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THEATER : New Home, New Spirit for Zeitgeist Theatre

March 16, 1995|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's out with the old and in with the new on Sawtelle Boulevard, where the new Zeitgeist Theatre has taken up residence at the former Burbage Theatre.

"It's been a huge undertaking," said the company's artistic director, John Benjamin Martin, whose play "Tower of Masks" became the theater's inaugural production earlier this month.

Until now, Zeitgeist has been a "gypsy" company; today it has a permanent home and a full in-house season.

"Normally, I would've chosen six weeks for play rehearsal and three months for a renovation," Martin said plaintively. "We did this in four weeks--ridiculous! We've all been working 14 hours a day since Feb. 1. It's really been relentless."

The first obstacle, Martin said, was a mountain of debris and unusable equipment left by the theater's former tenant.

After four days of hauling away the debris--a good-size pile remains at the back of the lot--the company set about redesigning and refurbishing the space.

The building was cleaned, walls were painted and the lobby was redecorated. All 100 theater seats were removed from the floor, disassembled, taken in groups to be sandblasted and then to the painter and finally returned to the theater, where Martin reupholstered them and put them back in place.

"I used to do production engineering work, so I can pretty much build anything," Martin said. He admitted, however, that the initial prospect of the move was daunting: "This is a full-time job, and I was very apprehensive about it; at one point, I wasn't going to do it. There was a lot of turmoil. Then one night I had a dream and Michael Mein--a core company member who'd died last year--said, 'You should do it, the opportunity's there.' As hokey as that sounds, that's what made me pull the trigger."

Zeitgeist--the name is German for "spirit of the times"--was co-founded by Martin six years ago as a repertory company for a group of actor friends. "At first we had no name and we were meeting once a week over a little pizza place on Pico," Martin said. Later, a company member who leased a gallery space in Beverly Hills' Rodeo Collection invited the company to move in; it was there that they presented their first production, "Zeitgeist," a quartet of Martin's one-acts, in 1990. A positive review by The Times helped the performace to a six-month run.

Since losing that space--"something about fire violations," Martin said vaguely--Zeitgeist has been without its own theater. The troupe did, however, strike up a rental relationship with the previous management of the Burbage, where Martin staged "probably eight or nine" plays, including his recent "A Pair of Nights Before Christmas"--and the 1992 premiere of "Tower of Masks." Now Zeitgeist is the sole tenant.

Martin describes "Tower" as a story about "the faces and masks people wear in everyday life." It will be followed April 8 with the premiere of his "Just Like Home.'

"It's structured in an unorthodox way, like (Schnitzler's) 'La Ronde,' " the Delaware native said. "You meet two people in the first scene, then you follow one of those people into the next scene, and one of them into the next scene--and in the process you see the masks revealed or put on."

As a writer, Martin said, "I like to deal with dysfunction: how women are forced to function in a patriarchal society, established and run by men. The truth is, I'm not a big fan of men. I think women are the superior species."

Martin, who did some writing on--and also appeared in--the film "Lawnmower Man 2," plans to shoot "Tower of Masks" for possible inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival; in fact, he's brought on Blue Mountain Films President Joy Thorbourn to bridge the stage-to-movie gap. "Being executive producer will allow me to participate in projects there, and if they're suitable, develop them for film," said Thorbourn, who has contracted with Martin to come up with five plays this first season. "I'm hoping they will make good art pieces."

"As an artist," Martin said, "you need a place where you're not judged--because everything else in this town is about judgment. What we've got is like a gymnasium, a place to work out in a very supportive family environment."

As for the name Zeitgeist, "the stuff I write hopefully reflects the times we live in," Martin said. He allowed himself a contented sigh. "I love the theater," he said. "I love to act in the theater. And I love to have my plays produced."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Where and When

What: "Tower of Masks"

Where: Zeitgeist Theatre, 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 26, at 2 p.m. Closes April 1.

Tickets: $12-$15

Reservations: (310) 444-1867

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