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Labor of Love : Actor-director Lonny Chapman has had his eye on 'The Red Badge of Courage' for almost 50 years. Now he's bringing it to the stage.

April 16, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for The Times

Give Lonny Chapman a red badge for persistence.

It was almost 50 years ago that Chapman, artistic director of the Group Repertory Theatre, first read Stephen Crane's 1895 novel "The Red Badge of Courage." Forty-three years ago, he did a scene from it in acting class. Twenty-three years ago, he worked on it improvisationally with Jack Nicholson and Beau Bridges, and "almost got an act." One year ago, he pulled out the script and said, "I'm going to deal with this."

Tonight, Chapman's adaptation of the Civil War story opens at Group Rep under his direction.

"It's a labor of love, I guess," says the Oklahoma-born actor-director, 70. "A labor of something." When he discovered the book at age 21, he was hospitalized with malaria. He had served four years with the Marine Corps in the South Pacific and "seen a lot of action." He spent the next several years thinking about the book, pulling it out, then putting it away. The war memories were just too fresh.

"When you see people right next to you go down--which happened to me several times--and blood is shooting out of their forehead; they're screaming, but you can't hear them because of the noise, and other guys are cracking up . . . ," Chapman says, his voice trailing off mid-sentence. "It was very painful."

Now, he adds briskly, "I'm a little more objective." Time has also allowed him to solve the problems of refashioning an action-filled novel into a play.

"There are certain things you can't do onstage the way you could do on film or in a novel," he points out. "We're staging the battle scenes with lights, sound, a certain movement. It's also like real battle--with a lot of quiet times, a lot of waiting. Nothing happens, then halfway through, (the fighting) starts."

Structurally, Chapman has used the story's wounded soldier as a narrator for the theater audience. "I had to fill out a lot of the characters--give them a background, a back life that wasn't in the book," he says.

"There are some cuts; some scenes have been shifted. Crane wrote it about the Civil War, but it could be about any war. There's no mention of Abraham Lincoln or slavery. It's just about these men." The title refers to Henry, a young soldier who runs away when the fighting starts. He later returns with a wound, a red bandage around his head.

Within the ensemble of 11 (including guitar accompaniment), Louis Herthum plays soldier Gabe. The actor describes his character as "a tough fellow."

"At 36, he's a little more seasoned than the other guys," he says. "Then, 36 was pretty old. Gabe is always smiling and telling jokes. He used to be a knife-thrower in a carnival and says that he's not bothered by killing. But the way I'm playing him, when the bombs go off and we hit the dirt, he doesn't want to die."

Chapman studied at the University of Oklahoma before heading for New York, where he spent 19 years and appeared in 13 Broadway shows. Adaptations by Chapman, who has been in Los Angeles since 1968, include Schnitzler's "La Ronde," Gorky's "The Lower Depths" and Saroyan's "Razzle Dazzle."

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of his founding of Group Rep. "I don't play golf," he quips when asked about the impetus for the group. "The theater doesn't make money, but it's something to do between jobs."

Where and When What: "The Red Badge of Courage." Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Indefinitely. Price: $8 to $10. Call: (818) 760-9368.

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