Within the violent social setting (1975 Belfast) of Stewart Parker's play, "Spokesong," is the story of Frank, who's inherited a Victorian bicycle shop from his grandparents that now stands in the path of a proposed motorway.
"He's come through three generations of love of the bicycle, being totally involved in it," said actor/director Lewis Arquette, who is staging this "play with music" at the Pasadena Playhouse (opening Saturday).
"Frank decides that the solution to many of our problems is to go back to the bicycle. It's a play surrounded by the troubles in Northern Ireland, but it's about people--the hope that exists in them, and how that hope can prevail over considerable outside forces that work to dampen and crush it."
Bicycles aside, Arquette acknowledged that there are several elements of this Irish work that require special handling.
"I'm in the middle of deciding how much I want to be influenced by the fact that it's a modern Pasadena audience that's going to see it," he said with a smile. "For one thing, we won't do a Northern Ireland brogue, because the Belfast dialect is so close to Scottish: It's not a lyrical rhythm and it's hard to understand. As far as projecting that into a 700-seat house, forget it. So we've compromised with a standard Irish stage dialect.
"Also, I've taken a different tack on it (as opposed to last year's staging at the Old Globe), in that the actors I've hired are people who've done musical comedy, revue, improvisation and industrial acting: well-rounded performers, but all comic actors.
"What that does is give the production a lightness and humor that are missing in the words. One time, a pet shop is bombed and a guy says, 'There were bits of animals all over the street.' If you allow actors to wallow in that, it starts to get real dark."
Dark is not a word commonly associated with the Chicago-born, Hollywood-reared Arquette. Although he's worked in a dramatic context ("The China Syndrome," "Johnny Got His Gun"), the actor is most commonly identified with humor--mostly stemming from his long association with Viola Spolin ("the mother of improvisation" and theater games) and her son, Paul Sills. Arquette was a member of the original company of Sills' "Story Theatre" (which played the Taper and Broadway in the early '70s).
In 1983, Sills reappeared locally ("Like Jesse James, he comes around and says, 'It's time to ride again' ") and Arquette re-enlisted. The evolving collection of theater games--billed as "Sills and Company"--became a hit, and in January, Sills (plus eight members of the L.A. cast) began a second company in New York, leaving Arquette in charge of local recasting and direction. Now, he's begun to assimilate some of those improv techniques into his work with "Spokesong."
The "games" (which include word spellings, vowel-and-consonant mental pictures and "ghosts" who whisper their impressions to the actor) stand him in good stead.
"They allow the actors to divorce (a preset) mental tie-in with the words. Most actors work as they're learning their lines. They're figuring out what they mean, how they want to interpret them, what there is in their own life experience (that connects with them), how they fit in with the blocking--and they're forming a proprietorship with the words. The genius actor uses that (process) to rid himself of (preconceptions)--literally throw himself into being totally open, vulnerable to inspiration."
As a third-generation performer himself (Arquette's grandparents were vaudevillians, his father was Cliff Arquette--a.k.a. Charley Weaver), he's unabashedly proud that his children have picked up the family lead. The brood includes "our movie star" Rosanna; Bangkok-based English teacher Richmond, 22; new actress Patricia, 18; Alexis, 16 (currently studying design at the Otis Art Institute) and David, 14, "our jock." And how has family life been affected by dad's current involvement?
"When I first got into this play, we only had one bicycle at home, my wife's," he said a bit apologetically. "But now we're planning to get one for everyone."