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A Common Bond : The Valley's newest stage group represents a seven-year relationship forged between veteran Broadway director Mel Shapiro and six actors.

June 04, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

North Hollywood may seem far from the 17th-Century French countryside. But if you talk very long with members of the Onstage Company, the San Fernando Valley's newest theater troupe, a sense of camaraderie with the roving actors of Moliere's heralded yet poverty-stricken company comes across with conviction.

And actor and company member James Shanta has a date to back up that conviction. "According to our research," Shanta says, "Moliere opened 'The Misanthrope' on June 4, 1666. We're opening 'The Misanthrope' on the same date (today). They had a core of six actors, and so do we. They didn't have a permanent roof over their heads, and neither do we. We do feel something in common with his theater."

The 327th anniversary at the Limelight Theatre of what is often considered Moliere's masterpiece marks the culmination of not only five months of exploration and rehearsals by Onstage, led by veteran Broadway director Mel Shapiro, but a seven-year relationship between Shapiro and a group of actors who met in the mid-'80s at Carnegie-Mellon University's drama school.

"I think he instilled a loyalty that remains to this day," says Shanta, 31, who plays Alceste, Moliere's misanthrope, hopelessly in love with Celimene (played by Lynn Clark). The bond with the director emerged partly from what Shanta views as Shapiro's uncanny ability "to use the talents the actors have and help them incorporate those into their character, so their performance can shine. I don't know how he does it, but he can target an actor's problem spot and solve it right away, and without anything of the psychoanalytical stuff a lot of directors use."

But it's one matter to conduct workshops--as Shapiro, 55, has done in recent years at a studio in Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Complex--or teach classes--as he did at Carnegie-Mellon and continues to do at UCLA. It's quite another to establish a producing company.

"Don't we know," Shapiro says with a sigh as he relaxes on a living room sofa in his Beverly Glen home. "You know, after a while, it got very old hearing everyone talking about forming a theater group. And I wondered why, instead of telling people what to do, why not do our thing together?"

Enough money was raised from private performances to set up seed money for a production and open a North Hollywood business office. Then, it was a question of deciding which "thing" to do. A measure of this group's seriousness and range is that the three plays under consideration included not only "The Misanthrope," but David Rabe's massive Hollywood play, "Hurlyburly," and Arthur Kopit's satire on Madonna and stardom, "The Road to Nirvana."

Such brilliant, scabrous works of contemporary Americana are a Shapiro specialty: He was playwright John Guare's longtime director of choice, staging the premiere of Guare's blacker-than-black "House of Blue Leaves" and "Rich and Famous," as well as adapting, with Guare, the famed musical version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona."

But Shapiro refuses to see himself as an interpreter of any one kind of theater. Shanta describes him as an "incredible eclectic." The director describes his ensemble as leaning toward classical theater and the outrageous.

"In the end, I think 'The Misanthrope' best suited them," says Shapiro. "For all of its comedy, this is a very moving love story. Everything Alceste acts out is generated by a love he knows he can't have. He's a schmuck, but you laugh at him. The more I work on this, the more I think of Marcel Proust and his detailed observations of romance, what Jean Anouilh called 'the affairs of the heart.' "

"Mel never over-analyzes a scene," says Shanta, "and he's keeping this staging very, very simple. It's us and two benches."

"I believe in actors," the director notes, "so I've always believed in the power of creating a world with actors--and a bench or two."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Misanthrope."

Location: Limelight Theatre, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 27.

Price: $12.

Call: (213) 466-1767.

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