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A 'Threepenny' for Her Thoughts

Heidi Helen Davis has written and acted but prefers directing to really express what's on her mind. And her latest project has a lot to say.

June 30, 1996|Janice Arkatov | Janice Arkatov is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When Heidi Helen Davis tells you she's always been a director, she's not exaggerating. Ask the Palo Alto neighborhood kids who grew up taking stage orders from her.

"The first time I directed, I was 5," Davis says matter-of-factly. From fairy tales she moved on to small musicals. At 11, she became an adapter, writing and directing a staged poem in her school auditorium. At 12, she added composing ("horrible stuff"). At 16 came her first full-length play, "I Can Sing a Rainbow," a bleak drama about four women (including a mute and a psycho-killer) in an insane asylum. "I became a director for two reasons," she says. "To escape into a fantasy life and to control other people. Even as a young child, I remember organizing everything: inviting [the actors], telling them what to wear, setting up chairs."

She still loves calling the shots.

"As a girl, I was very rebellious," she says. "Never rude. But I'd dress the way I wanted, say what I wanted. And I always felt there was something in me that needed to be said, though it was not necessarily my own words. I don't know that Heidi Davis has anything interesting to say. But when I read other peoples' words that strike a truth, that need to be heard, then I've got to do it."

The director brings that conviction to her latest project, a revival of Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill's 1928 morality tale "The Threepenny Opera," opening Saturday at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. (The Theatricum's outdoor summer repertory includes an already-opened "The Tempest" and, beginning Aug. 3, "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")

'I think it's very contemporary," Davis says of Brecht's work. "The piece is about compassion, corruption, fear and greed. You want to identify with Polly, but she's looking that corruption right in the face, marrying it [the devilish Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife]--yet denying it. I think that denial is something we're doing as a society." Davis brings her political-artistic conviction to the admittedly subjective staging, including an uncomfortable and persistent sub-theme of child abuse. "Brecht has beggars in the play," she says. "I'm just making them children."

Davis has also kept the original English setting, but moved the time frame to 1936. "It's pre-Hitler," she explains. "The mood is ominous and dark. No one talks about Hitler, but there's a feeling that something horrible is about to descend." The director, 44, hopes that some of that unease will find its way into the audience. "This play is about humanity's inhumanity," she says bluntly. "I want people to feel the consequences of our own alienation, our lack of feeling. Brecht said, 'Art is never without consequence.' "

The project was offered to Davis by Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer, for whom she had earlier staged Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic" (1986), Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1993) and "The Glass Menagerie" (1994), and Geer's " . . . and the Dark Cloud Came" (1995).

The second of four children born to a Welsh American father and a Japanese American mother, Davis' family relocated from Wichita, Kan., to Northern California when she was 4. "My parents were Quakers, liberals, risk takers, politically aware," she says. "So we were taught to think for ourselves. There was always a chance to raise one's voice and maybe be wrong. My father thought I'd be a lawyer, because I always loved to argue--and because of the work I was doing with farm workers, diabetic children, the mentally ill."

Instead, she took a major U-turn into acting during high school.

"There was no opportunity to direct, so I became an actor," she says. Another incentive: "There were six men to every woman. My first play was 'Marat/Sade,' another cheerful piece." After a short stint at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, she spent three years at San Francisco's Poverty Theatre, then enrolled at the nearby American Conservatory Theater. Five years later, after graduating from ACT's Masters Program and working as a company member, Davis moved to L.A. "Like every young actor, I was going to take the town by storm," she laughs. "I thought being Eurasian would help."

Although she did find work (including a role in the Taper's 1983 production of Dario Fo's "The Accidental Death of an Anarchist"), there was rarely much joy in it. "The dream was to act in a brilliant play with brilliant actors and a brilliant director--to millions of people," Davis says wryly. "I was literally in a performance one night when I thought, 'This is not it. There's got to be something more.' " Soon after, she was asked to direct, then to teach an acting class. Gradually, the acting fell away. "These things happen; you can't control how fate moves," she says. "But I found myself in a way I never had as a director."

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