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The Tag-Team Approach : They Growl, They Howl, but Mostly Actors' Gang Duo Conjures Up Spoof of 'Wrestling' With Some Bite to It

July 11, 1995|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hello from ringside. We're here today at the Actors' Gang Theater in Hollywood to talk to the two theater upstarts behind "World of Wrestling," opening Friday.

Michael (The Producer) Rivkin is a 28-year-old ex-New Yorker who cut his stage chops with the Wooster Group. He's mean, he's lean, he's avant-garde-antuan!

And Jason (The Director) Reed is a 27-year-old Vegas-reared talent who's making his Actors' Gang directorial debut with this show. Growl for the folks, killer!

Yes, this gruesome twosome has been in the ring together before, back when they were students at UCLA. But in the half-dozen years since they finished school and joined the Actors' Gang, they've never put on a show as big as this one.

Ladies and dudes: It's a no-holds-barred spoof that targets the hype and hooliganism of professional wrestling. But there's more to "World of Wrestling" than ferocious farce.

For all their high-kitsch high jinks, Reed and Rivkin also have a serious agenda. "Our big idea was using wrestling as a metaphor for the escalation of violence," says Reed, seated in the theater's dimly lit loft overlooking the red, white and blue-cordoned ring. "I want to show what direction society is heading in and how people are starting to get more physical with each other in their confrontations."

And because Reed and Rivkin want to be more than merely didactic, they've opted for a pop culture format targeted for the rowdy late-night crowd. "Wrestling is an accessible art form [to use to] explore ideas," says Rivkin, who, in addition to producing, will also be performing.

"Each round is social commentary plus wrestling. It's easy for the audience to digest the concept and be entertained at the same time."

"World of Wrestling"--which was originally conceived by Reed, Rivkin, Steve Moramarco and Jack Black--began as a student project at UCLA in 1988, with Peter Sellars as faculty adviser.

The creators got the idea for the show from the conflicts they were seeing around town on a daily basis. "For me, the inspiration was [such sights as] people flipping each other off while they're driving down the street," Reed says. "Or going by a women's clinic and seeing the abortion activists getting physical with people coming in.

"Ten years ago, they were just holding signs," Reed continues. "And the gang stuff used to be like 'Rumblefish.' Now they don't even think twice. They just pull out a gun and shoot."

The play they ended up writing--which has been expanded considerably since the original version--takes archetypal figures (priest, rock 'n' roller, lawyer) and pits them against one another in symbolic battles. A world of hangers-on and others rounds out an environmental staging that also includes audience participation.

Stylistically, "World of Wrestling" melds a basically Brechtian aesthetic with elements of avant-garde theater, televised sports and MTV. The show features not only the arrrrrgh and kuh-thwack of fresh flesh hitting the mats, but also rock music, multimedia effects and an array of sleazoid characters brought to you by a cast of 22.

The style also recalls the Actors' Gang's signature aesthetic of the late 1980s. It's a return that Reed and Rivkin, who describe themselves as "the young generation of the Gang," would like to see stick.

That highly theatrical, confrontational and presentational mode was, after all, what made Reed and Rivkin fall in love with the group's stagings. "When I first saw the Actors' Gang back in 1987, it [had] commedia style with white-face and live music," Reed says.

Yet that hasn't often been the group's look lately--especially since March of last year, when it put down roots in the renovated facility it now calls home. "We've been doing classics and bringing in guest directors," Reed says, "but the style was put on the back burner."

And while audience participation may not have been a mandatory part of those earlier Gang shows, it's pivotal in "World of Wrestling." "We get the audience involved so they can see themselves becoming part of the escalation of violence," says Reed, who not only directs the play but also wrote most of the script. "I want them to be completely into it, wanting to cheer."

That, in turn, should give the theatergoers pause. "I hope they reflect on it later," Reed says. "The whole ending [is saying], 'Wait a minute, where are we going? What are we supporting in our society?' It is getting really, really ugly."

"Ultimately, the bottom line is we're trying to entertain people," Rivkin adds. "But hopefully within that, we can stir up some ideas and get people thinking about violence and why people use it."

* "World of Wrestling," Actors' Gang Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 466-1767. Friday, 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. $10. Ends July 29.

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