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Touching Basses With Writer-Director Louis Fantasia

June 16, 1988|JANICE ARKATOV

Twenty-five years ago, Louis Fantasia was lugging a double bass home from junior high. Now he is lugging it into the Boyd St. Theater where, beginning Friday, he will perform Patrick Suskind's comedy monologue, "The Double Bass."

"It's about anyone who works for a living," said the writer-director, 38, "the pleasures and frustrations of having a craft, struggling to break from the middle-class family that wanted you to be a doctor or a lawyer, getting your first break, reaching a level of proficiency--then at 35, realizing that there are 22-year-old hotshots coming up who can blow you away. And you begin to question, 'What was all that struggle about?' "

For the Massachusetts-born Fantasia, that question came not about the bass--but conducting, which he pursued from 17 to 24.

"I stopped for all kinds of reasons: not finding it satisfying, not feeling I had any technical control, but mostly, feeling deep down that I wasn't going to be world-class. Not that I'm a world-class anything right now," he said with a smile. "But at the time it seemed to matter."

There was another problem with conducting.

"I found it absurd on an intellectual level to be the focus of all that attention. I don't consider myself particularly shy, and I certainly have an ego. But being the center of attention is problematic, complicated--for me anyway."

Consequently, Fantasia surprised himself when he decided to perform "Bass," rather than direct it. "The play has been an enormous hit everywhere it's played in the world. I know what it should say to me, I know what it should say to an audience. So if it's not successful it's because of the casting." He frowned. "My personality is more that of a director's. Actors like to expose their emotions; I tend to hide mine. So now when they come up in rehearsal--and they do come up--my little director's brain says, 'No, you mustn't do that.' I have to say, 'Shut up, Louie, and get to work.' "

Although in the performance he "talks a lot, plays a little," Fantasia has also been practicing rigorously. "The bass is actually a very tricky instrument. And playing it is really a metaphor for the emotional range of the piece: It goes all the way from the very bottom of despair and depression and rage to the very top of ecstasy and enthusiasm and hope and fulfillment--and in-between there are middle-ranges that sometimes sound very rich, and sometimes very scratchy."

The sounds reflect his (and the character's) own love-hate relationship with the instrument.

"Everybody makes fun of you when you schlep it, try to stuff it in your car," he said. "You're driving around with this thing, you can't see out the rear window, you can't have a date because it's in the front seat. In the play I pick it up and make like I'm going to throw it out the window. I also make love to it. It's my fantasy; it's like a woman. That's part of the problem: because of its feminine shape and holding it, the bass becomes a substitute for his mother--and also for the girlfriend he never seems to get. So it's a whole bunch of things."

"A whole bunch of things" also describes his career. After founding two orchestras (one of them, the Georgetown Symphony, is celebrating its 20th anniversary) and quitting conducting, Fantasia wrote a musical, "Paradise Lost and Found," which got nasty reviews. "I blamed it all on the director, of course. I decided I'd go to graduate school and learn how to write and direct plays, so I wouldn't be at anyone else's mercy." After attending New York University, he accepted a fellowship at the American Film Institute (he is "quite proud" of his documentary on the homeless, "Invisible Cities") and completed his degree at CalArts.

One summer, planning a vacation in Europe, he answered an ad in the International Herald-Tribune--and found himself running a theater school in France. After four years, he left to direct a summer training program at Sam Wanamaker's International Shakespeare Globe Center in London, directed in Strasbourg, Heidelberg and Paris, and taught at a couple of British drama schools. In 1982 he returned to the States and was a visiting professor at USC. Since then, he has directed locally ("Little Threepenny Cafe" at the Olio, "The Tempest" at Theatre 40 and "Full Circle" at the Matrix) and begun teaching part time at the Newbridge School.

The affinity for students (and musicians) extends to this show's admission policy. Musicians, with union or student ID, will be admitted for half-price. "Bass players get in free--if they can prove it," Fantasia said. "So if they want to bring their instrument or bow or bass sheet music or rosin . . . ."

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