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'Comedy With Teeth' : 'Vaudevillage' is a variety show offering a mix of signature acts, new pieces and surprise guests, ensuring a different performance every night.

November 19, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — When he's forced to describe what exactly he's doing inside the confines of the Whitefire Theatre, Stefan Haves (rhymes with raves) says, as modestly as possible, "Hey, I'm just an old-fashioned producer."

Perhaps, but Haves, 34, is out to produce something fairly new, something "pretty wild," he says.

He calls his show "Vaudevillage," a title with a nod to the past--vaudeville--and the future--the dream of a community of theater artists.

Haves' wild ride opens Nov. 27 at the Whitefire.

The title is clever, but he knows there's a built-in problem with it. "As soon as you say vaudeville, Haves says as he scratches his head and makes a tuft of his hair stand straight up, "people think of guys with derbies speaking in puns and a drum roll in the background. But what we want to do here is comedy with teeth.

"Maybe," he adds hopefully, "if the work here is good, then it'll help change the meaning of the word vaudeville. "

Haves isn't exaggerating the "comedy with teeth" claim: The variety evening he's assembled includes a piece, "Hansel and Regrettal," in which Gretel (performed by Amy O'Neill) eats Hansel (Christian Fitzharris) limb by limb. Haves originally wrote and directed the piece for an L.A. Theatre Center directors workshop on the seven deadly sins. ("This depicted 'gluttony,' " Haves notes.)

The folks inhabiting this "Vaudevillage" are not all so bloody-minded as Gretel.

They include the Actors' Gang's Brian Brophy as a nutty waiter serving Ellen Elphand (one of the show's co-producers); Hula Hoop master Mat Plendl; the Seattle-bred group X, Why n' Z, which juggles breakfast ingredients rather than balls; Ogie Banks III and Patrick Malone singing a cappella versions of songs by the early '60s duo, Joe and Eddie; mask-maker Deborah Bird's array of witty, sometimes scatological masks; puppet artist and co-producer Michelle Berne operating puppets towering 15 feet in the air; Haves himself, turning his body upside down into a character known as Backman; and a rotating list of guest artists performing a bit titled "Bucket, Stick and String."

"We'll pass out buckets, sticks and strings to audience members as they enter," Haves explains, "and the performer will select one of each from the crowd, and create a piece just from these objects. They may vary in size, so the bucket could be a big paint bucket, or a thimble." The artists set for this act include actors Ron Campbell, Shannon Holt, Jack Tate and Spoony, and performance artists The Trolls and The Lovely Carroll.

Vaudeville, Haves assures, is much more than getting a lot of crazy acts together for a late-night affair.

"I want to invite artists and allow this to be a creative boiler-room for them. There's a mix of signature acts, like X, Why n' Z, with new pieces and surprise guests, so each night will be very different.

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"More than anything else, I want this to help fill a hole in American theater. What I miss in the United States is the kind of attention to physical theater, performance generated by the body and not the word, that I've seen in Europe."

Indeed, Haves' mission for physical theater goes back several years, when he studied with Czech director Antonin Hodek: "Everyone in the class was bored with him but me. He turned me on to juggling and the physical essence of theater. I got incredibly focused."

Haves joined and quit the Northern California-based 'Dell Arte Players and a program at Brandeis University, making him wonder if he wasn't a failure.

He found a reassuring answer in Europe in 1984, first working as a street performer and then joining Philippe Gaulier's Paris workshop on Lecoq movement training.

Haves returned to his native Los Angeles and built such acclaimed works as his 1990 version of Jack London's "The Call of the Wild" on the Lecoq method of movement based on images, such as dogs in action.

The L.A. Weekly's Tom Provenzano relegated Haves' work to "the endangered art of living theater, the kind that pierces through our intellectual shells and piques our dulled senses."

With co-producers Elphand, Berne and Bird, Haves hopes to create a series of physical theater events that extend beyond even the broad confines of "Vaudevillage."

"Don't ask what it'll be, since it could take so many forms. What's fueling me," he says, "is my point of view of a universal theater that transcends language."

Where and When What: "Vaudevillage." Location: Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Hours: 9 p.m. Saturdays, beginning Nov. 27. No performances Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Indefinitely. Price: $15. Call: (213) 660-8587.

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