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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

Stage Groups Fail at Communication Role

Three companies are now doing Tennessee Williams. But each brings something unique to its production.

July 11, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Theater companies are, by nature, insular. They rarely confide in each other, and are loath to release a schedule for their season until the last minute. If they did, another theater might do the same plays.

Too often another theater does do the same plays, and worse yet, at the same time.

Witness a current production of one-acts at the McCadden Theatre in Hollywood, called "Little Plays . . . Big Playwrights." One of those little plays is Tennessee Williams' "The Long Goodbye." And at the Fountain Theatre, also in Hollywood, you can see another evening of one-acts, all by Williams, which includes his "A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot." This production is called "Four By Tenn."

Opening this weekend at North Hollywood's Actors Alley at the El Portal is a production called "Three By Tenn." This collection of Williams' plays includes both "Long Goodbye" and "Perfect Analysis," in addition to "Portrait of a Madonna," which oddly enough no other theater is doing at this time.

Fortunately, each production of a play is unique, with individual directorial intent and performances. That's what makes theater the only entertainment medium that's new every night. But if these theaters would speak to each other, they might save the theatergoer from making so many decisions.

Walter Koenig, the director guiding the Actors Alley production, said, "I would hope that would transpire, that theaters could talk about what their schedules are going to be. But everyone's competing for a very small audience, relatively speaking. There may be this sense of giving away secrets. Everybody seems to be coveting the same audience, instead of trying to expand the audience base."

Koenig, who would rather talk about the playwright Chekhov than discuss the character he played in the "Star Trek" series and films, had definite ideas when he chose these three Williams one-acts. They provide roles for company members who don't have that many performance opportunities, even in a four-play season. And they contain five strong women's roles, particularly the lead in "Portrait of a Madonna," a role that in the play's original production was turned down by Lillian Gish, and was taken over by Jessica Tandy. Incidentally, Tandy later thanked Gish for the chance; the role was soon expanded into Tandy's star-making Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"We have a dearth of opportunities for women," Koenig said, "not only in our company, but in the whole spectrum of theater, and film, for that matter. And I thought if I could call upon the craft of more actors, then I would be doing everybody a service."

Koenig thought these particular Williams works were challenging, and that he could find the actors and actresses in the company who could meet that challenge.

"Besides being very lyric and very poetic in the writing," said Koenig, Williams "literally laid it out there in terms of his feelings. These are not intellectual exercises. These are from the gut, from the soul."

Outside of Stanley Kowalski in "Streetcar," and a few other roles, Williams concentrated more on developing female than male characters. One exception is the semiautobiographical role of Joe, in "Long Goodbye." Joe is an unsuccessful writer in 1940. His mother has died of cancer, his sister has become a tramp, and his father has deserted the family. These characters are close to Williams' own history.

"All three plays are memory plays to one degree or another," said Koenig, who went on to explain that Joe's pain is exposed through his memories, pain that he has to overcome in his present life. Like most of Williams' characters, Koenig said, Joe must learn how to fight back.

"Ultimately," Koenig said, "in spite of all that pain, Williams' message is one of hope. Joe is saying goodbye to every day of his life, but that doesn't mean there aren't hellos as well."

* "Three By Tenn," Actors Alley at the El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 8. $14-$16. (818) 508-4200.

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Making Scenes: A show that is individual enough to be considered one of a kind derives from a line from early Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney films, "My uncle's got a barn--let's put on a show!"

"My Uncle's Barn" is the brainchild of writer/comedian Dan Reddington who, bored with the usual stand-up material he was doing, decided to write some scenes that, as he said, he couldn't do in his stand-up act. These aren't sketches, he insisted, they're scenes.

"In my mind, a sketch is one joke," he said. "It doesn't really require any depth of writing or acting, whereas a scene is something that requires the actors to be acting. A scene is about the relationship between these two people, and not the joke that might come at the end."

Reddington said the evening, which varies from performance to performance, also includes a 12-minute stand-up routine by different comics, and different musicians who drop into the barn each week to help keep things lively.

* "My Uncle's Barn," Jewel Box Theatre, 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 1. $12-$14. (213) 466-1767.

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A First in Topanga: That other classical company in the Topanga Canyon, Theatricum Botanicum, added a modern classic to its repertoire last weekend, and it was a first for them.

The piece is Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera," and it's the first musical for the company. As Frank Dwyer said about all classical theater, Weill's work, written with Bertolt Brecht, has entertainment as well as some very useful information about the human condition. It is based on an even older classic, John Gay's 18th century "The Beggar's Opera," and it proves that we haven't changed all that much in the past 200 years.

* "The Threepenny Opera," Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 8 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 14; 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 4. $8.50-$15. Call (310) 455-3723.

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