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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

Play Explores Early Efforts of a Union

The historical musical looks at the mixing of ethnic groups and the vaudeville actors' struggle to survive.

August 08, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In both Hollywood and on Broadway, trade unions have a great deal of power. But not everyone is happy about that fact. Depending on whom you ask, those who work in film and on stage applaud or malign unions. Some see them as a necessary means of protecting workers while others believe union demands put too much of a fiscal strain on the industries they serve.

At the turn of the century, there was less ambivalence about the role of unions, at least as far as workers were concerned. To them, unions were valiant and humanitarian and protected workers from the exploitation of management.

Before Actors Equity, there was a fraternal order of vaudevillians called the White Rats, fashioned after a similar group in England, called the Water Rats. Note that rats spelled backward is star.

George Fuller Golden, founder of the American group, soon learned that his group's value was in fighting the inequities and outright cruelty of the vaudeville and theatrical monopoly of the syndicate, run by managers such as the Keith-Albee combine and Abe Erlanger.

Many stars became involved in this first attempt at organizing performers, and their story is told in Victoria Thompson's historical musical, "My Lady Vaudeville," opening Saturday at Theatre East in Studio City.

Thompson's interest in the period, and in the actors' struggle for survival, began 20 years ago when she first read a book called "American Vaudeville." It was not just the story of struggle, although Thompson often has political themes on her mind: Her play "The Triumph of Maeve," describing the Irish women's rights movement, was a Theatre East success a couple of seasons ago.

But "Vaudeville" attracted her as much for the turn-of-the-century ambience and the buoyant, optimistic music of that day.

"I'm making an analogy," Thompson said about her current work, "between the beginning of the attempt to make a union at that time, and the attempt to mix everybody together in America into this one country, with all these different races, creeds and nationalities."

And while all of that was going on there was also an attempt to get various groups to work together in vaudeville--Irish, Jews and Scots, she added. "I'm moved by the subject, and within my reading about the period, I found out about the White Rats."

Thompson has tried to paint an honest picture of the time, including using the terms for various ethnic groups that were used during that period, even though they are no longer considered socially appropriate.

"The play is not politically correct," said Thompson's sister Hilarie Thompson, who plays vaudeville star Elsie Janis in the production.

"We use all those pejoratives, the words they were throwing at one another all the time then," added Victoria Thompson. "They were finding a way to mix together, and I've always found that words are not the problem. The problem lies in something else. It lies in actions."

And while there is a definite message in this play, as there tends to be in most of her plays, Victoria Thompson said she wanted this one to be fun, "and have the message inherent in the situation."

* "My Lady Vaudeville," Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 15. (818) 790-4166 or (818) 789-0703.

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From Theatre East to Theatre West: This weekend Theatre West resumes its New Works Festival with Westworks96 Part II. The programs, which will change each weekend for the next three weeks, consist of new plays developed in the Theatre West writing workshops over the past year, along with a few revivals.

Playing Friday through Sunday will be "Lemurian Love Call," about survivors of the legendary lost continent Lemuria, now living atop Mt. Shasta, which is written, directed and performed by Phillip Abbott. Also on the program is Mary Portser's "Distress Signals."

Playing Aug. 16-18 are Jean Lenox Toddie's "And Go to Innisfree," inspired by William Butler Yeats' poem, and Mary Jane Roberts' "Dea," a modern "Medea," which casts family values in a new light. The following weekend, Aug. 23-25, John Patrick Shanley's "The Dreamer Examines His Pillow" will be revived.

* Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Hollywood. All programs play 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. (213) 851-7977.

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Travel Note: A new producing company at California Institute of the Arts, called with modern tongue-in-cheek @Muse.CalArts, is making use of professional talents drawn from all five schools at the institute (theater, music, art, dance and film). They're making quite a splash with their production of William Butler Yeats' "Deirdre," which premiered at the school last May. Yeats is very popular in the Valley this year.

This Sunday, the Cal Arts production will be part of the opening-night ceremony at the acclaimed Edinburgh Festival Fringe, now celebrating its 50th anniversary in Scotland. Performances of "Deirdre" will continue during the festival at Queen's Hall.

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