Shabbat and Shakespeare

Reagan Stein, Kouroush Sadr and Emily Boodman.

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Shabbat and you don’t have to be a scholar to enjoy Shakespeare.

And whoever you are, you can enjoy a combination of the two at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in early February as its JCompany of young people put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as part of a Shabbat celebration that includes a kosher meal. 

Shabbat is the traditional Jewish observance of the Sabbath, a day of rest and religious activities that focus on family and community. It is one of the central and oldest celebrations in the Jewish tradition. 

“What better sharing than classic theater brought together with the entire Shabbat experience,” says Joey Landwehr, the JCompany Youth Theatre’s artistic director. 

“If you are not Jewish, you can come. It’s not a big Jewish religious service necessarily, it’s really about community and connecting with family and your loved ones.”

This is JCompany’s second time tackling Shakespeare and the first time pairing it with Shabbat. As an inclusive company, it tries to provide an alternative for observant youth who cannot participate in other theaters that require performances or rehearsals on Friday. In the past, they have not performed on Fridays, but this brings together theater and the celebration of Shabbat for a cultural event that is meaningful for performers and audience.

They will reconfigure the David and Dorthea Garfield Theater from its usual 500-seat format to one with tables and chairs for 100 to 120 guests. They’ll give each participant a boxed lunch, something Landwehr calls “Shabbat in a basket.” The guests will go to their tables and have community time with the others.

Before the show, JLearn Director Sarah Hanuka will provide background about Shabbat and the celebrations during it.

“Sarah Hanuka is a brilliant scholar in Judaic studies,” Landwehr says. “She’ll come in and talk a little about what Shabbat is for the non-Jews in the audience. They’ll do the candle lighting and a little of the service and then we’ll present Shakespeare on stage. Everyone will get to spend that time with their family and loved ones.”

Director Erin Peterson finds the marriage of the two events particularly appropriate. She says in Shakespeare’s era, there were few places or times when people of all walks of life could come together. Two of the places where that happened were at religious institutions for prayer and the theater.

“Theater is a transformative and communal experience,” Peterson says. “Shakespeare wrote about the human condition. He wrote about the ups and downs, the relationships and complex emotions. He truly celebrated the human experience. And with Shabbat Shakespeare, we’re coming together as a larger community of humans to connect with each other and share the experience of live theater.”

With its star-crossed lovers, warring fairies and unusual transformations, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is considered one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays for young actors and audiences who might not otherwise feel comfortable with the Bard’s elevated language.

“‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a fun Shakespearean comedy that explores the mischief foolish mortals can get into when they’re at the mercy of magic and the power of love,” Peterson says. 

“And, in this particular production, we have our audience seated on all four sides of the stage so it’s an incredibly immersive experience that we all share.”

Landwehr and Peterson have been eager to bring Shakespeare to JCompany’s young actors. Landwehr has wanted to stage it throughout his 16 years with the theater troupe and now has a receptive chief executive officer at the community center in Betzy Lynch.

“Before she came to JCC, an idea like this wouldn’t even be discussed,” Landwehr says. “Now I come to Betzy with ideas and excitement and she greets me with that same excitement. This is just a stepping off for new and exciting programming we’re going to do.” 

The theater is known for presenting the big-name musicals and he says it has taken him about 15 years to convince everyone that Shakespeare is a good fit for their actors. 

When they did “Romeo and Juliet” last year in their rehearsal room, it performed to packed houses and the actors and audiences loved it. So, for this season, he wanted to step it up a level.

Peterson has been performing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for more than 10 years and she says she still finds new moments and meanings in the story. It’s something she loves sharing with JCompany’s young people.

“These young artists are remarkable,” Peterson says. “Each actor has been challenged to tackle the text, make it accessible to a modern audience, embody the character (for some it’s a real challenge since someone does transform into a donkey) and to have fun while doing it.

“This is our second Shakespeare production so it’s not a style that they’re necessarily accustomed to, but with each rehearsal we chip away and discover new things. And seeing that ‘a-ha moment’ dawn on their faces when they finally unlock what something means or how they can relate to it is something that never gets old for me.”

The cast in this show ranges from ages 7 to 17.

Landwehr hopes they will eventually be able to move on to other Shakespearean works such as “Macbeth” or “Merchant of Venice” as the actors get more experience with the language and style.

Meanwhile, this play has worked well, and Peterson encourages all audiences to come out to see the show.

“It’s accessible,” she says. “If you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before or if you were stuck reading his work in English class and hated it, this is the production for you. William Shakespeare was a playwright. He didn’t write novels. He wrote plays and plays are meant to be performed. When spoken aloud, the words come to life.”

She says they haven’t altered the text or changed the language, but that all of them take the time to make sure they understand what they are saying so that they can communicate it effective and in an entertaining fashion to the audience.

“And there’s fairies and donkeys in it,” Peterson says. “What more could you ask for?”

Landwehr hopes this show will communicate to the community that JCompany is a very inclusive theater company. He says about half of the actors are Jewish while the other half are not.

“No matter what your background or economic status or religion or color, I hope you will be a part of this either in the audience or on stage,” Landwehr says.

While he acknowledges that many people are frightened of what they don’t know, Landwehr wants them to know it will be a great evening of theater with food and drink.

“We’re not there to preach a sermon or say you should be doing this or that,” Landwehr says. “We’re there to share the traditions and let you know you can be invited into our family. It’s about being together and sharing a meal and some good theater together. And what better way to do that than through the eyes of young people?”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” David and Dorthea Garfield Theatre, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla, lfjcc.org7 p.m. Friday, February 7, 8 p.m. Saturday, February 8, $29 in advance.