Looking Life Square in the Eye: What I Thought I Knew

Josie DiVencenzo in “What I Thought I Knew.” Photo by Ali Lewis

Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of “What I Thought I Knew” packs a lifetime of emotions,  decisions, and dilemmas into 90 minutes.  Based on writer Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir, the story is deeply reflective at times and slyly funny, too. Josie DiVincenzo is the soul teller of this story as she portrays 40 characters without leaving the stage.

DiVincenzo’s first character is the writer, who – in Jewish tradition – curses herself by proclaiming her happiness. After coping with infertility in her first marriage, she’s a single mom of an adopted daughter and is now the cougar partner of a hip and cool musician. She is…happy.  That is, until the day she detects a lump in her abdomen and has enough non-specific symptoms to send her to various doctors who can’t pinpoint a cause. Finally tests reveal that she is pregnant. And over 40 years old. Without health insurance. And without the first six months of careful prenatal care that she would have practiced if an earlier doctor wouldn’t have cavalierly told her that she didn’t need birth control. Oy vey.

The moments when DiVincenzo is flipping between doctors, nurses, off-hand receptionists, and vague diagnosticians are the funniest in their own dark ways. No costume changes or props, it’s the power of her voice and her countenance that make these other ‘cast’ members so vivid, thanks to Saul Elkin’s direction. Who needs a set (save for two lightweight chairs) when you can suggest the dreaded stirrup-strung examining table with posture (and toned and controlled abs), or arch an eyebrow and tilt your head to speak volumes without words?

She adopts solid personae for the recurring characters in the writer’s life:  her beau with his soft New Orleans accent, and her nine-year-old daughter’s overly dramatic “I want to die a moment” writhings and one rip-roarin’ doctor are evocative and just right.

DiVincenzo shares the stage with two other non-speaking co-stars: Brian Cavanaugh’s lighting design and Tom Makar’s sound design add to the performance. Both are subtle and gracefully applied.

“What I Thought I Knew” isn’t every woman’s journey, yet we’ve all dealt with life-defining and life-changing situations that caused us to examine our priorities and make hard decisions. The ethereal combination of faith – regardless of formal religious belief – and relief when things feel right are universal truths. Cohen’s honesty in sharing her journey is laudable. She’s neither maudlin or preachy.  There were spots where the long-one-act program dragged a bit, but DiVincenzo’s energy never flagged. In the end, Cohen reminds us that happiness is our best gift.

“What I Thought I Knew” runs 90 minutes without intermission to March 1. Visit www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com for tickets and show days and times.

Theatre Review: ‘Oh My God’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

The cast of “Oh My God” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

This evening I attended the Western New York premiere of “Oh My God” by Anat Gov at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. Ms. Gov was one of Israel’s premiere dramatists with scores of plays and television programs to her credit. Like all Israeli students, Ms. Gov studied the Bible throughout her school years. As an adult, Gov founded a Bible study institute.

. . .a very careful and studied production of a philosophical play.

The play takes place in a therapist’s office in modern day Tel Aviv. God is feeling so depressed about His relationship with the people on Earth that He is considering suicide and needs psychological therapy.  Ella, the loving Jewish lady who He has selected for His therapist, has just one hour to convince God not to destroy Himself and all of creation. The therapist is the single parent of a preteen who has autism, and so she has lots of challenges of her own. The heart of the play is the therapy session that takes place in Ella’s office.

There is very little action in “Oh My God.” It’s cerebral – more like theological dialogue than a true play. Perhaps the translation from Hebrew to English is partially to blame. Many of the lines seemed stilted and were delivered in a stagey fashion that seemed odd in such an intimate setting.

This is a  confident and well oiled production of a wordy, difficult piece that has been mastered with aplomb by the cast, Todd Benzin and Lisa Ludwig, who obviously took this assignment very seriously and gave it 100%. For this, they are to be congratulated. Congratulations also to director Saul Elkin for this smooth and well paced production.

One challenge is in the casting. God is described in the play as being impressive and frightening with a deep voice. Mr. Benzin, although he gives this his best effort, just isn’t majestic or mature enough for the role. In fact, in this production, God comes across as younger and less powerful than Ella, the therapist. Ms. Ludwig plays Ella who the play describes as being warm and empathetic. Instead, in this production, Ella seems more enthusiastic about proving her points than she is about giving of herself to God and humanity.

There is a lot of yelling onstage – God is frequently exasperated and Ella is agitated. Potential moments of poignancy, amazement, connection, and humor were rushed through – perhaps in an effort to keep the pace brisk.

