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THEATER: Ventura County | THEATER NOTES

Diversity of Drama

Cal Lutheran will stage two plays with special appeal to the Jewish community.

April 16, 1998|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the last places you'd expect to see Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Heidi Chronicles" and the post-Holocaust drama "A Shayna Maidel" is Cal Lutheran University.

But the university is producing the plays during the season of Passover and the secular holiday Yom Hashoa, or Holocaust Day, and on the heels of the campus' Latino celebration and this weekend's Scandinavian Festival.

"We are very anxious to be an inclusive ecumenical community," says campus pastor the Rev. Mark Knutson. "As a Lutheran institution, we celebrate diversity, which includes celebrating the Jewish population here."

Though students and staff are not required to disclose their ethnicity or religion, official sources estimate the campus Jewish population as somewhere between "a handful" and 10%.

Cal Lutheran will commemorate Yom Hashoa a day early, at its regular chapel service April 22. "This semester," Knutson added, "the English department is offering a course called 'Literature of the Holocaust.' When that course is offered, it piques the students' interest."

Ken Gardner, chairman of Cal Lutheran's drama department and director of "The Heidi Chronicles," says he wasn't looking for a play with a specifically Jewish orientation.

He argues that heroine Heidi Holland isn't necessarily Jewish.

"Our department is about 75% to 80% women, and we're always looking for plays with good women's roles," he says, explaining why he was drawn to the play.

"It's an epic piece, covering 25 years. It deals in women's issues, and is very sophisticated with some touching moments."

Heidi may or may not be Jewish, but her story--coming of age, and then some, in a liberal East Coast environment from the '60s to the '80s--combined with Wasserstein's own ethnicity, should resonate in many Jewish circles.

"A Shayna Maidel," Barbara Lebow's drama in which members of a Jewish family are split during the German invasion of Poland and reunite in New York City, should be equally resonant.

Some may remember its incarnation as a 1992 TV movie, "Miss Rose White," starring Kyra Sedgwick, Amanda Plummer and Maximilian Schell.

Kevin P. Kern, a Cal Lutheran alumnus who is now a drama instructor, first saw "A Shayna Maidel" while studying for his master's degree at Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university in Waltham, Mass. (A Lutheran, Kern attended services off-campus.)

"I was asked for a companion piece to run in repertory with 'The Heidi Chronicles' because we have the blessing of too much talent in the college this year," he explained.

"When I was in school here, we never had enough talent for more than one play at a time.

"The places where I normally direct, including the Marquie Dinner Theater and the Moorpark Melodrama, only needed me for comedy," said Kern, so the opportunity to direct a drama attracted him.

"Also, I was upset with a few things Martin Luther had said about the Jewish people, and wanted to help bridge the gap that may be still there."

"Martin Luther, in his later years, did spew forth some rather anti-Semitic viewpoints," Knutson confirmed.

"They were one man's opinions that were kind of embarrassing for our founding fathers, and never church policy. Within the last five years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America [with which Cal Lutheran is affiliated] acknowledged that past and made an apology for it.

"I think that one of the important things about Cal Lutheran University is that it celebrates freedom of inquiry into all matters of faith and reason."

SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL: Cal Lutheran has announced the plays in its Shakespeare Festival, to be presented with the Santa Susana Repertory Company. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (which the group presented last year) and "Two Gentlemen of Verona" will be performed outdoors at the campus from June 26 to July 26.

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BE THERE

"A Shayna Maidel" and "The Heidi Chronicles" will be performed at Cal Lutheran University's Preus-Brandt Forum, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. "A Shayna Maidel" opens Friday, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and April 26; 2 p.m. Sunday and 9 p.m. April 26. "The Heidi Chronicles" opens April 23. Performances are at 8 p.m. April 23, 24, 30 and May 1; 6 p.m. April 26; and 2 p.m. May 3. Tickets: $8. (805) 493-3415.

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