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STAGE WATCH

Taper Turns Into a Chekhovian Arena

March 20, 1994|DON SHIRLEY

The Mark Taper Forum will sport a new look for Chekhov's "The Wood Demon," April 7 through May 22. And the cast itself will look different at virtually every performance.

For the first time ever, the Taper will become an arena stage. Two rows of seats from front and center will be moved to the other side of the stage and backed up by a bank of 100 new seats, increasing total capacity to 850.

Unlike the Ahmanson Theatre renovation next door, the changes at the Taper won't cost much. And they potentially could increase Taper revenues, should the show sell out in its enlarged configuration.

But the reason for going in-the-round has nothing to do with revenues, said artistic director Gordon Davidson.

Designer D Martyn Bookwalter had the idea to stage the play in the round for a 1992 workshop production at Taper, Too. "It's a good way to get closer to the characters and the words," said Bookwalter.

In the round, added Davidson, "the actors are allowed to be three-dimensional. You can focus on the human interaction."

Wouldn't this be true for any number of plays? Not for farces or Beckett's "Happy Days," Davidson said. The Taper won't become a permanent arena stage. But "if it has enough pluses and we can pick and choose which plays" to put in the round, "we'll find a way" to do it more often, Davidson said.

One potential problem with arena staging is that bad blocking can conceal crucial moments from the view of many in the audience. Davidson expressed his faith in director Frank Dwyer and pointed out that not everyone can always see every actor's face in the Taper's regular configuration, either.

Bookwalter added that his set design required particularly low-lying period furniture, "so you can see over it."

Taper subscribers who normally sit in the first two rows received a letter explaining that they will find their usual seats on the other side of the stage during "Demon." Audience development director Robert Schlosser said that he hopes they won't "wander in unknowingly and sit on someone's lap."

Taper officials hope that some people will want to see "The Wood Demon" twice--and not just so they can see it from a different angle, but also so they can see it with a different cast.

From a company of 20, three actors have been assigned to each of the 15 roles. Five or six of these roles will be shared equally by two actors, with the third actor serving as a traditional understudy. For most of the rest of the roles, one "principal alternate" will do most of the performances, but another "guaranteed alternate" is guaranteed at least one week of performances, while the third actor will, again, be the understudy.

It sounds complicated. But Dakin Matthews, manager of the Antaeus Company, which put together the production, said the plan enables cast members to take time off for more lucrative film and TV jobs and attracts better actors to the secondary roles.

The casting structure is similar to that at the Matrix Theatre--and five of the actors were in the Matrix's production of "The Tavern." But the "Demon" actors are paid Actors' Equity scale, in contrast to much lower payments at the Matrix, which operates on Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan. The unusual casting won't burden the Taper budget, Matthews said--because actors who share the major roles make less than they would in a conventional production.

The plan may become ticklish when it's decided who will perform on April 6--when most of the critics are there. Davidson will make that decision, said Matthews. "Of course there will be some disappointment," he acknowledged.

So far, the casts for the first 13 previews have been planned, and none is identical to another. The day's cast list will be printed separately for each performance.

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