Max Goldhirsch does a lovely job as Ella’s son.

Production values are fine throughout. Perhaps if Ms. Ludwig has been costumed in slacks, instead of heels and a skirt, she could have been freer with stage movements. Ella’s office is part of her home, after all, so one wonders why she’s so dressed up. She looks more like Beaver Cleaver’s mom than like a modern day therapist. 

And, it’s quite possible that this is indicated in the script – but there were inexplicable short sudden schmaltzy musical passages throughout the evening. They were more distracting than atmospheric.

This is a very careful and studied production of a philosophical play.

“Oh My God” is 90 minutes with no intermission.

“Oh My God” runs until November 17, 2019 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Looking Through Glass’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

It’s just your typical boy-meets-girl-meets-boy-who-dies and inhabits her body sort of play…with a twist.

. . .a fine night of theatre. . .

Playwright Ken Kaissar’s local premiere of ’Looking Through Glass,’ a modern adaption of ‘The Dybbuk’ is an ethereal send up to the intensity of love and the power of a promise, produced by Jewish Repertory Theatre.

In short, it was lovely, sparse and spare with staging to emphasize the beauty of the words, and very well executed by a stellar cast. Yes, on opening night there were some stutters and stammers and dropped lines, but then again, real life isn’t about perfection. Neither is love, and that’s the heart of this story.

Leah is a doctor living with her mother in New York, happily dating a fine young man, and waiting for him to pop the question. She’s ineffably attracted to Jacob,a stranger who is just as mysteriously drawn to her window. Silent sparks fly, curiosity is aroused, and her cautious mother and suspicious intended are wary. After Jacob takes his life, Leah intends to wed her beau Shmuel, and that’s when it happens. Jacob’s restless soul – his dybbuk – has unfinished business with Leah.

Kaissar’s adaptation of S.Ansky’s 1914 story is fierce, with enough contemporary updates to pull you into this character study and capture your imagination. It’s the casting and the character that put it over the top. Arin Lee Dandes is a fine Leah. She’s sweet and skeptical, romantic, and career-focused, and truly wants to do the right thing, whatever it is. When the dybbuk possesses her, she’s visibly, audibly changed. No stage magic here, it’s all her, and her fine actor’s chops.

Zachary Bellus is equally on point as Jacob, the stranger no one wants to know any better, a Kabala-quoting pseudo –intellectual, he’s every mother’s nightmare in sneakers. Yet he charms and beguiles Leah and he does it oh so well. Angelo J. Heimowitz is the even-keeled, dependable Shmuel, a perfectly good guy whose heart will be strangely broken. Heimowitz is rock-steady, just as his character should be. Tina Rausa is Leah’s mom who delivers the outstanding level of performance we expect and love from her.

The complete and unabashed stand out in the cast is David Lundy in three distinct and demanding roles. Some of them brief, but each one requires a change up in accent, demeanor, and delivery. Most of the time he’s playwright Ansky, guiding the early development of the story. Later he’s the Rabbi at Leah and Shmuel’s wedding who tried to exercise the dybbuk. Then he’s two generations of Mordecai, Leah’s father, who gives context and the delivers the surprise twist that gives this story its soul. His performance is brilliant.

‘Looking Through Glass’ is full of metaphor and allegory and suspended reality in the context of beloved Jewish mythology. JRT’s delivers  a fine night of theatre with this one.

Sidenote: this is intense and riveting theatre in a small, quiet, dark space. For the love of all things holy and mystical, before you enter this space, turn off your cell phones and keep them off.  All the way off. Not just the ringer. The whole device. No text that you may receive is all that important and your social media feed can wait. There were the usual distractions from audience members who put their need to stay connected above the respect live theatre deserves.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a 10-minute intermission

‘Looking  Through Glass’ is onstage now to June 2, 2019 and is presented at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘The Strudel Lady’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Mary Kate O’Connell and Lisa Ludwig star in “The Strudel Lady” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Jewish Repertory Theatre began its 16th season with a sweet take on empowerment and transformation in the world premiere production of “The Strudel Lady.” Playwright Shirl Solomon penned this charming musical with a healthy dose of Jewish content and a universal message: sometimes it takes a strong new friend to help you believe in yourself.

Solomon’s story is touching.

