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THEATER : Not Your Usual Ibsen : Theatricum will stage the unfamiliar work, featuring as its tempestuous spouses two troupe veterans who are also married.

June 30, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

TOPANGA — When he was Europe's most controversial playwright, Henrik Ibsen did not make things easy for the theater world. Critics, Bob Dole-like, accused him of corrupting public morals. Some theaters wanted nothing to do with him. Even late in his career, with the 1896 opening of "Little Eyolf," the London Evening Standard critic moaned that before the play's premiere "there had appeared good reason to hope that the English stage had seen the last of the morbid, melancholy and unwholesome dramas of Mr. Ibsen."

Today, Ibsen poses a different problem. Theaters everywhere are happy to revive "Hedda Gabler" or "Ghosts" or "A Doll's House" or "The Master Builder." Ask them, though, to revive "Rosmersholm" or "John Gabriel Borkman" or that despised "Little Eyolf," and you'll go begging.

Even the impossibly epic "Peer Gynt" is more familiar than "Little Eyolf," which hasn't received a significant Los Angeles production in more than 25 years.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is about to change all that.

Bypassing the usual Ibsen fare, the theater has chosen "Eyolf," which opens Saturday, for the summer season slot reserved for more serious, adult plays. In recent years, that's meant Tennessee Williams plays, such as "Night of the Iguana" and "The Glass Menagerie."

"But I think we've really developed our audience over the years, and our guess is that they'll be up for a play they've never heard of," says Melora Marshall, who with husband George McDaniel will play "Eyolf's" bitter married couple. "After doing Williams, we're finding that 'Little Eyolf' goes into much of the same territory, only much more deeply."

Set in Norway's dramatic fiord country, Ibsen's drama brings the marriage of Alfred and Rita Allmers to the crisis point in the wake of a family tragedy.

While Alfred has given up on his big project, a book to be titled "Human Responsibility," Rita chafes at the growing feeling that he is putting her aside as well.

Director Ellen Geer has had "Eyolf" in the works for awhile, and it appears to be a Theatricum natural: Much of its action is outdoors, suitable for the amphitheater's wooded Topanga Canyon setting, and the pairing of such a solid, married acting couple as Marshall and McDaniel would seem to add emotional depth to Ibsen's tempestuous spouses.

But even these actors--so much a part of the Theatricum company that they live on the premises--acknowledge that they hadn't heard of "Eyolf" when Geer first brought it up to them.

"Yeah," says McDaniel, "but I mentioned to my commercial agent that I would be doing Ibsen, and he asked which one, and I said, 'Little Eyolf,' figuring he wouldn't know, only he goes, 'Oh, wow! That's a good one!' So there are people out there who do know."

For Marshall, the play's torrid emotional landscape is "very modern," and McDaniel finds links between the Allmers' grieving a death in their family to the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: "She writes about how the process of loss goes from denial to rage to grief to acceptance, which is exactly what Rita and Alfred go through."

And what about what Melora and George go through?

"Well," Marshall says with a little pause, "We're snapping at each other more."

McDaniel: "Melora, more than me, has forced us to confront our problems. Like Alfred, I'm task-oriented, and I get caught up in work."

Unlike Rita, who has no life apart from Alfred, Marshall busily splits her time between raising sons Marshall and Kellen and helping to lead the Theatricum's summer academy.

"So I may be 180 degrees away from Rita," says Marshall, "but I totally understand her frustration. Their clash is exciting--at least, that's how we want to make it feel for folks sitting outside."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Little Eyolf." Location: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Hours: 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Also, 8 p.m. July 28 and Aug. 4. Ends Aug. 6. Price: $8.50 to $12.50. Call: (310) 455-3723.

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