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Pullman Goes From the Big Screen to Behind the Scenes

August 31, 1996|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fresh from saving the world as the president in the mega-movie "Independence Day," Bill Pullman is co-producing a little show about a tyrant at the 99-seat Zephyr Theatre on Melrose Avenue.

Roberto Athayde's "Miss Margarida's Way" features Pullman's friend Tom Morris in drag, playing the intimidating Miss Margarida, hectoring her adolescent students. The play was written at a time when Brazilian playwrights used allegory to make political protests against the government.

Compared to the aliens who plan to exterminate mankind in "Independence Day," Miss Margarida is a soft touch--but you wouldn't want to tangle with her.

Pullman and Morris met doing alfresco Shakespeare in Montana in the '70s and kept in touch. Last winter, Pullman saw Morris play the dreaded teacher in a workshop in Montana and was amazed at what he saw. "He never seemed to have a big female inside him" prior to doing this play, Pullman said.

Lacking acting responsibilities of his own this summer while promoting "Independence Day," Pullman offered his friend a chance to play Miss Margarida in L.A.: "I thought it would be a good time to sit in a black box and work on a play." A veteran of L.A.'s theater scene, Pullman recruited the other behind-the-scenes talent and also contributed the $15,000 the production required.

"I'm always really curious about that male-female inside an individual," Pullman said. "It's important to have accessibility to all of that inside one actor." When he and Morris played in Shakespeare together, the troupe was so small that men sometimes would play women, as in Shakespeare's day.

Likewise, Pullman said he was fascinated by Cornerstone Theater's "Twelfth Night," which switched genders with abandon and set the play within a U.S. Navy that was grappling with the role of gays in the military. "I had never seen anything so totally turned on its head." After seeing it at Taper, Too in 1994, Pullman said he brought others to see the second production of it at Los Angeles Theatre Center earlier this year.

*

LATC is familiar turf for Pullman. Among his roles with the former resident company there, he played the title character in "Barabbas" in 1986--his wife's favorite among his many stage productions--and the central character in his own favorite production, "Demon Wine," in 1989.

Pullman believes that some of those LATC plays have lingered longer in people's memories than some of the movies he has been in. Even today, he said, "some lawyer at a party will come up and say he remembers me from 'All My Sons' [from 1986]."

Since the LATC company closed, Pullman has done some work at the Met Theatre, and he would have done "Miss Margarida's Way" there, he said--but the Met leadership was fractured into two groups last spring. "The Zephyr is perfect for this piece, but you have to tweak the audience to get them to change their [theatergoing] rhythms."

Pullman described the sub-100-seat theater scene as "a cross between a pyramid scheme and a salon. Everybody is trying to get everyone in to see their play, but sometimes it's only about four steps beyond having people over to your house."

Although Pullman hasn't been in a full stage production since Beth Henley's "Control Freaks" at the Met in 1993, he stays in touch with the Southland stage scene. For example, he recently ventured to "The Green Bird" in La Jolla because he liked director Julie Taymor's "The Flying Dutchman" for the Los Angeles Opera last season. He also was a presenter at last year's Ovation Awards ceremony.

And when he described watching "Independence Day" with his real-life counterpart, President Clinton, Pullman soon arrived at a theatrical reference: "This was Pirandello to the nth degree."

* "Miss Margarida's Way," Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Thursday-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 7. $15. (213) 660-8587.

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