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STAGE | REVIEW

Squeeze Play

Cozy theater's size cramps its style in staging Civil War piece 'Secret Service.'

September 17, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everything about the Civil War is epic. So it is not without some sacrifice in scale that the Chandler Studio--which at 33 seats can optimistically be described as "intimate"--stages William Gillette's "Secret Service."

Still, what the staging lacks in size it makes up for in drama. Adapted and directed by David Bennett, "Secret Service" is an engaging yarn about a Yankee spy undercover in the Confederate Army in Richmond.

When a note from a Yankee prisoner winds up at the Varney home, suspicion descends on Captain Thorne (Matthew Siess), who has been courting daughter Edith Varney (Noeleen Todaro). Benton Arrelsford (Clive Rees), a henchman of the Confederate Secret Service, is nearly hysterical in his desire to intercept the note and capture Thorne in action.

Gillette's play has some over-complicated setups, but the psychological showdown between Thorne and Arrelsford makes it worth the effort to follow. Thorne's character is complex enough that, at the end, it is hard to decide if he deserves to escape, go to prison or be shot.

Bennett--both in his adaptation and direction--should further explore Thorne's conflicted nature, the aspect that makes "Secret Service" feel particularly modern. But generally, "Secret Service" is a directing achievement, keeping plot, character and suspense successfully circling on the small stage.

Siess has some nice moments as Thorne, particularly when confronted by Edith. Todaro, however, doesn't really capture the imagination and seems uninteresting, especially next to neighbor Caroline (Jeana Blackman). Rees is grating as Arrelsford, though not entirely without dramatic purpose. Still, his bulging eyes and hissing lines are more ridiculous than menacing.

But more than any specific change, "Secret Service" feels as if it would benefit from grander staging. Costumes that don't look like 1980s prom dresses, props and set pieces that ring of authenticity, lighting and sound cues that evoke more mood--all of these would envelop the audience in the era. Of course, that demands a bigger theater than the Chandler, and likely a much bigger budget.

"Secret Service," first produced in 1896, is the latest early American play produced by the Chandler Studio Theater Company and artistic director Michael Holmes. The last few years have also seen revivals of John Galsworthy's 1927 thriller "Escape!" and Sophie Treadwell's 1928 "Machinal." It's an interesting phase for the Chandler group, one worth watching.

BE THERE

Secret Service at the Chandler Studio, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. $10. Runs indefinitely. (818) 908-4094. Running time: 2 hours.

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