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Posts Tagged ‘the new jewish theatre’

The Bee Play
by Elizabeth Savage
Directed by Sarah Whitney
New Jewish Theatre
September 8, 2022

Ellie Schwetye, Miles Brenton
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

According to new artistic director Rebekah Scallet in her pre-show speech, The Bee Play is the New Jewish Theatre’s first-ever world premiere. This play has had a relatively long development process, and now is brought to the stage with an engaging story, a strong cast, and NJT’s usual excellent production values. It’s a compelling, fascinating story, with a great deal of insight and potential, even though there are still a few rough edges.

The story takes place in a Bronx apartment building in the recent past (2016, according to the program). Carver Washington (Miles Brenton) is a determined and studious young man who is fascinated with bees, keeping hives on the roof of his building and speaking to the audience about the importance of bees for the health and survival of the planet. Carver lives with his ailing grandmother, Ma’Dear (Margery A. Handy), who raised him and his younger sister after the death of their mother, and who depends upon Carver for her care. His energetic sister, Paris France Washington (Riley Carter Adams) is an enthusiastic dance student who is preparing for her first big recital. Carter, who has a strong sense of responsibility to his family, also has a strong desire to attend college out of state where he can get a degree in Apiary Science (the study of bees). His grandmother is suspicious of his educational and life goals, but he has the support of his idealistic friend Devora (Ellie Schwetye), who lives nearby in an “urban kibbutz” and has hopes of changing the world for the better.  Change is a big issue in this story, in fact, as some characters fear change, others pursue it, and sometimes it happens when the characters least expect it.

There are many issues covered here, from family relationships and responsibilities, to religious differences and influence, to humans’ responsibility toward the planet and other living beings. It’s a compelling story with especially memorable characters, and some excellent dialogue and thought-provoking conversations, although some of the backstory needs a little more attention, and the second act feels a bit rushed, leading up to an ending that leaves more questions than answers and seems to happen too quickly.  There are also some somewhat confusing moments that could use further explanation.

For the most part, though, this is a fascinating show, and the terrific cast makes it all the more engaging. Brenton is a strong protagonist as the earnest, determined Carver, conveying his passion for bees and conflicted feelings about his family responsibilities especially well. His scenes with the equally strong Schwetye as the outgoing, idealistic Devora are convincing, as are his moments with the excellent Handy as the complex, somewhat enigmatic Ma’Dear. There’s also a truly fantastic performance from young Adams as the highly energetic, strong-willed Paris, showing off impressive dance skills along with marvelous stage presence. The actors work together well, making all the relationships, conflicts, and tensions believable, and conveying the moments of comedy and drama with equal strength.

As is usual with this theatre company, the technical aspects of this production are impressive. Dunsi Dai’s remarkably detailed set is both realistic and transporting. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler suit the characters’ personalities well, and Jayson Lawshee’s lighting adds to the storytelling in atmospheric ways. There’s also impressive sound design by Schwetye, and energetic choreography by Sam Gaitsch. 

The Bee Play is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play with a lot of potential. Although there are few plotting a pacing issues that still should be worked on, it’s still a fascinating, emotional family drama that also raises some important environmental issues. It’s a memorable season opener for the New Jewish Theatre. 

Margery A. Handy, Riley Carter Adams
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The Bee Play at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until September 25, 2022

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Dear Jack, Dear Louise
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Sharon Hunter
New Jewish Theatre
June 9, 2022

Molly Burris, Ryan Lawson-Maeske
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is currently serving as a time machine, or the closest we can probably get outside of science fiction. Its staging of Ken Ludwig’s love letter to his parents, Dear Jack, Dear Louise, portrays its time period and setting in a way that makes everything seem so astonishingly immediate. It’s billed as a “romantic comedy”, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and in the hands of the two wonderful leading performers, this is a tale that takes the audiences on a convincing emotional journey.

As made clear in the play’s promotional materials, and via pictures displayed in the lobby, this show is about two real people, playwright Ken Ludwig’s parents Jacob “Jack” Ludwig (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Louise Rabiner (Molly Burris), who “meet” via letters after being “set-up” by their parents in the early 1940s. I would say this is a two character play, but as staged here, there are basically four characters–Jack, Louise, the 1940s, and World War II. After an initially halting and brief first letter, their relationship grows and these two get to know each other more closely, even though they don’t actually meet in person for most of the play, despite several frustrated attempts, as the war (for Jack) and Louise’s burgeoning career as an actress and dancer intervene. Of course, because of the poster in the lobby and the promotions for the play, we know these two will eventually meet and marry, but Ludwig’s construction of the play, along with the performances and Sharon Hunter’s well-pitched direction make this a thoroughly engaging and even suspenseful story, as we the audience get to know these characters as they grow closer to one another through their letters, developing a friendship that leads to romantic feelings and expectations. The presentation is dynamic–rather than simply having the characters read the letters, they are structured more like dialogue, as the characters respond to one another more conversationally as the story develops. The growth of the relationship, along with various challenges–from personal issues and jealousy to the growing and increasingly threatening presence of the war–is portrayed in a fully credible and compelling way, as these well-drawn characters form a believable personal connection, engaging the audience in their hopes, dreams, and struggles.

Everything is developed in such a vivid way, with Dunsi Dai’s impressively detailed set and contributions by scenic artist Cameron Tesson and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler bring these characters and their world to life in a stunningly effective way. The 1940s vibe is enhanced by the pictures and posters that decorate the stage, featuring celebrities, plays, and movies from the era that are mentioned in the letters. There’s also an atmospheric soundtrack of 1940s pop hits to further set the mood, and excellent work from sound designer Amanda Were, lighting designer David LaRose, and props supervisor Katie Orr in bringing this world to vivid, dramatic life. 

As well developed as Jack and Louise’s world is here, the characters themselves are also ideally portrayed in the stunningly well-matched performances of Burris as the outgoing Louise and Lawson-Maeske as the more reserved but compassionate Jack. Both are intensely likable, portraying a range of emotions as the tone shifts between light romantic comedy and more intense drama.  Their chemistry is fully believable, as well. They’re a vibrant, complex and thoroughly winning combination, making this play all the more involving as these two embody their characters so completely and credibly. 

This show is excellent in portraying a world history event (the Second World War) in a relatably human way, as well as serving as the playwright’s tribute to his own parents, on whose early relationship this show is based. Dear Jack, Dear Louise at NJT is an effective time trip as well as a riveting romantic story. It’s another excellent theatrical experience from this celebrated theatre company.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Molly Burris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Dear Jack, Dear Louise at the J’s Wool Studio Theatre until June 26th, 2022

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