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THEATER AND FILM : If Play Is Bleak or Bold Alternative Repertory Probably Has Eye on It

February 16, 1988|Herman Wong

No one can accuse Orange County's newest thespian troupe, the Alternative Repertory Theatre, of being conventional.

Trend-defying, yes. Foolhardy, perhaps. But run-of-the-mill? Hardly.

Backers of the 6-month-old organization proclaim they won't stage the easy box-office pleasers. No Neil Simon. No Rodgers & Hammerstein. No Kaufman & Hart.

"We're not knocking that (kind of fare)," said Patricia Terry, artistic director of the tiny company housed in an industrial/commercial sector of Santa Ana. "But our mission is doing experimental, bolder theater."

This isn't just rhetoric.

Alternative Repertory's debut production last fall was "No Exit," the overwhelmingly bleak and hell-ish work by the French existentialist master Jean-Paul Sartre.

The play that opened last Friday is "Betrayal," Harold Pinter's stark, elliptically demanding study of adultery with performances evenings Thursdays through Sundays, until March 20, at 1636 S. Grand Ave., Santa Ana..

In April the group will offer Edward Albee's exceptionally off-beat metaphysical work "Seascape," which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize but has been rarely staged since.

All well and good.

The Alternative Repertory may be ready. But is Orange County--where audiences are considered devoutly mainstream and not likely to flock to anything more profound than "Annie" or "South Pacific"?

"Hopefully, yes," said Terry, who staged "No Exit" and is a veteran of the small-theater circuit in both Orange and Los Angeles counties. A Los Angeles base for the troupe was quickly ruled out, said Terry, who also teaches drama at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana. "The costs for us (of opening a facility) are astronomical in L.A., and there are already too many small (experimental) companies."

That left Orange County--which, Terry noted, is "wide open for a group like ours."

Of course, South Coast Repertory Theatre has provided its share of trailblazing drama. Established 23 years ago, SCR remains the chief off-campus refuge in Orange County for the likes of Brecht, Beckett and especially Pinter (SCR has staged five Pinters, including "Betrayal").

But outside of SCR, the universities "and now the Grove Theatre Company," said Terry, "no one's really staging adventurous work here, the kind that's provocative and challenging--to us as well as the audiences."

The non-union Alternative Repertory troupe was formed last summer by Terry and six other young theater veterans living in Orange County or Long Beach.

The others are Kathleen Bryson, the troupe's producer; Amy Larson, who was in "No Exit"; Cindy Hanks, currently in "Betrayal"; Robert Sternberg, who is directing "Betrayal"; and designers Gary Christensen and David C. Palmer.

All seven knew each other from community-theater stints, such as at Orange County's Gem Theatre and Newport Theatre Arts Center. And Terry, Bryson and Larson are still involved with a school-touring performing group, the Pandemonium Word Ballet and Literary Circus.

Forming the Alternative Repertory was "a now-or-never kind of thing for us," recalled Bryson, a Cal State Fullerton graduate whose stage-manager credits include the Westside Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles. "We decided to go for it now-- sink or swim."

Finding a home was as frustrating as they expected. They checked out churches and small community halls, even abandoned gas stations. And in their most whimsical moments, they had visions of converting a wine cellar into a studio stage.

Then, as Terry put it, fate stepped in. She happened to catch a want ad for a vacant 1,200-square-foot ground-floor space in an industrial shop/office complex off Grand Avenue in south Santa Ana.

The landlord agreed to the theater idea. And the Thespian Seven--in true trouper fashion--went about converting the $575-a-month space into an intimate 61-seat playhouse, complete with dressing room, front office and coffee-bar lobby. "We did everything on our own--the wiring, painting, re-walling, sketches, you name it," said Bryson of the $17,000 renovation.

While city aides were "extremely helpful" in processing the project, there seemed to be doubts. "We think some of them," said Bryson, grinning, "were taking bets we wouldn't ever get this off the ground."

Just as amazed were the new theater's neighbors, mostly automotive-shop operators. "They had no idea what we were up to," explained Larson. "All they saw were theater props and women going in and out of the place." Added Larson, laughing: "We found out that some of the (neighbors) thought we were opening a girlie show!"

Far from it.

The "No Exit" revival, which opened last Nov. 14, generated both good notices and encouraging attendance. Turnouts averaged 75% during November and January, said Larson, the troupe's marketing director, but dropped to about 55% during December. (The run ended Jan. 17.)

This season's final offering hasn't been picked, although Arthur Kopit's "End of the World" is a strong candidate. Others being considered are Peter Nichols' "Joe Egg" and yet another Pinter, "Old Times."

Also on the wish list: Presenting new plays (one possibility is "Timmon's Retreat" by Bill Waxman of Laguna Beach), poetry readings, chamber music and dance recitals and theater workshop discussions.

But the still-fledgling Alternative Repertory has yet to pass its real test: Attracting a steady and sizable share of Orange County theatergoers.

"We're drawing people in the 18-to-34 (age) range, people already familiar with the experimental-theater circuit in other areas," said Terry, citing the troupe's own survey of "No Exit" patrons.

"Sure, it's still too early to really tell about our audience numbers and patterns," she added, "but we feel things look promising. It ('No Exit') gave us a very good launching."

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