The match of play and venue can be so wrong -- and so right

julius-caesar-anw.jpgEnsemble of "Julius Caesar" at A Noise Within. Photo: Craig Schwartz

LA's larger stages frequently house small-scale productions that might be more accessible in venues where more of the audience is closer to the actors. And LA's smaller stages frequently host large-cast productions that might look less cramped and cluttered in more spacious homes.

This phenomenon is in large part a product of the Actors' Equity pay scales behind the scenes of LA theater, which have aroused such strong passions recently. I've written more directly about that debate in my last two columns. Let me repeat that I'm a theatergoer, not a producer or an Equity member. My primary concern in this dispute is how to make LA theater not only better but more noticeable to the larger public.

Too bad there is no magic wand that would instantly provide enough money for the companies with larger stages and bigger budgets to produce larger-cast, wider-angle, higher-profile theater most of the time, leaving more intimate plays in the hands of the companies that operate the more intimate venues (including the smaller midsize venues as well as the spaces with fewer than 100 seats.) This result would benefit LA audiences as much as it would benefit LA actors. And producers in small theaters might be more capable of raising enough money to pay the legal minimum wage if they were using fewer actors.

In the meantime, let's examine two companies that currently serve as models for knowing how to use the strengths of their own spaces and (apparently) how to manage their finances - while each of them is staging at least three almost-simultaneous productions.

First, A Noise Within. For years, this midsize (281 seats) classics company has announced themes for its three-show rep seasons. This spring, however, the Pasadena troupe has more purposefully emphasized the ties that bind two of its productions, "Julius Caesar" and "The Threepenny Opera," billed together as "RevolutionRep."

The two scripts have very different perspectives. "Threepenny" primarily addresses why revolutions arise and "Julius Caesar" spends more time depicting a revolution itself and its disillusioning aftermath. However, if you see both in one day, as I did last Sunday and as A Noise Within is inviting audiences to do on April 25 and May 2, you'll probably notice that a song in "Threepenny" includes a verse reflecting on the story of Julius Caesar.

I would suggest seeing "Threepenny" in the afternoon and "Julius Caesar" in the evening, as I did, because this order better illustrates the natural sequence of the revolutionary arc. You can do that on May 2. (Also, on both April 25 and May 2, you can spend the time in between the two performances by adding dinner with cast members and a roundtable discussion in the upstairs rehearsal room, for an extra $50.)

A Noise Within has united these two productions in ways that go beyond their themes. The company's producing artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott co-directed both shows and used the same designers. Frederica Nascimento's nimble set serves both plays, primarily consisting of mobile components that are shifted into many configurations. Because there isn't much scenic realism, Ken Booth's lighting assumes a vital role and becomes one of the productions' most shining (yes, pun intended) elements.

Both performances begin with the buzz of pertinent lines lifted from elsewhere in the script - a Brechtian touch not seen as often in "Julius Caesar" as in "Threepenny," and both productions effectively use the aisles as well as the company's sharply thrust stage. Five actors appear in both productions, with the remarkable Deborah Strang doing the most notable double duty as Mrs. Peachum in "Threepenny" and as a female Casca in "Julius Caesar."

The first act of "Julius Caesar" achieves the undeniable thrust of a cannonball. The second half of Shakespeare's text, after Mark Antony (Rafael Goldstein here) rouses the Roman rabble against Brutus (Robertson Dean) and Cassius (Freddy Douglas), always runs the risk of seeming somewhat anti-climactic. But this production condenses it into a relatively swift and streamlined accounting of how the revolution stumbled under the weight of its protagonists' very human flaws.

"Threepenny" isn't quite as successful, for two reasons. Andrew Ableson is miscast as Macheath, never convincingly projecting the raw danger of "Mack the Knife." And occasionally the lyrics (in the stinging Michael Feingold translation) are hard to decipher over the masterful seven-person band's interpretations of Kurt Weill's evocative score. Still, other performances are memorable, especially Marisa Duchowny's Polly Peachum and Stasha Surdyke's Jenny Diver.

By the way, A Noise Within is also currently presenting Michael Michetti's sprightly West Coast premiere of Charley Morey's adaptation of Beaumarchais' "Figaro." While it lacks the revolutionary gravitas of "Threepenny" and "Julius Caesar" and isn't part of the officially designated RevolutionRep, it "also skewers the foibles of the ruling classes with fierce, fearless farce," as the producing artistic directors write in their program note. Jeremy Guskin in the title role is a live wire.

For the record, A Noise Within - originally a 99-seat-plan company - is currently employing 25 Actors' Equity members as actors and stage managers, not as "volunteers."

