Sheldon Epps era ending in Pasadena theater

playon-ppa.jpgA scene from "Play On!" Photo by the Pasadena Playhouse Archives.

In 1997, when he began running the Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon Epps broke the racial barrier that had hitherto prevailed in Southern California's large, mainstream theatrical institutions.

In the biggest LA theatrical news of 2016 so far, Epps is leaving that job — at the end of the 2016-2017 season.

Sheldon-Epps-headshot .jpgUnlike a more famous first-in-his-field African-American leader who's also departing his current job in 2017, Epps won't deliver a nationally televised address about the state of his domain — in his case, Pasadena Playhouse. But he might write a book, he told the LA Times.

For nearly two decades, Epps' choices have dominated the playhouse's programming almost as much as its founder Gilmor Brown's did in the first incarnation of the playhouse (which opened in its current venue in 1925).

That earlier era ended in 1969, after which the building was largely dormant until it was revived in 1986. Four artistic directors came and went between 1986 and 1992. Then, for the next few years, Lars Hansen, who held the titles of managing and executive director, made most of the programming decisions, but he was never named the "artistic director."

So Epps, whose tenure will span nearly two decades by the time he leaves, created the image of Pasadena Playhouse programming that exists among most contemporary LA theater followers.

And what type of programming comes to mind when someone mentions the Epps-era Pasadena Playhouse? African-American plays — with and without music. And musicals — with and without an African-American emphasis.

Pasadena, with its rich African-American history, was perhaps in the mood for more black-specific theater than most parts of Southern California when Epps arrived. In his first two years, he staged two productions that were set in '40s Harlem — John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler" and "Play On!," an Epps-conceived and Duke Ellington-infused adaptation (with book by Cheryl L. West) of "Twelfth Night." He also began that second year with another drama from black history, Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West," directed by Shirley Jo Finney.

But after that, two years passed without a conspicuously black-oriented production, until Epps' staging of Charles Randolph-Wright's "Blue" (with Diahann Carroll and Phylicia Rashad) arrived in 2002. Since then, the highlights of the playhouse's African-American offerings were Epps-directed productions of August Wilson's "Fences" (with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett) and Cleage's "Blues for an Alabama Sky," plus a revival of Wilson's "Jitney" (which originated at South Coast Repertory before it went to Pasadena).

Epps seemingly didn't feel compelled to fill an automatic "black" slot in each season. But he also took care to include productions that, while hardly all-black, featured African-American artists in prominent positions, such as Debbie Allen's staging of "Twist" in 2011 and a pre-"Empire" Taraji P. Henson's starring role in "Above the Fold" in 2014. Epps spotted the potential within the Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical version of "Sister Act" (previously a movie hit, with a sizzling leading role for a black actress) and staged its premiere in Pasadena before it went on to Broadway glory under a different director. Later he engineered a mostly black version of "Kiss Me Kate."

Epps' tastes also encompassed some traditionally non-black musicals — "Forever Plaid" and its sequel "Plaid Tidings" (you can't get much whiter than that) and David Lee's memorable revivals of "Do I Hear a Waltz?," "110 in the Shade," "Can-Can" and "Camelot." As with most musical producers, Epps has scored much better with revivals than with original musicals.

So is Epps' theatrical vision limited to these two specialties — African-American material and musicals? No.

He began his tenure in January 1998 with his own staging of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" — a non-musical in which the characters are white Brits. That first year also included Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" and "Only a Kingdom," a wan musical about King Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson. Together, these three plays with white British subjects made up half of Epps' debut year in Pasadena.

There was a slot for 20th-century English plays in each of his next three years as well ("The Importance of Being Earnest," ""Blithe Spirit," "How the Other Half Loves," although the setting of "Other Half" in 2001 was re-located to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica in Larry Arrick's staging). Plays about Brits or set in Britain also appeared in nine of the last 14 seasons.

Is Epps a not-so-secret Anglophile? Perhaps, but he also knew that he had to offer something to the playhouse's old-guard audience while simultaneously opening it up to other constituencies. And so, in that first-year demonstration of his tastes, back in 1998, "Present Laughter" and "Only a Kingdom" immediately preceded and followed (respectively) a much more adventurous choice — the premiere of Jonathan Tolins' American comedy "If Memory Serves."

UMS_4.jpgMatt Walton and Erin Cardillo in a scene from "Under My Skin" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Photo: Jim Cox.

If memory serves, "If Memory Serves" had a keen sense of topicality, which was even keener in the 2012 premiere of "Under My Skin" by Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser. I was in a minority among my fellow critics on this one, but I thought its use of populist comedy tropes to examine the health care crisis — which was at stake in the upcoming election — was a case of perfect timing.