“The Strudel Lady” is Chava, a recently divorced woman. Her ex lied about her to the rabbi, her children now shun her, and she wears her shame along with her drab and frumpy wardrobe. She meets a vivacious new friend, Faiga, wife of the temple cantor, who mends and updates Chava’s clothing, and by extension, repairs Chava’s broken spirit. Faiga sees a new opportunity for Chava, too: Chava is a wonderful baker and her strudel can put her on a path to financial independence and respectability.

Yes, it’s a bit like Pygmalion in a pogrom or “My Fair Lady” in a schmatta, but that’s what makes this production so grand. Four well prepared actors (and one on-stage keyboardist) roll out a five-year journey that’s a remarkable evolution for Chava, wonderfully played by Lisa Ludwig. Ludwig takes Chava on the path from bashful to self-confident with unabashed conviction. No longer content to be the baker in the background, we watch Chava emerge, and if she strays from orthodoxy along the way, she’s still true to herself and what she believes.

Chava owes the first steps in her journey to Faiga. Only a skilled and visionary director like Saul Elkin can coax the Jewish mama out of nun-playing, DIVA by DIVA creator like Mary Kate O’Connell, who adapts to this role like the surprise addition of figs in apple strudel. In other words, just delicious. O’Connell and Ludwig’s chemistry is the heart of the production: Faiga is to be admired, she’s the cantor’s wife who learned English and went to college after all. She’s full of sound advice for being happily married (“You still have to do it”), and succeeding in business, (“In business, lying is called marketing.”) too, and if Chava is reluctant at first, well, let’s just say she catches on. Perhaps a little too much. But growth sometimes is hard to reign in when a whole new world is opening up for you.

Rounding out the ensemble is Tom Makar as Faiga’s husband Velvel, the cantor who loves opera and likes to shake up Shul by applying Hebrew prayer to operatic arias. Makar’s resonant high baritone is well placed here. David Marciniak is loveable as Leonard, the restaurant executive who finds a place for Chava in his bakery department and beyond.

Solomon’s story is touching. Her songs add an interesting element to the production, too, as they often act as the “inner voice” or conscience of her characters.  Director Elkin made outstanding choices here: the ensemble’s voices were lovely, compatible, and blended. Elkin prompted depth from the actors, too. In places the plot was thin, and it was the forces of personality on stage that kept the story feeling real, like a modern-day fairytale with the message we all love to hear.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 10-minute intermission.

“The Strudel Lady” runs until October 28, 2018 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Sight Unseen’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

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Peter Palmisano and Josie DiVincenzo in “Sight Unseen” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

As an art teacher, my students ask me all the time, what makes art, art? This is one of the most difficult questions a student can ask. I almost wish that they would ask me where babies come from, because at least I could tell them to ask their parents. It is a very slippery slope. The reason being because everyone has their own perception of what art is, or what art should be. It is like comedy, everyone will have a different idea. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who knows? This is one of the conversations that takes place in Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” now playing at the Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Great acting, great direction, and great story telling. Go see this show!

Artist Jonathan Waxman (Peter Palmisano) used to be a young, struggling artist, but once fame found him, his work and popularity exploded all over the international art scene, so much in fact that collectors are putting up top dollar to purchase paintings that he hasn’t even started working on yet. When he goes to London for a gallery opening, Jonathan decides to call on a past lover, Patricia (Josie DiVincenzo) and his goal is to apologize for the way that the acted in the past. This brings back a little dirty laundry, especially when Jonathan sees a painting of Patricia that he did, when they first started seeing each other. Throw in Patricia’s husband, Nick (David Lundy) and an art writer (Constance Caldwell) and you have a show that is full of tension, heart, and hilarity.

Director Saul Elkin directs this character study, and keeps the audience engaged, even though very little is happening on stage. Conversations, arguments, and witty banter are tossed around. Elkin does well making sure the audience is vested in these characters.

Leading the show as Jonathan is Peter Palmisano. Palmisano plays the character in an interesting light. He plays a subtle artist, not an eccentric or large personality that I perceived this character to be, but it is an interested choice. It allows Palmisano’s character to arch, and doesn’t allow his performance to fall flat. At first, I thought that this was completely wrong for a character who was suppose to be a snobby creative personality, but it grew on me as the show progressed.

David Lundy as Nick is hilarious. His comedic timing and stage presence are perfect. When Lundy starts laying into Palmisano’s Jonathan about what art is, and why art should cost so much money, the tension is fantastic. Lundy is riveting.