On to the Road Theatre Company. It's already running three plays in NoHo and it's about to open a fourth. All four will be playing at least through next weekend. "The Other Place" and "The English Bride" are humming along in the 78-seat Road on Magnolia. "Mud Blue Sky" opened last week at the 44-seat Road on Lankershim, and it will be joined next week by "Things Being What They Are." Things begin what they are, the Road understandably still uses Equity's 99-seat plan.

All of the Road plays are small-scale and newish, although none of them is brand-new. Road's "The English Bride" is billed as a West Coast premiere, while "The Other Place" and "Mud Blue Sky" are LA premieres. "Things Being What They Are" - Wendy MacLeod's male-bonding comedy -- had a brief run in a different production at last year's Hollywood Fringe Festival. Road's production features one of the actors, Chet Grissom, who also performed in the Fringe version.

MUD-BLUE-SKY-ds.jpgAdam Farabee, Carlyle King and Whitney Dylan in "Mud Blue Sky" at the Road Theatre. Photo: John Lorenz

Most of the Road plays are realistic in style - although Sharr White's "The Other Place," about a woman who is gradually losing her mind - conveys some of the same sense of disorientation that the character is experiencing.

"Mud Blue Sky" and "The English Bride" explore fresher subject matter than the other two. In the former, three middle-aged flight attendants try to make it through a night at a chain motel near a Chicago airport with the help of a teenage pot dealer on his prom night. Marisa Wegrzyn's play is a more honest and rueful update of the old-fashioned stewardess farces from the '60s. Although the ending is a bit of a muddle and the characters may feel grounded, Mary Lou Belli's cast is, well, flying high.

In Lucile Lichtblau's "The English Bride," an inexperienced lass is swept up in a romance with a man who is secretly plotting to plant a bomb in her suitcase as she travels to Israel on El Al. Loosely based on a real-life incident in the '80s, it's structured in the form of after-the-fact interrogations by an Israeli agent of both the bomber and his bride. So we know the ending early on, and the play becomes more of a psychological probe than a suspense thriller. But director Marya Mazor and her three-person cast make the psychology fascinating.

The vigor of the multiple productions at A Noise Within and the Road is impressive. Of course A Noise Within is working on a much larger and more expensive scale than is the Road. No, neither company is currently doing brand-new plays, which take more time and intensive labor to develop. And they're not doing LA-set plays, although the Road last year produced the premiere of a Pasadena-set play, "Sovereign Body," which was somewhat like "The Other Place" in its theme and casting of the mighty Taylor Gilbert -- only better.

In Chris Jones' review of the premiere of "Mud Blue Sky" for the Chicago Tribune last year, he wrote of how the Chicago venue is directly across the street from an apartment complex that used to be "teeming with flight attendants" back in the day. Road, that's your cue - find a new play that's set across the street from one of your theaters in NoHo.

Meanwhile, a few brief words about Theatre West's revival of Jim Beaver's "Verdigris" - which opened there three decades ago but didn't receive a second production until now. "Verdigris," set in Oklahoma in 1972, focuses on a domineering widow who runs several hardscrabble businesses from her wheelchair, while her son demands that she sell the house and enter a nursing home. For the current production, Beaver -- who's also in the cast as the woman's alcoholic brother -- has filled in some of the backstory of the narrator (Adam Conger) whose memory play this is. Mark W. Travis is once again the director. Sheila Shaw, who played a younger character in the previous production, now appears as the pivotal widow.

Verdigris-ds.jpgJim Beaver, Sheila Shaw, Adam Conger in "Verdigris" at Theatre West. Photo: Charlie Mount

Theatre West recently raised $56,079 on Kickstarter to revive "Verdigris" in the same 160-seat house where it began. The venerable company uses Equity contracts for its children's productions in this space, but for years it has been allowed to use the 99-seat plan for many of its adult-oriented productions, including this revival of "Verdigris." The "Verdigris" cast includes six Equity actors, all of whom are excellent.

In between the two productions of "Verdigris," another small-town Oklahoma play that revolves around a strong-willed older woman character - Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" -- became much more famous. It went from Steppenwolf in Chicago to Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize and was transformed into a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Angelenos will get another chance to experience the play this summer at Topanga's Theatricum Botanicum, but my memory of it (from its tour stop at the Ahmanson in 2009) is that it's much louder and soapier than "Verdigris" but not necessarily as moving or as authentic.

I applaud Theatre West for developing "Verdigris" and sticking with it after three decades, But I imagine that the play might have garnered a lot more attention if its first or at least its second stop had been Steppenwolf (which has 515- and 299-seat venues) or one of its local equivalents instead of a theater using the 99-seat plan. This, of course, is an admonition to the local equivalents of Steppenwolf to examine their own back yards more closely, as well as an admonition to the LA theater community to build more local equivalents of Steppenwolf. For every promising play that has gone from the 99-seat plan to greater glory, there are probably a hundred that have not.


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