The curtain rises on the new JET season.
Five new laptop computers click away in the offices of the Jewish Ensemble Theatre (JET), enhancing administrative efficiency for an artistic team getting ready for the 2016-2017 season — its 28th.
Times are moving quickly for the stage company returning to a full schedule of mainstage productions, planning for an extension of programming offered to schools and celebrating a longtime performer who also has participated behind the scenes.
JET cut back on productions last season to strengthen finances and upgrade resources in preparation for contemporary shows that ultimately express a range of sentiments shared by generations.
“While we cut back on our mainstage schedule, we extended our programs for young people, and that has helped us start the season on solid footing,” explains Christopher Bremer, artistic director.
“We presented The Diary of Anne Frank to 3,700 students last season as compared to 2,200 the season before, and we had 51 performances of outreach shows last season as compared to 22 in the previous season.
“I give so much credit to Jim August and the rest of our board of directors, who led us through our year of regrouping and refocusing on our mission of bringing wonderful experiences to our patrons. The students who saw our shows experienced an art form and learned lessons about how to treat each other.”
Bremer is pleased to open the season with a new play, Rights of Passage, by Kitty Dubin, the JET playwright-in-residence who has watched sellout audiences enter into the introduction of six other scripts.
“This production is really a group of one-act plays, equal parts comedy and drama and each revolving around a Jewish rite of passage — from a bris to a shivah,” says Dubin, pointing out that the themes of each segment have more to do with universal conflicts rather than the rites themselves.
“There are five different rites of passage with six actors playing multiple roles, and the characters are different in each play. There are no bad guys or good guys. They are all people striving to do their best but getting into some kind of conflict because of a rite of passage, which is very common.”
Dubin, entering her 20th year of teaching playwriting at Oakland University, started this project after writing two separate short plays — one about celebrating birth and the other about making condolence calls. She then had the idea to expand those with a piece that encompassed more of life’s defining moments.
“The production reflects a deepening of my experiences over the past seven years and an awareness of situations and people,” says Dubin, a former psychological therapist. “People are usually trying to do their best, but sometimes, in order to do their best, they’re forced to change the ways they’ve been handling things their whole lives.”
Rights of Passage is being directed by Tony Caselli, artistic director of the Williamston Theatre, and features Sandra Birch, Fred Buchalter, Brian Michael Ogden, Meredith Deighton, Julia Glander and Jamie Warrow. “We’re going to have a variety of plays this season,” Bremer says. “Handle With Care, by Jason Odell Williams and next on our schedule, is a romantic comedy that pairs a young Israeli woman with little command of English and an American man with little command of romance.”
Henrietta Hermelin Weinberg, who worked behind the scenes helping launch JET and has appeared in more than a dozen plays, takes the role of the grandmother.
“I just love this part,” says Weinberg, who will be honored at the JET Fall Gala, Sept. 26, to benefit company programming. “Among my favorite JET parts was playing a very mean and very different grandmother in Lost in Yonkers.”
The honoree, who built an acting career in New York and traveled for an extended run in India, did not portray Jewish characters between a childhood part in a Purim play at Congregation Shaarey Zedek and later roles with JET after her children were getting older.
Weinberg, who has starred in the Hilberry Repertory Theatre and the American Mime Theatre, appeared in more than 100 stage roles and seven film roles. She credits her parents for instilling in her a love of the performing arts; her father acted in Poland, and her mother played the piano to back up silent films.
“I think of JET as another home to express myself, entertain and say things that should be said,” explains Weinberg, whose longest part was just a few years ago at Meadow Brook Theatre with lines spanning 94 pages of a 97-page script.
“I think of JET as illuminating because it evolves, and I think of each part as expanding my horizons because I dig deeper into my soul with each one. I don’t want to just act parts; I want to feel them.”
Susie Citrin, a member of the JET board of directors and chairman of the Gala Committee, developed a close friendship with the honoree after meeting her through JET.
“When Henrietta says she’ll do something, you can count on it being done with exuberance and a love for life,” Citrin says. “Everyone at JET adores her. I especially remember her appearing in a version of Romeo and Juliet taking place in the Middle East, and she was a real presence on stage.”
Citrin has ushered for young people’s productions (I Was Just Kidding, Mean Girls, Word and Shame) addressing issues of bullying, with each play appropriate for specific grade levels.
“We are working on a new play about cyber bullying and the repercussions of what is put on the internet,” Bremer says. “It is being written by Emilio Rodriguez, who wrote Shame.
“Emilio has been part of Teach for America, working with children affected by poverty, and has taught theater at Mumford High School in Detroit. We’re glad that Emilio has joined our board of directors and will be part of the planning as we conclude our season with two exciting productions.”
Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, takes place at a dinner party where cultural differences bring dramatic confrontations; it is for mature audiences. An Act of God, by David Javerbaum, presents a comedy in which angels ask centuries-old questions as Creator answers are communicated by Jaime Moyer, a Second City star and Disney Channel regular.
“We’re confident we have a strong mainstage season,” Bremer says. “We looked for works that embrace Jewish heritage and open audiences to think a little while having fun.” *
Mark your calendars for JET’s 28th season of mainstage productions:
• Rights of Passage, Oct. 20-Nov. 13
• Handle With Care, Dec. 1-24
• Disgraced, March 16-April 9
• An Act of God, April 27-May 21
Individual tickets cost $16-$44; a season subscription is $148. For details and to purchase tickets, call (248) 788-2900 or visit jettheatre.org.
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer