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THEATER : At Home With Royalty : 'Letters' offers a personal peek at the queens of England in a living-room theater setting.

June 16, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times.

SHERMAN OAKS — In previous shows, director Roy Brocksmith has managed to have such things as tornadoes whip through his living room--which also serves as the stage for his California Cottage Theatre. It happens to be in the Sylvan Avenue house that Brocksmith and his wife and partner, Adele, have shared on and off with audiences and actors for nearly eight years.

But is the Brocksmith's cottage-style house big enough for the queens of England?

With an eccentricity that any Anglophile could admire, Brocksmith has selected and patched together various missives from British female royalty, calling it "Letters from Queens" (now in its opening weekend) and refusing to call it a play.

"No, no," Brocksmith says with a pass of a hand, "this is an evening, an evening with, I hope, some interesting women."

Women, plus one Sir Tobias Fop, a variation on the "Toby" character who has always served as comic host at the tiny theater. This time, he is, according to Brocksmith, "a 20th-Century 'queen' himself, who loves dressing up in the 18th-Century manner." Sir Tobias narrates and has a letter of his own (the work's only piece of original writing, care of Brocksmith).

"Letters from Queens" is more the product of discovery than that of a royals-watcher. Five years ago, Brocksmith's friend Doe Avedon (photographer Richard Avedon's first wife and the subject of the movie "Funny Face") urged him to read a favorite book--"Intimate Letters of England's Queens," edited by Margaret Sanders. From the much put-upon Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) to the era-defining Queen Victoria (1819-1901), the letters of these women tend to reveal them in ways few third-person histories can hope to do.

"I found that even though they might be in nominal positions of power," says Brocksmith, "they were always under male domination--even, in some ways, Elizabeth I and Victoria," the so-called "independent" queens. "In their writing, they expose their traits. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, was a true schemer, and she chose her words very carefully--until her last letter, where she went too far in her arrogance and got herself executed. Queen Anne hardly cared for her position, and wiled away the hours writing gossip.

"Victoria, on the other hand, hated holding the levers of power but played her role immaculately, writing in extremely regal terms--'We wish this' and 'We observe that.' All of them reveal themselves as people or mothers, under the pomp."

How, though, do you stage letters? First, by careful selection: Brocksmith and his cast pored through the letters and chose the best and most dramatic entries, then pared down further, aiming for letters that suggested changes in character.

Then, with Sir Tobias as narrator, Brocksmith says he has found ways of weaving the letters together, of making them active rather than static for the audience. "Queen Anne, for example, dashes on and off with bits of gossipy tidbits. One actor, Pheopatric Boone, plays various pieces of furniture that respond with facial expressions to what the queens say. He's the male presence, if you will, in the palace."

Except for Boone, the rest of the "Queens" cast are returning Cottage Theatre veterans--Diane Adair, Ruth Cordell, Janet Craig, Susan Wood and Michael LeBeau (as Sir Tobias).

"I'm loyal to my actors," says Brocksmith, 49, himself a longtime stage, TV and film actor, "because it's not easy to play here. You're right here, in the living room, and you have to address the audience, which is very difficult. The audience has to get into it too."

Living-room theater isn't the Brocksmiths' life, though. During runs, the show is only up one week of four in a month, and the Cottage Theatre will stay dark between shows as long as husband and wife wish ("We've been closed in '95 until now because I was dried up for ideas, though I'm not anymore," Roy Brocksmith says).

And, come 1997, the Brocksmiths promise that they will move the theater out of their living room. "We will need to grow and move on," Roy says. "Ten years is enough."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Letters from Queens."

Location: California Cottage Theatre, 5220 Sylmar Ave., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 8 tonight; 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Continues July 13 through 15, Aug. 24 through 26, Sept. 14 through 16. Ends Sept. 16.

Price: Free but reservations required.

Call: (818) 990-5773.

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