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In Good Company : Directors, artists in cohesive new ensemble embark on a challenging premiere program.

October 28, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

BURBANK — Nancy Chris Evans sits in a booth of one of the little mom-and-pop eateries that dot Magnolia Boulevard--not the kind of place to ponder life's big decisions.

And yet here she is, sitting next to her fellow director William Korf, and thinking about what made her junk what little security she had as an actor and theater artist and form a new theater company.

"Artistically," she says, "I felt that I needed to go to the edge of the cliff." Rather than falling, what she found was a small group of actors, all members of the now-shuttered Actors Company, willing to join her in forming Outpost Theatre Ensemble.

Willing also to embark on some serious theater work that immediately set it apart from any other San Fernando Valley group. After all, no one between Glendale and Thousand Oaks and Lancaster and Encino has tried, lately, to stage Harold Pinter's early one-act "The Dumb Waiter" and Jean Genet's second play, "The Maids"--two of the great head-scratchers of postwar theater.

This premiere program at the Gene Bua Acting for Life Theatre (a very temporary rental home), is more than an excursion into classics of the Theatre of the Absurd. For Evans, 40, who is directing "The Dumb Waiter" (Korf, 38, directs "The Maids"), it holds almost talismanic importance.

Pinter's insidiously funny play about two hit men waiting to carry out their assignment was the first project Evans did with the then-young, struggling and unknown Steppenwolf Theatre Company, working out of the basement of Immaculate Conception Grade School in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Indeed, it was one of the first efforts by Steppenwolf, of which Evans was a founding member, along with other fellow Southern Illinois University graduates including John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.

Evans also helped found The Actors Company, and with members William Grueneberg, Helene McCardle and Ernesto Miyares, she "felt the same feeling I had in the early days of Steppenwolf, a wavelength we all seemed to be on, thinking the same way. And Bill (Grueneberg, who plays Pinter's bossy Gus) has a lot of John's energy, intensity and changeability. And like John, Bill is very alive on stage; you have to pay attention to him.

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"John, in fact, introduced me to Pinter at ISU, when he directed me in 'Old Times.' I didn't understand it at all! But he spent hours with me explaining it in his way, until I did. So I returned the favor and directed him."

The thinking behind leaving Actors Company and forming Outpost a year ago, Evans says, was "to establish high standards and expectations--which I have for myself. We're doing the plays we want."

No hard feelings persist for the former Burbank group--only the recognition that membership companies like it and many others in Los Angeles' sprawling theater world tend not to stimulate the needs of more ambitious actors. "In a membership situation," says Evans, "you might have dozens, even over a hundred actors to satisfy, and you never really do. Outpost is an example of actors taking control of their own work."

And in the case of Korf, directors, as well. A theater arts instructor at Rio Hondo College, Korf says he wanted to explore "a professional situation" when Grueneberg, his friend of 10 years, invited him to an early Outpost workshop.

"What I first saw was a group of very nice people," he says, with a nod to Evans, "and I'm still not aware of any egos."

Indeed, the nature of the group (small, with an equal number of men and women) demanded that he violate Genet's request that the female characters of "The Maids"--two maidservants who take their play-acting to deadly extremes, and the lady they serve--be played by men.

"I'm not sure I would cast men even in the most ideal circumstances," he says. "Listening to his complex language, Janie (Gavin), Helene, Jennifer (Haymore) and I have worked very hard to find the meanings, Genet's themes of servitude and domination, and stay close to his stage directions. Since male casting adds a third layer of illusion, we've replaced that with a strong sense of actors acting. So we see them get into costume, waiting off-stage for their cue."

Now, it is the Outpost company's cue to go public, and Evans says they are ready. "We've been hustling--selling ads, raising money, looking for donors. The key is being assertive. Our goal is a home in Old Town Pasadena."

And like a good house-hunter, Evans already has her ideal spot in mind: "perhaps a loft space that will provide a studio for film production as well. . . . We haven't found it yet. But we will."

Where and When

What: A one-act double bill of "The Dumb Waiter" and "The Maids."

Location: Gene Bua Acting for Life Theatre, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 4.

Price: $10 to $15.

Call: (818) 583-4394.

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