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A Strong Scent of the Past : In 'Mooncalf,' the author recalls sights, smells and people from a youthful job at a Vermont tannery. He calls the play 'brutal but hopeful.'

September 03, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for Valley Life

Leon Martell has some pungent memories of his long-ago job in a Vermont tannery.

"I sort of enjoyed the grotesquerie," the playwright admits cheerfully. "Everything was covered with blood, (excrement), maggots. It was so rancid, so toxic, so perverse. I wasn't a writer then, but I knew it was something I'd have to be in touch with."

Twenty-three years later, the result of Martell's experiences is the world premiere of "Mooncalf," which begins previews Thursday at the Road Theatre in Van Nuys.

"My grandfather worked there at night for 25 years and farmed during the day," the writer says, speaking of the tannery. "Mostly, it was a place for down-and-outers, ex-cons, drifters. They weren't necessarily bad people, but they were on the lowest rung, had the least going for them--and management stomped all over them."

Martell, who labored at the plant for a few summers during college, developed his play around a real-life character, a borderline-retarded man called Timmy.

The character resurfaced in Martell's memory a few years ago as the playwright worked with writer Maria Irene Fornes in the Taper's mentor playwriting program.

"Timmy came to me," he notes, "and he had something to say: that humanity can survive everything if it maintains its integrity. And he survives." The eight-character drama, Martell says, "is brutal, but hopeful in a certain way."

Director Taylor Gilbert says: "I read it and thought, 'This is going to make people laugh, cry and think.' "

Gilbert, who is an associate artistic director of the theater, where she staged "In the Name of the People" in 1992, adds: "I also liked it because it looks like it would be very difficult to stage. It's a strange, edgy piece, totally different, willing to be outrageous. And it's very filmic--incredibly quick cuts, short, interesting scenes. It's like a little film."

Martell, a Padua Hills Playwrights Festival alumnus whose work includes "Kindling" and "1961 El Dorado," says he is used to directing his own material but is content to let Gilbert take the reins on this one.

"The first time we went through it, Taylor's notes were the same as mine," he says proudly. "She's found some new kinks, pushed the play in a new direction. She gets it. And it's not easy because the story shifts from realism to surrealism--Timmy's dream life during the day."

(To prepare for the role of Timmy, actor Christopher Faville spent time at the Van Nuys chapter of Tierra del Sol, a school for developmentally disabled young adults. Reciprocally, the theater will donate a percentage of each ticket's proceeds to the school.)

Martell, who says he's "autobiographically absent" from the dramatization, has been back to the tannery a few times in the past 20 years, "just to visit." The plant went bankrupt some years ago, but has since become the subject of a special Environmental Protection Agency cleanup.

"I had a perverse sense of pride that my grandfather worked there," he says. "And I don't have much of a sense of smell."

Where and When What: "Mooncalf." Location: Road Theatre, 14141 Covello St., No. 9-D, Van Nuys. Hours: Previews begin Thursday. Opens Sept. 10 and plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends Oct. 17. Price: $12.50; $10 for previews. Sept. 23 is a "Pay What You Can" performance for San Fernando Valley residents. (Bring ID as proof of residence.) Call: (818) 785-6175.

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