Josie DiVincenzo plays Patricia in this production, and she brings a real heart to her role. She is conflicted throughout the entire story, seeing her ex-lover, and being tossed into this awkward situation with her husband Nick and Jonathan. She adds well to the tension, and is captivating.

Constance Caldwell rounds out the cast as the German art reporter who is trying to make sense of Jonathan’s career, but is met with much hostility. Caldwell does a great job in the role, and complements her fellow actors nicely.

Overall, I really enjoyed this production. Great acting, great direction, and great story telling. Go see this show!

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 10-minute intermission.

Advisory: Language and Suggestive Content

“Sight Unseen” runs until May 13, 2018 and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Rose’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York

Tina Rausa in ‘Rose’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

Rose doesn’t say she’s a heroine. She doesn’t consider herself a victim. She is, however, a survivor. She’s full of irony and contradiction (“I’m eating ice cream to take a pill for cholesterol,” she says as a cold creamy spoonful helps her swallow her meds), and a strong, modern woman who holds onto bits of tradition in a less than noble world.

. . .an exquisite night of theatre.

“Rose” is currently on stage at Jewish Repertory Theatre, through February 25, and Tina Rausa is reprising her title role as an older, wise actor.  This one-actor show runs the emotional gamut with compelling storytelling, a few laughs, and many powerful moments.

Rausa as Rose tells her story from the solid wooden shiva bench. No easy feat for an 80-something who – in her youth – walked through Warsaw’s sewers and through Eastern Europe to eventually board a ramshackle boat and then leap from a moving train to find freedom – not in Palestine as she thought – but in America. By the time she’s working in a Jersey shore hotel, she knows her young daughter and most of her family were killed. Yet she survives. If there’s guilt that lingers, she parlays it into determination to build a new life in a new world (“I mastered the language in a month,” she says), and if embracing American capitalism is foreign to her, she knew what she had to do to protect herself and the new family she’ll create.

This is far from another retelling of the atrocities of World War II: this production is more soulful. Rose admits that sometimes she’s not sure if her remembrances are real or pop culture adaptations she’s reliving. But they are sincere, emotional, stark and seering. Playwright Martin Sherman’s storytelling is riveting, and Rausa is expansive, as a slight woman whose only movements are soft and spare. Her expressions and the rise and fall of her voice as she recounts her stories fill the room. Sometimes she admits her failings, “I’m in the millennium, but I stink of the last century,” she says, and other times she wistfully remembers Yiddish as her first language, and struggles to reckon with the next generation’s reaction to 21st century Israeli conflict and politics. Sometimes Rausa the actor stumbles over her words: on the other hand, is it Rose, the person, stumbling past the articulation of her story?

Sherman’s words, sometimes punctuated by audio bites and musical backgrounds carefully curated by Tom Makar, against David Dwyer’s remarkably simple set and Brian Cavanaugh’s equally simple and effective lighting, support images that are hard to erase when you exit the space. What’s it like to lose everything, to start again, to question your identity, to lose connection with your past and try to grasp what is now….this is what Rose lives with every day.

It’s this push and pull between past and present, family and self, time frozen, indelible memories and the need to march forward that makes Rose a remarkable woman and an exquisite night of theatre.

Running Time: Approximately 110 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

“Rose” runs until February 25, 2018, and is presented at Jewish Repertory Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Rose’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

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Tina Rausa in the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Buffalo production of “Rose”, February 1 -25.

Throughout America last week, 21st Century women marched through the streets, sporting pink pussycat hats and carrying signs reminding us that equity is still every person’s goal in a sometimes unjust world.

In 20th century Poland, women moved stealthily through the streets, seeking to survive on their way to freedom. They didn’t carry signs, and the scars they wore were shame and horror.

That was “Rose.”  Tina Rausa will reprise this title role beginning February 1 in Jewish Repertory Theatre’s “A Sentimental Journey” season.

Rose’s journey from her Russian village home, to the elegance of Warsaw, then through its ghetto and sewers, on her way to America, is filled with the tragic steps that most 21st century women know as history. It’s Rausa – relying on the power of playwright Martin Sherman’s words – who brings life to Rose on stage, as an 80 year old hotel owner in Miami.

“She wasn’t a heroine,” says Rausa. “She was politically astute. Circumstances dragged her along. She wouldn’t have protested with women today. However, if the march passed by her hotel, she’d let the marchers use the bathroom, and probably would bring them coffee. ”

A key comparison: women today may feel today’s world is falling apart. Rose’s world truly did fall part.

