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Elkin's wandering Jewish Repertory Theatre finds a permanent home

Today, Saul Elkin will retire one of his favorite jokes.

For the past eight seasons of the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York, the veteran Western New York actor and director has told opening night audiences that his company's members were a group of "wandering Jews."

That loaded line, delivered in Elkin's avuncular style, would bring a laugh from the assembled crowds in that potent moment before the lights went up on the company's often challenging productions. It was an acknowledgment that, even in the presence of often serious theater, there was no need for audiences to feel overwhelmed by the weight of the issues playing out onstage.

Tonight, the Jewish Rep's days of hopscotching from theater to theater are coming to an end. At 6:30 p.m., it will officially dedicate its new home in Amherst's Jewish Community Center with a sold-out one-night production of William Luce's play "Lillian."

It marks a new era for the small but popular theater company, whose establishment in Amherst brings the company closer to its target audience and lends some much-needed stability to what had been a healthy but itinerant enterprise.

On Monday afternoon, Elkin stood with JRT co-founder David Bunis and Jewish Community Center director Richard Zakalik in the dusty new theater, which was still going through the final phase of construction. Pieces of the stage were stacked against a back wall and folding wall separators on tracks were bunched up like pillars in the center of the room.

"When night falls," Elkin said, "all these doors go away and risers come in and chairs come in."

The theater's new space, dubbed the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in honor of its local benefactors, features a removable 20-by-20-foot stage, 120 reconfigurable seats and state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. In addition to its function as JRT's home base, the widely adaptable space will be used for the JCC's after-school programs, lectures and film series, such as the Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival.

Elkin, who is also the founder of Shakespeare in Delaware Park, praised the adaptability of the theater and talked up its lighting and sound systems, which were designed, respectively, by Brian Cavanagh and Tom Makar.

"The lighting system will permit us to use any corner of the room. The possibilities are endless," he said. "If a director comes in and has a vision I can't imagine anymore, they can do it."

The new building is part of an ongoing $9 million expansion and construction project at the JCC's locations in Getzville and Buffalo. This weekend, the space will host several events as part of the center's Cultural Arts Festival, including screenings of "The Nature of Dreams," a documentary about author Amos Oz (who is coming to Buffalo in October) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., and a concert featuring Western New York cantors slated for Sunday at 7 p.m.

After nearly a decade of renting space in other theaters such as Alleyway and MusicalFare, Elkin said the company's move to the JCC theater feels like coming home.

"It's beyond exciting. For me, it's a dream. When David and I first talked about it and approached the JCC, the previous director made it clear to us that he would help us where he could, but that we would be 'out there' somewhere. We've been 'out there' somewhere. And suddenly we're here. Suddenly we're going to have a space."

Elkin pointed to MusicalFare Theatre, whose location in nearby Snyder has played into its popularity among older theatergoers, as an example of the benefits of bringing theater to the suburbs.

"We have a senior audience, largely. They have followed us around town, but they prefer to be here, I think," Elkin said.

Bunis said he hoped to draw new audiences from users of the JCC's other programs (70 percent of which, he stressed, are not Jewish) as well as from the nearby Weinberg Campus, a large assisted living facility.

"We know we're going to lose some of the downtown audience," Bunis said, "but we think it will be more than made up by what we pick up out here." Tonight's performance of "Lillian," a one-woman show about the career of the playwright Lillian Helman performed by frequent JRT actress Tina Rausa, will serve as a taste of the company's upcoming season.

The season begins in earnest Oct. 20 with a production of Deb Margolin's new play "Imagining Madoff," envisioning a conversation between the disgraced investor and one of his high-profile clients, a Holocaust survivor and poet based loosely on Elie Wiesel. That show runs through Nov. 13.

The theater's first season in its own theater also features productions of two one-act plays, Bertold Brecht's "The Jewish Wife" and David Mamet's "The Duck Variations," from Feb. 9 to March 4, 2012. It wraps up with a production of "Driving Miss Daisy" from May 3 to 27, 2012.

Depending on the economic climate, the company has produced only two to three shows per season since its inception. And that approach, Elkin said, has paid big artistic dividends. "I've been enjoying finding the more modest pieces, staffing them with the best people we can possibly find and trying to do top-notch work," he said. "And frequently we've done that."

With the excitement of a new space and the possibilities it offers for artistic fulfillment, audience expansion and an increasingly fruitful relationship with the JCC, the loss of Elkin's historically loaded opening-night joke is a minor price to pay.

After all, said Elkin, ever mindful of history, "the wandering Jews eventually arrived."


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