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Clear-Cut View of a Dark 'Forest'

Director Stephanie Shroyer boldly plants the audience amid the chaos of the Romanian Revolution, for perspective's sake.

July 28, 1996|Janice Arkatov | Janice Arkatov is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Stephanie Shroyer can't help herself. No matter what the subject is, she's always looking for a universal human experience.

"I want to learn how to get along on this planet," the director says simply. "I strive to make connections, to share the human experience." Shroyer's dedication to that credo informs not only her life but her work as well: Her current project is the dark and disturbing "Mad Forest" at the Matrix Theatre, Caryl Churchill's bird's-eye dramatization of ordinary Romanian citizens caught up in the madness and exhilaration surrounding the 1989 downfall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

In researching for the show, the director and her cast of 27 solicited advice from the Romanian consulate, Romanian churches, Romanian newspapers and a Romanian photojournalist; one actress collected insights from her Romanian-born manicurist. "There was also a professor at USC, Dr. Hari Rorlich, who was remarkable," says Shroyer, "both with the history, and being able to identify how our Western point of view was filtering our perceptions."

For Shroyer, that was the key to the project--and its most difficult aspect. To Westerners, Dr. Rorlich counseled, these characters do not exhibit recognizable values, traditions or behaviors; it is a specific history and culture, and Churchill's characters reflect it in action and demeanor, words and silence.

"He said, 'Don't try to understand these things, because it's not your experience,' " notes the director.

"We see plenty of conflict in the world," Shroyer says. "But the way it's reported, we don't really get to explore it, examine it from all sides. The idea of doing this play was to look at a completely different political structure, and maybe understand each other a little better."

Shroyer, 37, also goes for the bold strokes in her physical presentation. During her tenure as artistic director of Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble from 1989 to 1995, her stagings of such plays as "Barbarians" and "Camino Real" often placed large casts on small, unconventionally arranged sets, with actors alongside, and sometimes among, the audience. For "Mad Forest," she collaborated with set designers Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio to reconfigure the Matrix to accommodate a narrow center stage, surrounded on four sides by audience benches and a half-dozen secondary playing spaces.

"It was really Deborah's idea," Shroyer says of the dimly lit, bare-bones look. "I told her a little about how I thought it would move: the idea of looking through windows, having the audience search for the play--the way Caryl Churchill is doing in the text. But I didn't think the playing area was adjustable." Indeed, this is the first time Matrix producer Joe Stern has approved such a drastic alteration of the 99-seat space.

Shroyer says she isn't worried that people will criticize her for repeating PRTE's visual style: "I just say, 'Hey, this is the way my mind works."'

Those instincts have served her well in the past. At PRTE she won Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for her stagings of 1990's "The Beggar's Opera" and 1994's "The Visit," both of which also received LADCC outstanding production awards. Shroyer's local credits also include "Blood Wedding" at A Noise Within and "Waltzing De Niro" for Showtime's Act One Series at the Met.

Based in Los Angeles since 1986, the Washington D.C.-born former dancer-actress has variously served as a faculty and company member, guest artist and director-choreographer at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, the Denver Center and CalArts.

Shroyer makes it clear that her break last summer with PRTE was not an unhappy one.

"For a long time, I'd wanted to concentrate on the artistic side of things," she explains, "and I was really feeling like I wanted to work with new people. But there were so many administrative responsibilities! For a couple of years, I tried to do it all. But I found I needed to let go, be free to make a choice--perhaps to run off for a couple of months and do something else. They really needed an artistic director who was there, constant, to take them to the next phase. They have that now with Marilyn [Fox]. So it was a perfect time to leave."

As hoped for, Shroyer's split has left her open to new adventures; she has spent much of her past year observing on the studio sets of "The Faculty" and "Cybill." It has, she says, "been great fun."

And still, the theater beckons. She and former PRTE managing director Jon White-Spunner, along with Glorious Players' Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams, are establishing the 24th St. Project arts center in a former garment factory near USC. The building will serve as a community center and arts space for three area magnet schools by day, a venue for professional artists by night. The funding, which has reached almost $100,000, includes grants from USC's Neighborhood Outreach Project and L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Dept.

Plans for the center (permits and inspections pending) signal a September start date. But Shroyer, while looking forward to hosting other established arts groups in the center, is in no particular hurry to launch a new on-site theater company of her own. "We hope when the place gets its legs, we'll be able to have a 99-seat performance venue," she allows. "But that's all pretty sketchy right now. Perhaps it'll happen--down the road."


"MAD FOREST," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 29. Prices: $20-$22. Phone: (213) 852-1445.

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