NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Michael Holmes' theater, The Chandler Studio, is in a tucked-away, anonymous-looking set of shops--so tiny that even the term "strip mall" is too grandiose to describe it. This Chandler Boulevard location is a place where pet grooming and trophy shops seem much likelier than a theater that prides itself on literary chamber plays.
But the Chandler's obscurity mirrors Holmes' own bent for hidden corners of literature and American history. "I love to explore people and places you might not have known before," Holmes says.
As a playwright and director, he especially loves to explore "old, forgotten 19th-Century New York, where amazing things happened." Holmes' last play, "Ryder," was a dissection of the strange life of the obscure, influential 19th-Century New York painter, Albert P. Ryder. And his new play, "The Ring," set in 1867, promises to take us deeper into the bowels of Gotham. It opens Saturday night.
The burgeoning wave of Irish in America fleeing British oppression and the potato famine produced a ghettoized underclass in Manhattan before and after the Civil War. Casual, rampant violence and gang warfare ruled these very tough streets.
"With the atmosphere of anti-immigrant attitudes around us, after Prop. 187's passage last fall," says Holmes, sitting in the living room of his cozy Van Nuys home, "I thought the story in 'The Ring' was the same story played out again and again. Immigrants can often have it pretty rough in America."
Centered around the dangerous, deceptive-sounding Sportsmen's Hall, "The Ring" tells of three Irish emigres--Sean (played by Joseph Dean Vachon), his love Kathleen (Stephanie McGurn) and Bill (Robert Bardy)--who become entangled in a romantic triangle.
"There are three characters," says Holmes, "but I hope we create a milieu where you get the sense of a larger world around them--the gangs, the good, the nasty, with some offstage characters and others who are essentially onstage and spoken to, but not visible to us.
"The echo I kept feeling while writing this was of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale,' in which Leontes is weighted down with unfounded jealousy and paranoia. Here, Sean descends into that kind of madness, and then comes out again."
As a measure of the literary value Holmes injects into his work, he considers the various meanings of the play's title: "There's the ring of friendship, the ring of thieves, the wedding ring, the boxing ring (the setting for the favorite Irish-American sport of the time), and the ring of the Druids of yore. I thought of changing the title many times--'The Ring' first sounded so . . . plain--but Joseph urged me, 'Michael, it's 'The Ring.' "
"Michael is the best teacher I've worked with," says Vachon, who has starred in both "Ryder" and Holmes' first play, "When Whippoorwills Call."
Holmes acknowledges that the old New York exerts a great pull on his imagination--a New York that was gone even when he first visited it as a hungry young actor in 1959, leaving his Texas home for good.
"It was a marvelous time to be young and into theater," he says, "because you could still see the Lunts and Shirley Booth and Eli Wallach and a huge number of great actors working on Broadway." But it was because of Uta Hagen and her venerated acting classes that Holmes says he really learned how to act.
Partly because of a debt he felt to Hagen and a network of other New York acting teachers, Holmes felt it natural to carry on as a teacher himself. Invited by a group of New York transplants called The Faculty and led by Charles Nelson Reilly, Holmes began teaching in Los Angeles in 1979 in North Hollywood.
Though The Faculty eventually dissolved, Holmes continued teaching at various venues, "but I needed my very own place." The humble quarters on Chandler, formerly Lola's Bar, became available in 1989.
"I have a lot of dedicated students," he says, "and they helped me build a real theater in that space in about one day."
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: "The Ring."
Location: The Chandler Studio, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.
Hours: 8 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Ends June 11.
Call: (818) 780-6516.