October 24, 2021
By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press
Reinventing is a word that’s come into common usage in the COVID era, with most every organization developing a new way of doing what they do. For example, theaters working off a centuries-old model — people gathered in a room for a live performance — had to reinvent their method of presentation. Plays morphed into films, works were created and delivered via Zoom, and outdoors became the venue of choice.
JC Cutler, left, as Sol Shank, with the violin that unravels a family secret, in The People's Violin." Sol finds the violin originally sold to his father by Big Jack Carver, played by David Coral, right. Sarah Whiting photo.
Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company hasn’t really reinvented itself, but has adopted a new name, Six Points Theater, evoking the Star of David. For its first production back in its home base of St. Paul’s Highland Park Community Center, it employs an intriguing hybrid ideal for the age of teleconferencing, live actors often engaging in dialogue with filmed ones.
It’s a good fit for Charles Varon’s “The People’s Violin,” in which a filmmaker is creating a documentary about the life and work of his father, a therapist renowned for his work with holocaust survivors. And the story turns upon the idea of reinvention, as our protagonist uncovers clues indicating that his father was not who he claimed to be.
With a strong central performance by JC Cutler as the filmmaker turned sleuth, “The People’s Violin” is an intriguing examination of what happens when roles and reality collide. It’s a wrestling match between cultural and individual identity that could provoke some fine post-show discussions.
But it’s also a maze of a play that may not take you to any kind of satisfying destination. When the mystery’s afoot, it’s fascinating. Yet the second act finds the script straying from seeking answers in favor of asking more questions.
It may help knowing that “The People’s Violin” began life as a one-person show in which its author portrayed 20 characters. Such plays are often a series of monologues, but Six Points expands the cast to five and has Cutler’s character frequently banter with his big-screen interview subjects, most memorably in an animated argument with his literally larger-than-life father. But there are still monologues aplenty, so those hoping for onstage action and interaction may find this a disappointing return to live theater, especially if you feel that you spend too much time on Zoom.
That said, there are performances well worth experiencing. Cutler gives our filmmaker protagonist, Sol Shank, a rumpled, world-weary persona, visibly burdened by self-doubt, more obsessive than inspired. It’s as inviting a performance as author Varon will allow, for Sol can be more than a bit Eeyore-ish at his low moments.
Four actors portray all of the other characters, with the standout among them David Coral, and not just because most of his scenes are actually in person. His transformations are admirable between older and younger versions of Sol’s father, his traumatized clients, academic colleagues and the violin salesman who sets the mystery in motion.
JC Cutler in Six Points Theater's "The People's Violin." Sarah Whiting photo.
Patty Mathews does some fine work on-screen as Sol’s mother and others, but Tony Larkin brings a sameness to each of the many characters he portrays. And Varon gives Lea Kalisch a tough task in trying to make Sol’s wife anything but cold and contemptuous.
Director Warren Bowles deserves kudos for taking on the challenge of this hybrid style of theater and making it as engaging as it is. If Varon’s script were as sharply focused as the production, “The People’s Violin” could have been a revelation of reinvention.
If you go
· What: Six Points Theater’s “The People’s Violin”
· When: Through Nov. 14
· Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul
· Tickets: $38-$15, available at 651-647-4315 or sixpointstheater.org
· Capsule: An intriguing mystery when the digressions don’t take you too far astray.