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'Etta Jenks' Director on Darkly Funny Side : Without Role Models to Follow, Women Create Their Own Lead

February 26, 1988|JANICE ARKATOV

The 19-foot high pair of cardboard legs harks back to the advertising come-on from an old James Bond movie, or the lascivious prop for a popular MTV video. But in Marlane Meyer's "Etta Jenks" (at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to March 13), the spread legs frame a picture that is anything but sensational.

Set against the backdrop of a young woman's descent into the pornography trade, "Etta" is a morality tale, a stark vision of where the body ends and the spirit begins.

"Etta doesn't believe in the world of the spirit," noted the show's director, Roberta Levitow, in an interview. "It doesn't make sense to her. She's a pragmatist, a materialist. When she's faced with choices, she always chooses the most expedient one. She wants money, and she's quick to assess what will help her take the next step forward--meaning survival, the accumulation of power, of goods. It's what most of us seek. Etta's problem is that she thinks she can beat the system, that she's smart enough to win. Nobody's smart enough to win."

In spite of such dark prophecies, the locally born Levitow, 37, believes the play's ending is a redemptive one, offering the possibility of salvation to the trio of main characters: Etta, her friend and fellow porn actress Sheri and pornographer Ben. "I often parallel Ben's journey with Marlon Brando's in 'Apocalypse Now' or the character in 'Under the Volcano.' They're moving towards chaos, as if in the chaos they'll find some purity. They're also seekers, but they seek--through the darkness, the pain, the evil--some release."

Levitow comes to "Etta" on the heels of another dark--and darkly funny--work, Darrah Cloud's "The Stick Wife" (based on the wife of Klansman Bob Chambliss, who was convicted of the fatal 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., partly on the strength of his wife's evidence). She mounted its world premiere last year at LATC, and later staged it at Connecticut's Hartford Stage. Then, as now, she was dealing with a "sexy" subject and attracting some audiences on the basis of sensational content.

"Yeah, I worried about that," nodded the wiry, dark-eyed director. "You cannot control what people come to the theater with. However, I believe very strongly that it is my obligation as an artist to make clear a point of view--not just any point of view, but a personal one, and one that's well thought out. I also want to allow for the possibility of thought, without insisting that the audience experience the play (any one way) because I believe it operates successfully on many levels. 'Etta' is about dreams and ambition. It is a great story, the characters are vivid and dynamic. Marlane is a ridiculously funny person. It has a big idea in it."

Which has how much to do with its female origins?

"I just do my work," she said with a shrug, "Marlane and Darrah do theirs. I don't know how to evaluate what that is that we are uniquely contributing as women. I don't think you could look at Emily Mann ("Execution of Justice") and JoAnne Akalaitis ("Green Card") and say that their work is 'feminine.' Sure, there are some specific things that I can see in plays by women directors and paintings by women that often clue me in to the fact that it is a woman who's done the work; often it's an expression of things I've felt but never seen expressed before. So it's terribly rewarding to know that that experience and point of view are being shared.

"But as far as being separatists, I don't know. I do feel a little like my generation were pioneers: ' Ride, Sally Ride. ' To tell the truth, who wants that mantle? There's always interest in (the subject of women directors), as if it's something we don't deserve. In Europe, it's common. Here, it's something we comment on. Most of us can count on our fingers--without going to our toes--the women who have national reputations in theater. That's odd when you think of the number of people who are directing."

The Stanford-educated Levitow (who since 1985 has served as special projects director at LATC) was an actress for many years before being encouraged by Donovan Marley, then-artistic director of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts at Santa Maria, to try her hand at directing. At the time, she recalls wryly, "I looked around and I didn't see any role models. There weren't many women wandering around directing plays. So I started directing at (the Skid Road Theatre) in Seattle, then became the artistic director. That's how women get to direct, you know--you run a theater and hire yourself all the time.

"It's the truth. And it's also true that a lot of artistic directors still call me when there's a 'woman's piece.' " Her scorn is palpable. "It's like being a member of a minority, and the only options you're offered are when the material specifically relates to your minority. The basic assumption is clear: that the world is made up of one homogeneous group--the white male--and that everything else is a fringe group, and, appropriately, needs a fringe director and a fringe audience.

"It assumes that our experience is unique and peculiar. That I can only see things from a woman's point of view. That blacks can only see things from a black point of view, Mexicans from a Mexican point of view. It assumes that we don't have a full set of experiences, that we didn't grow up in the same middle-class world as everybody else and--and that we can never partake in it. It's preposterous and it's degrading. And it's a lie."

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