a dangerous thing, as Ezra reminds the congregation, but after all, isn’t hope part of faith?

Although the ending – literally the last thing that happens before cutting to the black – felt somewhat unsatisfying – everything that led to it was wonderfully done. The MJTC is closing its 24th season on a high note.