New Horizons

A change in the script: Unsettled conditions at Jeune Lune prompt Berlovitz to improvise
Tom Berthiaume

On a dismal afternoon this spring I stood outside a local women's correctional institution. No one I knew was in trouble with the law; I was waiting to be admitted past security to see a Ten Thousand Things production of Lorca's Blood Wedding. Things were surreal enough, though, and I was relieved to spot a familiar face. Barbra Berlovitz, for her part, met my hello with mock consternation.

"Oh, God," she said. "You're here to review this?"

It turned out that Berlovitz, a founding artistic director of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, was performing that day outside the rather rarified turf of her home theater for the first time in three decades. After a shake-up in the theater's organization last year, which left most of the company's founders without artistic director status, Berlovitz has cast a wider artistic net, including taking the role of the mother in Blood Wedding after another actor dropped out.

"It was tenuous for me," she says months later on a hot summer day, over coffee in south Minneapolis. "I haven't studied Lorca, and I wasn't a fan. I thought Lorca was so over-the-top, so melodramatic."

As she speaks, Berlovitz allows an ironic grin. In Jeune Lune's nearly 30-year existence, first splitting time between Minnesota and France, then settling here for good, the company staked its identity on both visual and emotional extravagance. Until her home theater charts its future, though, Berlovitz has obviously enjoyed the experience of playing with others.

"It's been thrilling," she says, a word she uses several times over the course of an hour. "It's nice to be out of my cluster—or cloister."

Berlovitz, an imposing and elemental presence onstage, is open and relaxed in person, with a ready smile. She has a marvelous cackle of a laugh that she unleashes when particularly tickled, such as when talk turns to the Amino Project, an improvisational show she participated in with the U.K.'s Improbable company last April.

For all Jeune Lune's accomplishments, including a regional Tony Award in 2005, it's clear that Berlovitz has relished working recently on smaller-scale projects. And when talk turns to the two Fringe Festival shows on which she recently worked (her first ever), she remembers a time when her home company possessed a good deal less institutional baggage.

"It's kind of embarrassing and sentimental and mushy," she says. "When I walked out onstage as an actor at the Southern (for Four Humors' production of Bards, in which she played Queen Elizabeth), I teared up. I hadn't been an actor on that stage in so long, and the tech director came out and said, 'See this arch? No one touch the arch. As Barbra can tell you, Jeune Lune repaired it.' And we did—there were pieces of plaster we repaired that were still there."

Jeune Lune moved into its current warehouse district space in 1992. For more than a decade before, it was an itinerant company. At this year's Fringe, Berlovitz listened to echoes of those earlier days.

"Bards was oversold," she says of one performance. "Just jam-packed. I was listening from the wings, and I heard laughter. A lot of the shows Jeune Lune did in the early years were comedies, and there's a particular sound of the laughter in (the Southern Theater), and I heard it. I hadn't heard it since Yang Zen Froggs in 1985."

Berlovitz also worked as a coach for Bedlam Theatre's Shakespeare's Hystery of Queene Margaret in this year's Fringe, and she has a full plate of teaching gigs at the U of M. She has also directed student productions in the Twin Cities and California in the past year. She's a major fan of the Russian novelist Bulgakov, and has an adaptation of Master and Margarita waiting to find a home.

While the fate of Jeune Lune is uncertain for the moment, Berlovitz professes her desire to keep one foot within its borders. She talks about the uniqueness of the company, with its long-term nucleus paralleled only by companies such as New York's Mabou Mines and Improbable for staying power.

"We got together because we didn't particularly want to work in other places," Berlovitz says of Jeune Lune. "Now, coming out of a training as an actor-author, it's interesting to see young groups like Four Humors and Bedlam, so completely different, developing their own futures."

If they're (very) lucky, those artists might work in the theater as long as Berlovitz. On the other hand, they've clearly lent her a welcome shot in the arm. The air outside the cloister seems very fresh indeed.

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