Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

What I Thought I Knew
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule (newly updated)

Also see Arty's reviews of 'Night Mother and Dear Lenny: Bernstein's Life in Songs and Letters


Kim Kivens
Photo by Sarah Whiting
In What I Thought I Knew, Alice Eve Cohen tells the story that began when she was a 44-year-old writer and actor in the field of solo theater, about to complete her Master of Fine Arts at The New School. She has a musician boyfriend ten years younger than herself, a 6-year-old daughter whom she adopted with her ex-husband, and the feeling of living amid "unbridled good fortune." Being Jewish, although unsure about the existence of God, she had been steeped in the superstition that to declare one's good fortune was to bring a curse on oneself. This penalty can be prevented by the simple act of spitting three times between the middle and index fingers, a gesture Cohen resorts to now and then just to play it safe.

Cohen goes on to relate the discovery that she is six months pregnant—a pregnancy missed by doctors who thought her to be menopausal, and who checked for tumors with CT scans and other tests rather than tracing her symptoms to a child growing inside her. Taking stock, she ticks off a list of what she knows: she is a 44-year-old six months into a pregnancy, and years ago doctors told her she has a small, deformed uterus that could not sustain a fetus beyond six months. She has had no prenatal care, has had numerous x-rays, taken a variety of meds and popped daily synthetic hormone, and she has had no weight gain. This is just the start of the issues she faces in the course of her journey. We are privy to her fraught consideration of her options, the impact on her boyfriend Michael and daughter Julia, the prospect of the baby having major birth defects, and the cavalcade of doctors, nurses, birth coaches, social workers, lawyers and others who enter her life. She also relates the solace of teaching a solo theater class one night a week, and ponders the linkage between what is happening to her and her nominal adherence to Jewish beliefs and practice.

In 2009, Cohen published "What I Thought I Knew," a memoir of her real life experience. The book took off with an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey, and in 2010 Cohen published it as solo play, which she performed at its premiere Off-Broadway and elsewhere. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has now mounted the play's first production not performed by its author. To accomplish this, they had the great wisdom to cast Kim Kivens as Alice and the other 37 characters in Cohen's script. Kivens is a greatly underrated Twin Cities actor who has appeared with great success in numerous plays and musicals. After this tour-de-force performance, her star should be firmly fixed among the best of our remarkable cadre of gifted actors.

What I Thought I Knew is long for a solo show—an hour and forty minutes with no intermission—and Kivens' energy and commitment to telling this story never flags. She enters MJTC's small stage with the house lights still on, pushing a fold-out table on wheels that holds all of the props needed to tell the story. As Alice, she explains that she is here to tell a true story. True, at least, as she experienced the events, allowing that other people in her story would no doubt tell it differently. She carries us over time and space to her life on the west side of Manhattan in 1999, expressing the arc of emotions Alice experiences and seamlessly shifting back and forth between Alice and the other characters. Kivens finds distinctions between various strands of New York accents, including ethnic nuances.

Cohen has written her story with large servings of humor, which Kivens delivers with flair, but Kivens also brings forth the heartache, fears, anger and confusion that accompany Alice throughout the ordeal. Though there are no misses, she does especially well conveying Alice's somewhat clueless but sweet boyfriend, her charmingly curious young daughter, the calm as glass abortion clinic receptionist who describes in clinical detail the steps of a late-term abortion, a birth coach who comes on like a stand-up comic, and one of Alice's students who faces a huge crisis of her own.

Director Jennie Ward has devised the sparest of productions to surround the rapid-fire storytelling at center stage. The only scenery is a chalkboard on wheels, on which Alice, good teacher that she is, scrawls the theme of each successive stage of the story, starting with "Unbridled Good Fortune." A floor lamp is turned on to represent her daughter Julia, a suitcase represents Michael her musician boyfriend who is frequently on the road, and a white bathrobe is laid out on the cart to represent Alice herself on an examining table or bed. Anita Kelling's sound design makes an enormous contribution to the production, providing everything from a sinister-sounding pair of organ chords to a representation of the "evil eye," another artifact of Jewish superstition, to the thumping beat of a baby's heart heard through an ultrasound to the yearning wail of a shofar, a ram's horn traditionally blown as part of Jewish high holiday observance.

In her play, Cohen makes the observation that "we humans are meant to tell stories, like beavers are meant to build dams and spiders are meant to weave webs. It's in our DNA. We are a story-telling species." She has a fascinating, unlikely, and emotionally engaging story to tell, by turns heartwarming and horrifying. She is quite correct in admitting up front that we are only hearing the story as she lived it, which reduces the dramatic tension that occurs when two characters face each other armed with their own truths. The tension here is internal, the war within this woman to make choices and accept results. It is likely to prompt audience members to consider how we, or our loved ones, would react if faced with such an ordeal, as we try to imagine being in her shoes.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has for several years launched their season with a work of solo theater, playing a brief August run, performed by the likes of Sally Wingert, Miriam Schwartz and Robert Dorfman. With works as gripping and entertaining as What I Thought I Knew, and actors of the high caliber of those named, a list to which Kim Kivens certainly can be added, this custom is a welcome gift to audiences.

What I Thought I Knew, through August 30, 2018, at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $23.00 - $38.00. For tickets call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.

Written by Alice Eve Cohen; Director: Jennie Ward; Costume: Liz Josheff Busa; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Stage manager: Sarah Perron

Cast: Kim Kivens (Alice and 37 other characters).


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