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Resurrecting 'Methuselah'

Most theater troupes would be daunted by George Bernard Shaw's five-part play. Not Los Angeles Rep.

March 02, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

After the first production of George Bernard Shaw's five-play, three-night "Back to Methuselah" in New York in 1922, Shaw bestowed a slightly barbed compliment on its producer, Lawrence Langner.

The production was surely "unique," he told Langner. "It isn't likely that any other lunatic will want to produce 'Back to Methuselah.' "

Shaw had "seriously underrated his attraction for lunatics," wrote his biographer, Michael Holroyd. An English production soon followed. A condensed one-night version toured America in the '50s. In 1986, the Shaw Festival in Ontario did a nearly full-scale "Methuselah." Still, the work's scope makes it an impossible dream for most companies.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles Repertory Company is joining the ranks of the "lunatics" who tackle this mammoth beast. The company's two-part version of "Back to Methuselah" opens this week (Part 1 on Thursday, Part 2 on Friday, with weekend marathons beginning Saturday) at the Evidence Room, a former warehouse in the industrial district of east Culver City. It's apparently the first time anyone has attempted to stage this sprawling opus in the often-impoverished arena of L.A.'s sub-100-seat theaters.

Adam and Eve are featured in the first of the five "Methuselah" plays, "In the Beginning." The other four plays then leap forward from 1920 to the years 2170, 3000 and 31920. In L.A. Rep's production, 30 actors will play 44 parts.

L.A. Rep co-founder and artistic director Robert Ellenstein is very clear about why he's taking on "Methuselah." "In most cases," he said, "dramatized visions of the future are either of militarism or chaos. 'Methuselah' is hopeful. We have to imagine a future that's a little better, or it's not going to happen."

Sounds like a true Shavian. In the play, Shaw made the point that progress comes about because people imagine something better, then desire it, then will it, then create it. The primary problem, he contended, is that people don't live long enough for this process to bear fruit. But in his play, a group of "long livers" who survive for hundreds of years, as did the biblical Methuselah, offer hope for some very long-range solutions.

Ellenstein himself is 73, a mere child by the standards of the "long livers." Asked if he would like to live hundreds of years, he replied, "as long as my health is OK and I'm having a good time." It sounds as if he's certainly succeeding with the "good time" criterion.

Ellenstein has "four pensions"--from the military (he was wounded as a soldier in World War II), two actors' unions ("I used to do any piece of crap on TV") and Social Security. "So I don't have to run around any more, calling my agent every day," he said. "Instead, I'm doing stuff that makes me feel alive."

Not that he's certain that longevity brings wisdom, he said. "I'm not sure that what I do with my life is worth anything, that all of it isn't spurious. But people who don't have hope are in hell. This keeps me out of hell."

One of Ellenstein's keenest pleasures appears to be working with his younger son Peter, 35, who is producing "Methuselah" and helping to direct its fifth and final segment. "He's a wonder," said the older Ellenstein of his son. "He's breathed a lot of new life" into L.A. Rep.

Indeed, after the senior Ellenstein ran the company for nearly four years and 17 productions at a converted machine shop in Studio City in the late '60s, the building was sold, and the company became homeless and "moribund," he said. But it came back to life 10 years ago, when Ellenstein staged a six-actor version of "Hamlet" for the L.A. Fringe Festival. And more recently it has become known for his staging of Shaw's "Misalliance" in 1993 and son Peter's production of "Assassins," the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical at Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1994.

Robert gives Peter much of the credit for the company's revival, which now includes a permanent office and rehearsal space in Hollywood. "I've had producers before who were well-meaning, but they didn't have his skill. They weren't the operator he is."

For example, Peter went to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas to find some cast-off lighting equipment for "Methuselah." He's trying to develop contacts at other casinos, where old equipment is often replaced by the latest gadgets.

On paper, said the younger Ellenstein, the budget for "Methuselah" is $57,000. "But then we try to do it without paying for as much as possible. None of the creative team gets paid, so we make sure we do shows that interest them enough to work for free." In this case, for example, "how often does someone get a chance to design costumes for people in the year 31920?"

Further money was saved by waiting to do "Methuselah" until after Jan. 1, 1997, which is when the original version entered the public domain.

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