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Critic's Report

A year of reviewing Valley plays reveals much mediocrity, a few true successes and potential for growth.

September 10, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago my boss asked me if I would begin reviewing local theater productions for the San Fernando Valley edition of the paper. At least I think she asked me. Perhaps she lured me.

No matter. I accepted eagerly. It was a perfect job. I had been writing reviews of all sorts of things as far back as high school. I was familiar with most of the major theater companies in the Valley from my years as a feature writer.

I envisioned lively nights out, taking friends along, chatting afterward over coffee about subtext and subtleties.

But there was a snag: Because the Valley is, to date, still part of the city of Los Angeles, the newspaper's downtown office often dispatches its own reviewers to Valley theaters.

Plays from critically acclaimed companies--a Noise Within, Interact Theatre Company, lately the Road Theatre Company--are quickly and rightly snatched up for review by a downtown critic.

Still, that means I reviewed about half of all the Valley productions staged in the last 12 months. In sum, about 50 plays.

I can say this: There is life out here. Real, cultural life. You just have to know where to look.

And I've looked just about everywhere. Early on, I went to a play that was, literally, in a garage and accessible only via a back alley off Reseda Boulevard. I've sat in people's living rooms, on park lawns and in countless storefront theaters with an average 42 seats.

The vast majority of what I have seen is mediocre, and the vast majority of my reviews lukewarm. About half a dozen productions have earned outright pans.

Only a couple of times have I been completely bowled over, and both were when I least expected it. The first time, the Raven Playhouse, a theater with no resident company, was presenting a play about a family trying to deal with its severely handicapped 20-year-old son.

"Keeping Tom Nice" was such an honest and chilling portrait, such a poetic piece of theater, that I wanted to shake some audience members who chatted throughout.

The second time was at the Two Roads Theatre, which offered a one-man show based on a Van Morrison song. What could be more trite? Yet Colin Mitchell took the opaque lyrics of "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights" and created a translucent character who was simultaneously unbelievable and full of humanity.

"Xenogenesis" at the Eclectic Company Theatre, too, seemed farfetched on the page. About genetic manipulation and asexual reproduction in 2042, it was even more farfetched on the stage. But an incredibly tight ensemble of eight young men, who used no props and created their own sound effects, created a hilarious and precise work.

The common factor among these shows was unpredictability--a trait that, generally speaking, is lacking in the roughly three dozen small theaters in the Valley.

That's not meant as a condemnation, but more to point out a dilemma that faces theaters in suburban sprawl. Competition is fierce not so much from other theaters but from TV, videos, the Internet and movies. Given that, how can a theater that wants to draw a steady audience not program plays that are familiar, or at least comfortable?

At the same time, ours is a city full of aspiring actors willing to do theater. But most writers and directors have turned their talents toward film and television--media that bear little in common with theater.

Two things result: a lot of world-premiere plays that are situation comedies, and shows created by and for actors. The worst are the vanity audition pieces where critics are handed "industry kits" full of head shots and resumes.

Good theater is not a means. It is an end.

Yet I remain hopeful that theater in the Valley will grow and thrive. Already companies like Interact and the Road and Eclectic are showing the rest of the city that it is worth driving over the hill. And that it's easier to find parking here.

Even shows as bizarre at "(818)," the play in the Reseda garage, offer optimism. Here was a group of young people from the Valley, college-age kids who grew up in the shadow of Hollywood. Yet instead of picking up video cameras, they're creating plays.

Granted, I didn't know whether or not to laugh when the lead character screamed like he was cursing the gods, "Nothing grows in the Valley!" But hey, "(818)" also had the only thematic use of a Rick Springfield song I have ever encountered.

Some other conclusions I've come to during the last 12 months? There ought to be a law that if you're going to operate a theater in the San Fernando Valley between May 1 and Sept. 30, you must prove your air-conditioning system is up to the task.

I've also been repeatedly startled at what some people think my job is. I get calls from theater people asking if I could give their show some publicity. (Hire a publicist. I'm a reporter.)

Twice people have asked me to change or remove my capsule review from the Sunday Calendar listings because they weren't "helping sell tickets." (Do I work for Ticketmaster?)

No, my job, as odd and uncomfortable as it can be, is to pass judgment.

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