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Though director Phillip Cates and the Rev....

Though director Phillip Cates and the Rev. Steve Berry have never met, both see strong reasons for integrating the professional production of secular drama into religious life.

“Every audience is like a congregation,” says Cates, a founding member of the fledgling Jewish Theatre of Los Angeles. “Sitting in a theater is a unique human experience of communion.”

Berry is pastor of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, whose 14-year-old Commonwealth Theatre has just been resuscitated. “Theater celebrates the fullness and diversity of life,” he preaches, “and has a way of putting us in contact with issues that we would otherwise avoid.”

Cates notes that “literature and theater have been a strong part of Jewish culture for centuries. The aspects of life that religion deals with--eternity, ethics, human frailty--are not transmitted just from the pulpit,” he said.

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“In my own case, growing up in a very secular, but very Jewish, home, I didn’t have the experience of synagogue,” he recalled. “I had to come to the questions that religion traditionally asks through my own route--and the theater was very important in that.

“In our theater,” he said, “a non-Jew, a religious Jew and a secular Jew can sit side by side and share a spiritual affinity.”

Cates will direct a staged reading of “The World of Sholom Aleichem” by Arnold Perl at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, at his company’s home at the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. The play is a dramatization of three stories by the famed Yiddish writer whose works depict Jewish life in the shtetls (villages) of Eastern Europe and in the United States at the turn of the century.

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The group plans to launch its regular season in September. Though next month’s production, a fund-raising benefit, is only the group’s second effort, it has attracted such well-known actors as Valerie Harper (a.k.a. Rhoda) and “Seinfeld” regulars Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris.

Perhaps, Cates said, that is because members of Los Angeles’ theater community see the effort as the “philosophical successor” to two successful New York companies, the Jewish Repertory Theater and the American Jewish Theater--both more than 20 years old.

He said he and the group’s founding artistic directors, Gordon Greenberg and Robin Jacobson, believe that Los Angeles can support at least one Jewish theater company.

“The talent is available and there’s tremendous literature out there,” he said. Tickets are $30. For reservations, phone (213) 938-2531, Ext. 2249.

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The same kind of driving spirit that motivates the new Jewish theater is behind the veteran Commonwealth Theatre group. Gary Tharp, a church member and the managing director of the theater, claims that sheer “dogged determination” led to the company’s rebirth.

After a decade and 20 Equity-waiver and non-Equity productions, budgetary strain on church resources brought down the Commonwealth’s curtain in 1991 for the last time--until this weekend.

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Friday evening, a gala opening performance of “Waiting for the Parade” was staged by award-winning director James Burke. The play, by James Murrell, is a technically ambitious World War II drama with music. The production, which will run through Feb. 26, is a tribute to Vera Bantz Ward, an actress who founded the theater while her late husband, the Rev. Donald Ward, was the church’s pastor.

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Incorporating humor and the music of the ‘40s into its serious themes, the play tells the story of five women in Calgary, Canada, during World War II. It was chosen, Tharp said, partly to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war and partly because the five female roles would offer acting opportunities to talented women.

“Our church wants to give something to the community,” Tharp said. “Our dream of dreams is to see the Commonwealth Theatre rise like a phoenix to become as strong and powerful as it once was.”

Berry emphasized that maintaining a professional theater company in residence is in keeping with the mission of his church, which also sponsors anti-hunger, housing and literacy programs, a Bach festival, university-level mini-courses and an elementary and high school.

“Our Congregational tradition emphasizes education, and theater lifts the spirit and educates us by giving us a greater sense of connection between what God is doing in the world and how we are dealing with our relationships with each other,” he said.

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“Waiting for the Parade” will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 15, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, in the Amanda Scott Room of the church, 540 S. Commonwealth Ave. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. Admission to tonight’s performance, a second gala tribute to founder Ward, is $25 to benefit the church. Curtain time tonight is 7:30; a reception and light supper follow the performance. For information and reservations, phone (213) 385-1341.

DATES

* The Rev. Paul Egertson will be installed as bishop of the Southern California West Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at St. Stephen’s Church in Granada Hills at 4 p.m. Sunday. A reception follows. The church is at 15950 Chatsworth St. (818) 891-1759. Egertson was most recently pastor of St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in North Hollywood.

* St. Augustine Catholic Church in Culver City continues its diamond jubilee year celebration with a solemn Mass of thanksgiving at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will preside. A reception follows. 3850 Jasmine Ave. (310) 838-2477.

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* St. James Episcopal Church in Los Angeles will host more than 100 lay and clerical visitors from churches throughout the western United States when it opens its doors to the denomination’s 1995 National Stewardship Conference from Friday, Feb. 10, through Sunday, Feb. 12. The gathering is designed to develop diocesan and parish leaders who will boost Christian giving and financial support. For information about the conference, phone (213) 388-3417.

* Skipp Porteous, president of the Institute for First Amendment Studies in Massachusetts, will speak at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena tonight at 7:30 on “The Growing Power and Challenge of the Christian Right.” Porteous’ visit is being sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Neighborhood Church is at 301 North Orange Grove Blvd.

* L.A. Shanti offers a free Spanish-language weekend workshop Feb. 11-12 for people affected by HIV and AIDS. Facilitators at Vidas Positivas will help participants express their feelings and will make available information about nutrition, exercise, medical treatment, alternative therapies and available resources. As part of the seminar, participants will have the opportunity to join a continuing support group. HIV-positive people who enroll early may arrange free transportation and childcare. Attendance is confidential. For information, phone (213) 962-8197, Ext. 322, or (818) 908-8849.

* The University of Judaism’s 1995 public lecture series begins at 8 p.m. Thursday with USC law professor Susan Estrich speaking on “The Resurgence of Republicanism and the Christian Right in American Politics: What Is the Jewish Stake?” William Kristol, chairman of the Project for the Republican Future and former chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of Education William Bennett, will respond. Other speakers include Tikkun magazine editor Michael Lerner on March 9, theologian Rabbi Harold Schulweis on March 23, Brandeis University professor Gary Tobin on April 6 and author and talk show host Dennis Prager on April 30. Series tickets are $110, $175 for sponsors who receive preferred seating and attend pre-lecture dinners. (310) 476-9777, Ext. 244.

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* “The Miracle on Intervale Avenue,” a film that chronicles the story of a synagogue struggling to survive in the South Bronx, will be screened by the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Community Building. A presentation by former South Bronx resident Irving Allen follows. Admission is $5. 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 653-7740.


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