"If Memory Serves" also indicated that Epps might be interested in producing work set in Los Angeles, about Angelenos, but there haven't been many such locally-themed productions since then. The best and most local was Alison Carey's precisely Pasadena-oriented and also very au-courant adaptation of Shakespeare — "As You Like It: A California Concoction," co-produced with Cornerstone Theater and staged by its departing artistic director Bill Rauch, in 2006.

As you may have noticed, Epps is open to co-productions with other local companies, perhaps more so than the leaders of any of the area's other largest theaters. Besides the Cornerstone collaboration and South Coast's on "Jitney," he recently reinforced the South Coast connection with a production of "The Whipping Man." The playhouse and Deaf West Theatre joined forces for Stephen Sachs' "Open Window" in 2005. The playhouse's last three holiday shows have been Americanized pantos in partnership with Lythgoe Family Productions.

Epps enlarged a show that originated at LA's tiny Sacred Fools Theater, "Stoneface," for the playhouse mainstage. For several years the playhouse hosted a younger, more cutting-edge company, Furious Theatre, in the playhouse's smaller, upstairs Carrie Hamilton Theatre.

The playhouse under Epps joined alliances with black-specific companies, producing "Crowns" with LA's Ebony Repertory Theatre and the upcoming "Fly" with New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company. But in recent years Epps also made efforts to expand the playhouse's idea of diversity to include Asian Americans (the casting of "Stop Kiss", the Thai-American musical "Waterfall") and Latinos ("Real Women Have Curves"), in conjunction with assistant artistic director Seema Sueko. The playhouse has worked on behind-the-scenes diversity efforts with East West Players, the Asian-American-specific company that is also losing its own longtime artistic director, Tim Dang.

Of course, as with any artistic director's tenure, the Epps years have not brought uninterrupted delight. The most recent mainstage show at the playhouse, the forgettable new musical "Breaking Through," was one of the worst. But I expect Epps will rebound — look at how smoothly he and his team publicly handled the playhouse's financial crisis of 2010. Despite reports that suggested the playhouse would never revive, it was running again before the end of the year.

Epps now has another 18 months before someone else takes over. Let's hope that his successor can add something to the Pasadena mix without subtracting the features that Epps brought to LA County's oldest and second most important theater company.

Solos, sort of

South Coast Repertory is currently hosting Sandra Tsing Loh's "The Madwoman in the Volvo," and first I must offer my usual commendation to the weirdly rare occurrence of a major theater in the LA area presenting a production that's set in the LA area.

sandra-tsing-loh-scr.jpgWell-known for solo shows — as well as essays in magazines, books and radio — Loh has now unleashed an autobiographical almost-play, with roles for two actresses (Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt) who perform all of the characters other than Loh herself. But the play is still all about Loh, combining elements of her oft-told stories about the breakup of her marriage with her oft-told musings on menopause (as in "The Bitch Is Back," a solo last year at Broad Stage).

The results are certainly amusing and occasionally poignant, but they don't always co-exist well. The main narrative event seems to be the marital breakup, but are we supposed to attribute that event in part to the menopause (and Loh's legacy of menopause-related depression from her mother)? If so, the connection isn't clear — sometimes it seems as if the divorce and the menopause material are competing for stage time instead of complementing each other.

Part of the problem is that the marital breakup is never adequately explained. Perhaps privacy concerns dictated that we don't hear much about Loh's ex (he's referred to only as Mr. X). But neither do we learn much about the attractions of her manager, who became the new man in her life. It doesn't help that this second guy is played by a woman (Aaron), which turns him into little more than a caricature, making it virtually impossible to thoroughly understand the forces that led Loh to overthrow her previous life.

Writing multi-actor plays is harder than writing solo performances, but the rewards of the former are likelier to surpass the rewards of the latter, assuming that the quality of the writing is more or less equal. Different actors playing different characters with different perspectives usually gives an advantage to a multi-character play simply in terms of creating conflict and variety and scope.

However, "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey," a "guest" production at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre, is an exception to that generalization. Writer/solo performer James Lecesne embodies a variety of characters with such precision, balance and vigor that it's almost as if we're watching a multi-actor play.

His characters are inhabitants of a town on the New Jersey shore. The narrative engine is the disappearance of the title character, a gay teenager. But Lecesne's main interest is portraying other people within the community. The play resembles a one-actor "Laramie Project," although (in contrast to that celebrated production's docu-theater style) Lecesne's program note assures us that he made it all up.

Another West Side solo show, Will Eno's "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," at the Geffen Playhouse's smaller stage, is about only one character. A man (played by Rainn Wilson) appears to be trapped in his existentialist musings, but he delivers those musings with a degree of unpredictability and an appreciation of how to get some laughs. In fact, "Thom Pain" is closer to high-tone standup comedy than to a play. I enjoyed it, but I was glad I didn't have to pay the current ticket price of $97 to see a 65-minute standup act.

Sandra Tsing Loh photo: Ben Horak/SCR

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