Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Over their 27 years, the company has garnered a well-deserved reputation for mounting consistently high quality productions of mostly new and recent work. The company's new moniker refers to the six points of a traditional star of David, as their elegant new logo illustrates. Led by founding director Barbara Brooks, their intent has always been to draw on themes that reside in the lives of Jewish people in order to tell stories with universal appeal. Their new name and logo make this even more explicit, the six points aimed outward to the larger world, rather than inwardly. As their mission statement says "Rooted in Jewish content, our work explores differences, illuminates commonalities, and fosters greater understanding among all people."
The People's Violin is the company's first production as Six Points. The play is a stunner and J.C. Cutler's lead performance a tour-de-force. In March of 2020, The People's Violin was in preparation when theaters were shut down by the pandemic, and remained onwhat was then Minnesota Jewish Theatre's must-do list. Fortunately, Six Points was able to bring back director Warren C. Bowles along with the cast and crew to resume work on the play, but not exactly where they left off.
The reason the restarted production does not quite mirror what came before is that The People's Violin has a large cast of characters, about twenty. By casting actors into multiple roles, the play calls for seven actors. Working on a smaller scale, Bowles and dramaturg Jo Holcomb managed to finesse that number down to five actors. But with COVID-19 still on the loose, Producing Artistic Director Brooks felt that was still too many to share the theater's small dressing room space. The solution? Two of the original five actors appear only in filmed sections, which both the audience and the play's central character, Sol Shank, view. Actually, Sol not only views the filmed sections, but interacts with them, sometimes with great intensity.
Sol Shank is a creator of experimental films"independent film maker" would be too mainstream a category for Sol. At middle-age in 1994, Sol remains devoted to his art, despite having had little success. He has thrown himself into what it seems will be his major opusa documentary film about his famous father, Sidney Shank, known as a psychotherapist specializing in Jewish holocaust survivors, and for the manynineteen, Sol's mother not too gracefully points out to Sol early in the playbooks on the subject.
It may help to know that Varon first wrote The People's Violin as a play for one actor, in which he performed at its 2000 premier in San Francisco. This allows much of the play to consist of Sol's interviews with his father as well as with the many individualscolleagues, patients, former students and othersto whom Sol reaches out to gain new insights into his subject. The premise does lend itself to a one-actor performance, though apparently to make the play less daunting to perform, subsequent productions cast actors to portray the numerous other characters.
Six Points production's solution to greatly reducing the number on stage is brilliant in its simplicity. Characters whom Sol encounters outside the process of the interviews appear live on stage, played by Lea Kalisch, as his taciturn Israeli wife and a bubbly film crew member, and David Coral, notably as Big Jack Carver, a man whose connection to the titular violin, a long-ago gift given to Sol's father Sidney, unlocks secrets to Sidney's bewildering past. Suffice to say in the course of making this film, Sol's understanding of the truth about his father rocks his own identity, and unwittingly shifts his film's focus from his father to himself.
Meanwhile, characters Sol interviewsincluding Sidney himself (also played by Coral), Sol's mother Sylvia (Patty Matthews), a childhood friend of Sidney's (Tony Larkin), and many othersappear in screen clips from the film, with in-person Sol fielding questions on stage. The effect is potent. We see Sol in control, asking his subjects the hard questions, while at the same time see through his surface response to the searing impact unspooling facts about his father have on his own equilibrium.
Cutler deserves plaudits for making this theatrical gambit work, as he conveys the conflict Sol experiences between where he intends his film to go and where it actually leads him. At first blush, I thought Cutler a bit to old to play Sol, who announces early on that he is forty-three. It takes little time, however, for the conviction of his performance to take hold, depicting Sol's self-destructive drive to dig into a past meant to be locked up forever. Cutler draws us in and becomes the embodied Sol Shank. His repartee with characters as he interviews their screen image is phenomenal, calling on adroit timing and attention.
Coral is excellent as Sidney, Sol's dour and disapproving father, as Big Jack Carver, the man who holds the secret to the violin, and in a range of other roles. Patty Matthews is immensely persuasive as Sylvia, Sol's mother, who conveys an awareness that her husband had secrets matched by a survivor's instinct that tells her such secrets are best ignored. Matthews is also especially moving as a holocaust survivor, one of Sidney's patients.
Tony Larkin effectively plays a number of roles, all on screen, including a childhood friend of Sidney's and an Israeli friend of Sol's from his youth. Lea Kalisch appears in person in two roles, but neither allows her much opportunity. As Sol's wife Nirit, she is depicted as a braying presence in Sol's life doing little to earn our sympathy, even when Sol gives her plenty of cause to complain. Kalisch's other character, Nicole, comes across as merely a device upon which to measure Sol's changing view of himself.
Warren C. Bowles masterminds the interaction that is happening on stage and what appears on film, brokering astonishing fluidity between the two mediums. Ryan Melling worked on the video pieces, creating the authentic feel of documentary interview sessions any public television viewer has seen numerous times. Other production work is all well done, with Michael Hoover's set bearing an uncanny resemblance to the blocks used to construct golden-age movie palaces, the kind of fallen-on-hard-times venue in which films like Sol's would likely be screened. Morgan Rainford's costumes, along with wig design, succeed at giving very different looks to the actors as they appear as different characters on screen.
The People's Violin is a complicated, engrossing, and most rewarding play. Not having seen its earlier iterations as a one-actor performance and as a play for seven actors on stage, I can only say that this present format, melding the live actors with filmed interview excerpts works incredibly well. Devised as a solution to problems posed by COVID-19, this may well be the definitive version of Varon's play. I offer gratitude to Six Points for holding on to this property through the long pandemic and for bringing it to light with such great imagination and care.
The People's Violin runs through November 14, 2021, at the Six Points Theater, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 -$38.00, $15.00. Artist and Student Rush for any performance with valid ID. For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315 or go to mnjewishtheatre.org.
Playwright: Charles Varon, in collaboration with David Ford; Director: Warren C. Bowles.; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Morgan Rainford; Lighting Design: Todd. M. Reemtsma; Sound Design and Projections: C. Andrew May (er; Video Design: Ryan Melling; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Technical Director: Timothy M. Payton; Stage manager: Laura Stearns.
Cast: David Coral (Sidney Shank, multiple roles), JC Cutler (Sol Shank), Lea Kalisch (Nirit, Nicole), Tony Larkin (multiple roles), Patty Matthews (Sylvia Shank, multiple roles).