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MJTC play looks at art, politics and Leni Riefenstahl

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Drama written by Tom Smith is a look at the tensions between art and politics

By DORIS RUBENSTEIN

Twin Cities theater-goers too often take the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company for granted. Its performing space is modest. Its presentations don’t have the glitz and pizzazz that are the regular fare at the Guthrie or at Broadway road-shows at the Orpheum or the Ordway Center. But the little-Jewish-theater-that-could consistently delivers productions of high quality that are regularly reviewed in national publications and consistently win praise and even awards.

As a result, expectations are high when MJTC Artistic Director Barbara Brooks chooses a play that will be making its professional theater debut on her stage. Such is the case with Aunt Raini by Tom Smith. The show has made the rounds of several universities across the country, with its first showing at New Mexico State University — an outpost even more surprising than St. Paul, since neither locale regularly registers more than a blip on the radar screens of Jewish communities on either coast. Smith has recently moved his writing desk up to the Seattle area where he continues to write intriguing dramas.

Heidi Fellner. Photo courtesy of MJTC.

Heidi Fellner. Photo courtesy of MJTC.

Smith was inspired to write Aunt Raini after seeing a documentary on the life and work of Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl on television. Inspired by that biography, Aunt Raini is Smith’s incisive look at the tensions between art and politics, family legacy and personal identity: During a visit from her great-aunt Raini (Maggie Bearmon Pistner), successful gallery owner Katharine (Heidi Fellner) struggles to keep her family’s past buried. The threat of exposure intensifies when she introduces Raini to her Jewish boyfriend Joel (Michael Torsch), a struggling photographer exploring Judaism in his work.

When Katharine inherits her great-aunt’s original film reels that document Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party, Joel and Raini’s companion Horst (Dan Hopman) force her to confront the truth: whether Raini’s art is inextricably tied to its subject matter or can be judged for its artistic merit alone.

“I was fascinated with how Riefenstahl navigated between the truth and her truth,” playwright Smith admits.

It was 12 years ago that he wrote the play, and he sent out copies of an early draft to theaters across the country. One of them was the MJTC. He was shocked when he received a call from Brooks earlier this year, expressing her interest in staging the play. Consequently, Smith held workshops on the script with the entire cast and company at the MJTC through the miracles of 21st century technology, i.e. Skype. From those workshops, he was able “to get valuable insights, ways of how he could phrase some dialogue more effectively and shape the action better.”

Why did it take so long for the MJTC to pick up on this intriguing piece of theater?

According to artistic director Brooks, “We get dozens of scripts for consideration every year and they generally get put in a stack on my desk in the order I receive them. Well, I finally got around to Aunt Raini and I was highly impressed with the premise and how Tom Smith handled it.”

Maggie Bearmon Pistner. Photo courtesy of MJTC.

Maggie Bearmon Pistner. Photo courtesy of MJTC.

Once the script was accepted for production, little did Smith know that there would be a strong personal link between the character of Katharine and the actress playing her at the MJTC. Heidi Fellner, appearing at the MJTC for the first time, grew up under the influence of a great-aunt who survived Auschwitz and lived to forgive the nation and culture that caused her suffering and continued trauma.

Fellner reflected on the connection between her great-aunt, herself and her character.

“How do all of these things in my life influence how I feel about this former Nazi propagandist? Well, I always make a point of absolutely taking my character’s ‘side’ — hook, line and sinker! But in this play, I’ve been given a little bit of a gift. Because I do take my character’s side. I forgive this filmmaker her humanity, and thus, I forgive the Nazi within her, because I believe they are one and the same. To some degree, we are all part Nazi, and we are also all their victims.”

The subject of Aunt Raini is historical. The MJTC makes history with the premiere of this show. Be part of theater history and buy your ticket early. They are bound to be in demand.

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The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Production (MJTC) of Aunt Raini opens Oct. 29 at the Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul. Ticket prices range from $20-$34. Student and group discounts are also available. To order, visit www.mnjewishtheatre.org or call 651-647-4315.

(American Jewish World, 10.21.16)

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