As an actor – particularly one who played the same role a decade ago –Rausa embraces all that is Rose, from her perspective on her past, her journey, and to her feisty outlook as a woman who struggled and survived. “I fell in love with her,” says Rausa.

Preparing for a 90-minute monologue is daunting in itself for an actor. Rausa also needs to put herself in a place that is emotionally devastating. Her preparation relies on YouTube interviews and rich readings about the personal experiences of people like Rose. “Knowing the backstory is important. Everyday I try to look at the Warsaw ghetto,” says Rause. “I’m a visual learner, and being able to visualize her world helps me to be in it, to see what I’m talking about so that I can feel it.”

We all have struggles, particularly when you reflect back over a decade. It’s different for Rausa playing Rose again now. “I’m a different person now, a different actress. I had no idea how I did it then. I’ve learned so much more. We have a different approach to this production. We’re living through it, not just telling a story. It was interesting to me then, and I’m fascinated by it now.”

For the audience, who may have seen the first production 10 years ago, Rausa hopes the audience will see this difference, this shift in sense and feeling. “It’s different inside for me. I feel so much more. I never felt so in love with a character I played.  She’s really something.”

“Rose” is onstage at Jewish Repertory Theatre from February 1 – 25, 2018. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.

Theatre Review: ‘Visiting Mr. Green’ at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Saul Elkin and Nick Stevens in “Visiting Mr. Green” at Jewish Repertory Theatre.

“It’s not an easy thing to be a Jew,” Mr. Green kvetches to his court appointed companion in “Visiting Mr. Green,” the first production in Jewish Repertory Theatre’s 15th season.

How we navigate through these human minefields is what makes us unique, and what makes productions like “Visiting Mr. Green” the type of theatre that is always evocative.

He’s right. Mr. Green lost his wife, was almost hit by a car, and now has to have weekly visits with the driver of the car that almost “killed him,” he grumbles. Not really, says Ross the reluctant guest who admits to driving too fast when Mr. Green wandered into traffic. Accident, death wish or allegory?: whatever the reason, that mishap is the basis for this gentle story about accepting life’s realities while grappling with tradition, family, and self-acceptance in a changing world.

Of course Mr. Green is angry and depressed: his beloved wife of 59 years has died “and she was the healthy one,” he says. His disheveled New York City walk up over the dry cleaning shop he used to own has a noisy faucet, four sets of dishes in his Kosher kitchen, cupboards as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s, and non-working rotary phone. Even his only photo of his beloved Yetta is still covered and tucked away weeks after shiva has ended.  And then in bursts Ross, with his fancy corporate suit and attaché case: he’s reluctant to be there every Thursday at 7pm, but he respects his obligation to the court – until he finds that he is, despite Mr. Green’s assertions – needed there. Needed to stock the pantry, bring soup from the Kosher deli, tidy up, and draw Mr. Green back to life. Mr. Green has his purpose in Ross’ life, too. They banter, they argue, they sandpaper each other’s souls with strong words and opinions until they get there: that exquisite place when mistrust is finally scraped away and grains of acceptance shine.

It’s curious that playwright Jeff Baron’s script debuted within the year before Mitch Albom’s saccharine “Tuesdays with Morrie” was published. Even 21 years later, there’s depth and heart in this script that’s beautifully portrayed in this production. Saul Elkin as Mr. Green (he was Mr. Green when JRT staged this show originally) is irascible, opinionated, high-minded perfection. His slightest gesture speaks volumes: the tilt of an eyebrow, the soft, one-shoulder shrug punctuate sentences without being cliché. Nick Stevens as Ross reveals his character’s complexities in lingering layers. His act two monologue about his relationship with his father is strong,  heartfelt and thoughtful: these are the moments that stay with you. The world is different now than it was 21 years ago when this was written, but there are still those who struggle as Ross does, finding his way through life as someone who can’t bear to displease his parents while wanting to live an authentic life. Director Steve Vaughan handles this simply and elegantly.

The universal truth of “Visiting Mr. Green” is the unpredictability of the human condition. Family doesn’t mean intimate knowledge of each other. Common experience doesn’t mean parallel values. Fear shouldn’t mean hate. As we live our lives and hold onto traditions while watching the world change around us, it’s frightening. How we navigate through these human minefields is what makes us unique, and what makes productions like “Visiting Mr. Green” the type of theatre that is always evocative.

Running time is 2 hours including the 10-minute intermission.

“Visiting Mr. Green” is onstage at Jewish Repertory Theatre until November 12, 2017. For more information, click here.