Ready to Rumble in ‘Wrestling With Angels’

Todd Shotz is working on the side of the "Angels."

"That's true, but let's be clear," he kibitzes as the baseball season swings into action, "that it's not the California Angels. I'll always be a Phillies fan."

He's learned to play ball in the bigs as a Hollywood heavy-hitter. But it's the "Wrestling" arena where his tag-team match is playing out to major attention these days: Indeed, Shotz has been "Wrestling With Angels" for five years, which is when the Melrose Park movie mensch first teamed up with director, writer, producer Freida Lee Mock as a production executive to make "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner," a literary smackdown of a documentary now on screen in the region.

Bruno Samartino of the seder set? Best of three falls: "Wrestling" had the recent distinction of sharing cultural space on the local city stage with concurrent productions of Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," still running at the Arden Theatre, and "Angels in America, Part I," at Annenberg's Studio Theatre.

Kushner as cultural cushion for those seeking comfort? Not quite. The outspoken outstanding playwright has a good ear and a loud voice when it comes to political punditry, and his penning the script of "Munich" didn't mute the critics who consider him a verbal torch of tirades against Israel and all that it stands for.

Stage left is where the right and center place him in the international geopolitical stage, and it is a starring role Kushner covets, using the spotlight to deflect rays of concern for issues that plague the world.

Shotz hasn't picked an easy subject for his first documentary, but then, the scion of a prominent area family signed up early on to make a difference in what he does. "My parents [businessman Steven J. and Barbara Shotz, a JCC executive] were always open for their kids to go after their dreams," says the older brother of Dan, 30, producer/writer of CBS's "Jericho"; George, 26, on his way to an MBA; and artist Annette, 24.

Shotz heard 'round the world: Before heading up TV development/production at Hollywood's Cheyenne Enterprises — founded by Bruce Willis and producer Arnold Rifkin — the Penn grad spent a handful of years as company manager for some of Broadway's biggest hits, a love he learned early on, as he high-fives the theater program at Cheltenham High with a bow to its bounty of professionalism.

But the die-hard theater executive has switched coasts and coteries, now working on "Live Free or Die Hard" — the fourth in the Willis series — as well as "The Tourist," with Hugh Jackman.

No accidental tourist on the L.A. scene, Shotz shares some insights into a career that has careened internationally, telling in its concern for Israel — in Tel Aviv, he held a master class for creative producing at the Cinemateque and, right after college, took part in a young-leadership project sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. That program, Project Otzma, took some chutzpah, as Shotz headed up a drama club while undergoing positive dramatic visions of what he saw for himself as well.

A Three-Year Time Frame
And now, a decade later, he alights with "Angels," limning America's cloudy years from 9/11 to the 2004 presidential election, a trio of years trapped and triggered by historic events which Kushner uses as a bumper car, taking hits, hitting back as the country tries to stay the course.

"Tony so often has his finger on the pulse of what is happening," avers Shotz of the writer whose theatrical "Homebody/Kabul" coupled seemingly coincidentally with the detonated grenade that was Afghanistan.

But the playwright seems to have this uncanny knack for actually anticipating world headlines — the AIDS epidemic in "Angels" — long before the world press presses the issues.

What helped press Shotz into action on the Kushner biopic was the unorthodox playwright's affinity for his Jewish legacy.

"He's a very Jewish playwright," says Shotz, who considers himself "very staunchly Zionist."

Not that Kushner's views don't get some Jews' tallit tied in a knot. Shotz well understands that Kushner "is very controversial when it comes to Israeli politics," a canny critic whose verbal fusillades some consider hurtful rather than helpful.

"Collective Action to Overcome Justice" — the final third of the film — focuses on Judaism as the juggernaut that has impacted Kushner's views, including links to his lineage in productions of "Caroline, or Change"; the adaptation of the Holocaust opera earmarked for children, "Brundibar," a collaboration with artist Maurice Sendak, which also led to a children's book; and "Why It Should Be Easy When It Can Be Hard," a play on immigration.

Hardly easy to understand Kushner's alternate appeal and animosity among some Jewish segments of society, where he is either burned or burnished, attacked or admired.

Certainly, Kushner could be an intriguing traveling companion for anyone tripping through Jewish history but Shotz's berth right is in a different compartment on the Jewish ride through Israel. A staunch admirer of Kushner and his playwriting prowess — as well as his dedication to serving social justice — Shotz doesn't necessarily see Israel the Kushner way.

Big Shotz comes from small beginnings, and the exec's existential journey began right at A.J., where his "wonderful Hebrew-school experience" under the guidance of Cantor Charles Davidson projected him onto the path of the ultimate aleph male.

"I've been teaching kids how to read Torah since I was 14," he says of his status as a teen teeming with passion as a member of the A.J. Torah Club.

Shotz also paid his Jewish dues just an Amtrak club-car ride away later at the New Shul in New York, where he "started their Bar Mitzvah program."

He has since raised the bar high and often for others seeking a Jewish education, parlaying a part-time Hebrew mentoring mitzvah into a gimel gambol that's paid off: Hebrew Helpers "provides in-home, one-on-one personalized instruction, not only matching students with tutors by location and skills, but also coordinating private Bar/Bat Mitzvah services for families that do not belong to a congregation."

Nun the wiser: Of the 10 tutors working the L.A. region, four are from Cheltenham and bounced their own Bar/Bat Mitzvah bruchas off the bimahs of A.J.

Hebrew Helpers has no problem with outsiders; there's parking space for those coming from outside Elkins Park, too: Two other tutors hail from Radnor and Abington. Indeed, Shotz and erstwhile Abington resident Marc Potash put together a seventh-grade religious-school educational program now offered at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

License to kvell? Hope so, says Shotz, who would like to see the curriculum go nationwide at some point.

And sometimes, it all hits home, too, outside the synagogue: "My best friend from Cheltenham, Debbie Jaffe, is an actress out here, and I was able to cast her in my movie 'Timber Falls,' " which falls under the rubric of "penned by Dan Kay," also from Penn.

Pen Shotz in as a producer who knows how to mix business with pleasure. What better double feature than the offer he had to fly out to Jerusalem for screenings of Kushner's documentary, where the film will be sold to Israel television.

Shotz's parents were able to join the party, but did Jerusalemites buy the Kushner party line?

"Tony embraces controversy," says Shotz of his film star's hugging it out with adversaries. "So much of what he says is taken out of context."

In a way, Shotz has never been taken out of his own Melrose Park context; he and Dan "live five minutes away from each other, and for the first three years I was here, I lived right across the hall from Dan and his wife, Emily, who've known each other since they were 7."

From Melrose Avenue to Melrose Park isn't as far a distance as it sounds: "I was home seven times last year."

But there's no doubt Shotz has found a home among the Hollywood Hills, as well as "Family": He's in post-production on "On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone," another documentary, all the while maintaining his communal reach through the steering committee of the Entertainment Division of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.

But then, Shotz has bloomed where Bialystock and Bloom missed the script. While "theater will always be my first love," film is much more than a tease and a screen test of his protean talents; it's a bustling battleground in which "Wrestling With Angels" has him ready to rumble once more. 



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