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Living Treasures 

Why L.A. theater matters

Thursday, Oct 6 2005
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Even New Yorkers have started acknowledging the existence of L.A. theater as a serious enterprise, probably because of an exodus of New York thespians to L.A. that started about 15 years ago. Here is a smattering of representative examples of why our local stage is no longer regarded as a joke or the movie industry’s poor cousin.

The Black Dahlia (5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., www.thedahlia.com) Any theater that premieres both Orson’s Shadow, in 2001,and Belfast Blues, in 2003,in its first few seasons, then sends them both on to New York success, qualifies as a local treasure. With artistic director Matt Shakman and producer Steve Klein at the helm, the theater produces infrequently, but when it does, usually a new play on a stage the size of a walk-in closet, memory of the event lingers for months.

Evidence Room (2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A., www.evidenceroom.com) Artistic director Bart DeLorenzo is a brainy showman with a penchant for noir and the London’s Royal Court Theatre playwrights of the late ’50s and early ’60s — a riveting 2000 production of Edward Bond’s Saved embodied ER’s brutish theater sensibility, though exceptional productions have also included Naomi Wallace’s tender, morbidly poetical drama about the London plague, One Flea Spare. The theater lobby offers a community center comfort zone, dedicated to the memory of crusty, chain-smoking imp, Pamela Gordon, one of ER’s regular performers who personifies in perpetuity the theater’s commitment to goofball, shoot-from-the-hip artistry that sometimes trips all over itself, but often rises quite gloriously.

Fountain Theater (5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, www.fountaintheatre.com)The productions in this tiny east Hollywood storefront tend to run and run and run. They lean toward conservative interpretations of classics, and have an ongoing love affair with Tennessee Williams. However, new plays can be sighted — the most dazzling recent example being 2004’s world premiere of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances. The master playwright drove in for rehearsals and became an active participant, helping managing artistic director Stephen Sachs establish the underlying meanings and the overlaying tone of this play about an actor and his dresser.

Son of Semele Ensemble (3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A., www.sonofsemele.org) Relative newcomers, just down the street from Evidence Room, SOSE showed up in 2000 — a collective of peers from Orange County’s Chapman College. Theirs is fringey, ensemble-driven work, often employing shadow puppets and masks, though they’ve also respectfully tackled established literati from George Orwell to Richard Greenberg. When they fail, they fail very, very big, but when they’re good . . .

Road Theater Company (5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, www.roadtheatre.org) Some of the best production values in the city with sets that are cinematic in scope and scale. Their affection for frivolous and/or sentimental melodramas has recently been yielding to sophisticated new plays.

Theater @ Boston Court (70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, www.bostoncourt.com) Best technically equipped 99-seat theater in the region, because it was built as a theater, not converted from a storefront or warehouse. Stimulating new plays and provocatively staged classics, intelligently produced. Whether being daring pays off remains to be seen.

Theater of NOTE (1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, www.theatreofnote.com) The troupe started 20 years ago, staging one-acts downtown. Despite a revolving art board and a democratic administration among changing company members, the theater sustains its long tradition of edgy new plays, earnest and usually well-produced.

Zombie Joe’s Underground (4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, www.zombiejoes.com) Professional funeral director Jordan Cole leads a troupe of maturing Gen X-ers with a shared love of the macabre and ferocious dedication. Ensemble-driven plays usually run slightly over an hour, with duct-tape and tinsel theatricality.

A QUARTET NEAR THE BEACH Tim Robbins provides an answer to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company with Actors Gang, now at Culver City’s Ivy Substation (www.theactorsgang.com); Santa Monica’s City Garage does politically charged new adaptations of literature and heady European classics staged by a French director with a penchant for fishnets and cabaret, leather and boots (www.citygarage.org); Highways remains the region’s premiere gay performance center, with decades-old community outreach and a national network (www.highwaysperformance.org); and Pacific Resident Theater showcases excellent acting through mostly American and a few European classics, though Daisy Foote’s new play, When They Speak of Rita, keeps getting extended (http://www.pacificresidenttheatre.com).

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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