Like many people encountering A Noise Within in its early days, Neil Vipond made a snap judgment when he drove by the Glendale theater company's Brand Boulevard home.
"I remember seeing this big sign for 'Hamlet' and thinking, 'Can you imagine what that is?' Very unadventurous of me, I must say. But you have these prejudices and associations. You think, 'This is this kind of town, and so that must be a community theater--and it must be hell on wheels.' "
Just a few years later, A Noise Within is attracting national attention, and Vipond--whose 4 1/2 decades in show business have brought him into contact with the likes of Uta Hagen and Tyrone Guthrie--is one of its most esteemed actors. And one of its biggest fans. Now, he's directing his first play for the troupe, a new translation of Luigi Pirandello's "So It Is! . . . If So It Seems to You," which opens Saturday.
One glance at Vipond and you'd be tempted to cast the distinguished-looking actor--with his silver hair, thin mustache and silky, Vincent Price-like voice--in an English drawing-room comedy. But he molds himself to roles as diverse as a codgerish ranch hand in "Of Mice and Men," an eccentric uncle in Horton Foote's "The Habitation of Dragons" and a twinkly grandpa in Paul Osborn's "On Borrowed Time."
Time and again, his work has inspired admiring, in-depth commentary, with remarks from Times reviewers ranging from "Vipond's most impressive feat is finding the irony, even the laughter, between the lines of his archetypally tragic monologues," of his King Lear, to "few actors . . . bring to the role as much spleen," of his Prospero in "The Tempest."
"His work is just so rich and so personal and available and fresh," says A Noise Within co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez Elliott. "There's a very in-the-moment quality to it."
"For Neil, theater--acting, directing--is almost like a religion," adds June Claman, who plays one of the central roles in "So It Is!" and who also happened to act with Vipond 43 years ago when both were novices at the Stratford Festival outside Toronto.
Vipond himself says acting is living, plain and simple. It shows the world "you're not just this deadhead--that you are a feeling person."
Vipond grew up in Toronto, the son of a salesman father and a mother who, as a girl, performed on the vaudeville circuit. Something got passed along in the genes. "I remember when I was 20, going around the living room of my family's house doing Romeo's last speech--when he's found her dead--and trying to summon up the tears," he says, his voice becoming impassioned, his face clenched with emotion. "Oh, I wanted to feel. And I know that's why I wanted to act."
The actor has spent much of his adult life in Toronto and New York, where he has worked with the New York Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Roundabout. He moved to Los Angeles six years ago, looking for television and film work. "When I came out here, I was determined that I was not going to go near the stage," he says, amused. "I just was not interested; I felt I'd done enough." But when a friend acting at A Noise Within asked him to come see a performance, Vipond's vow went out the window.
He feels a kinship with the folks at A Noise Within, with their repertory performances of classic plays, from Shakespeare through Arthur Miller. "Here's a group of people who are doing the play. They're not interested in exploiting the material for some stupid, inane concept." Their work, he added, is "genuine, honest, full of integrity."
Vipond, who lives in Silver Lake and will admit only to being "over 60," also shows up on stages throughout the region, including the acclaimed "On Borrowed Time" at the La Mirada Theatre late last year. On TV, he has a habit of popping up in just about everyone's favorite TV show, whether it be "Frasier," "Mad About You" or "Melrose Place."
Vipond sits in an empty rehearsal room at A Noise Within. Outside, the halls are traveled by actors in Shakespearean costume, waiting for their entrances during the rehearsal of another play.
He has been asking to direct at A Noise Within for a while now, but "they keep giving me these wonderful roles. I'd say, 'I'd like to direct,' and they'd say, 'Yeah, we'd love you to, but there's no way you can direct and play Lear.' "
"So It Is!" is Vipond's first directing project in a decade, and he's picked a real doozy for his reintroduction. The Italian writer Pirandello (1867-1936) is most famous for abstract, psychological dramas, of which "Six Characters in Search of an Author" is the best-known.
Pirandello's stories "play with the mind, and the mind plays with them," Vipond says.
This 1916 play depicts the frenzy of gossip that erupts when a man, his wife and her mother move in as strangers to a small provincial capital in Italy.