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Stage Preview: New artistic director starts season with 'Chosen'

Friday, November 21, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jonathan Rest has taken on a challenge. The history of Jewish theater in Pittsburgh is long and rich, but also erratic, especially for the companies recently based at the Squirrel Hill JCC.


'The Chosen'

WHERE: Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh, Katz Performing Arts Center, JCC, 5738 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill.

WHEN: Through Dec. 14; 8 p.m. Wed., Thurs. and Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun.

TICKETS: $17-$20; 412-394-3353.


An endemic problem was managerial: The JCC might appoint a competent artistic director, but there would be conflicting goals or overlapping leadership. So after the latest JCC company was disbanded in 2001, producer Tito Braunstein founded the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh to be an independent theater-in-residence at the JCC, and signaled his seriousness by hiring capable directors and contracting with Actors Equity to use professionals.

Now, after two seasons of three plays each -- with such highlights as "That's Life," "I'm Not Rappaport" and "The Price" -- Braunstein and his new board have appointed Rest the Jewish Theatre's artistic director.

He has started his tenure by directing the company's first show of the new season, Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's beloved novel, "The Chosen," which opened last night. "The Chosen" had its world premiere four years ago at City Theatre and Philadelphia's Arden Theatre.

The Jewish Theatre's mission statement speaks of "plays of universal appeal from a Jewish perspective." As Rest interprets it, "Jewish plays" can mean Jewish playwrights, characters, subject matter or such issues as separatism or assimilation. The exact parameters are a perennial topic of debate at meetings of the Association for Jewish Theaters, an international umbrella for groups in many countries. As Rest points out, "any ethnic or national theater is open to such discussion. But Jewish theater has a wonderfully rich cultural heritage; there's lots to choose from."

Rest says the company has a new, dynamic board that is carrying on major fundraising. This should be "a banner year," he says.

His goals for the company include a reading series, education programs and possible "tours" to the South Hills JCC. But the key is play selection, and he hopes to tackle more new or controversial plays. He finds support in the Jewish Theatre's mission, which advocates "a platform for new voices, a bridge between the generations, to stimulate thinking, touch the heart, jog the memory, entertain and enlighten."

The schedule of his first year moves slightly in that direction with its second play, Jason Robert Brown's unusual song cycle, "The Last 5 Years" (March 10-28), directed by Scott Wise, before ending with Wendy Wasserstein's more familiar comedy, "The Sisters Rosensweig" (May 5-23), directed by Shirley Tannenbaum.

However you define Jewish theater, "The Chosen" certainly qualifies, based on a novel about discovering differences and similarities within Judaism. "It's an unusually strong stage adaptation," Rest says. "The best parts of the book have made it to the stage. It's very theatrical, and people have a very strong, sentimental memory of the novel."

Rest finds the theme appropriate to Pittsburgh, because here, "the different sects of Jews intermingle much more than elsewhere -- Hasidic, other orthodox, conservative, reform. They live so close to each other." The play is a reminder of the Hasidic storytelling tradition, which knows that "a well-placed silence is as important as words."

What's unusual about Pittsburgh, he says, is that the urban Jewish population of about 50,000 has stayed stable for more than a century, especially in Squirrel Hill. "There is a community there, we do have an audience there, and it's very important to us."

The "us" is recent: Having started out as a medical doctor, Rest came late to both Pittsburgh and theater. Born in Chicago, he came to Pittsburgh first as a CMU undergraduate. Then he took his medical degree at the University of California, San Francisco, and for 20 years of training, residency and practice in family medicine, he lived in Berkeley. There he married MJ Tocci. But when their son was 1 1/2, they picked up and moved to Pittsburgh, Rest going back to grad school in directing at CMU, 1996-99, and Tocci giving up her career as a legal prosecutor in Oakland, Calif., to travel the country teaching trial skills and doing jury consulting.

Rest's 1999 master's thesis production at CMU was of Feydeau's farce, "A Flea in Her Ear." For Prime Stage, he adapted and directed "To Kill a Mockingbird," and he directed "Tartuffe" for PICT. In the Jewish Theatre's first season, he directed "Door to Door," and in its second, he wrote the adaptation of "The Jazz Singer."

Along the way he studied one year at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and had a fellowship to the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. Occasional script consulting on medical television for CBS and Paramount helps pay the bills. His children's show, "Cosmic Chemistry," is running strong at the Science Center, he's writing a screenplay and for the Pittsburgh Symphony he's writing "Beethoven UnRapped," a children's show that pits Beethoven's Ninth Symphony against rap music.

Rest is a busy man, unaptly named. But if the Jewish Theatre grows as he and Braunstein hope, he'll be busier still.

Drama editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at 412-263-1666

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