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THEATER | Theater Notes

Theatre West's Profile Goes on Upswing

August 08, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Theatre West has long occupied a somewhat elusive niche in L.A. theater. On the north end of Cahuenga Pass, it's often grouped with San Fernando Valley theaters, but its area code (323) and ZIP Code (90068) say "Hollywood." It has 162 seats, which qualifies it as mid-size, but it's seldom listed as one of L.A.'s mid-size theaters, for its production history--except as a venue for children's plays--has been erratic.

The company's profile is about to rise, however. Theatre West's first subscription season since 1974 will stage seven productions from September through June.

"We've been fallow for a few years, but this year will be very busy," said executive director John Gallogly. This on-again, off-again quality is inherent in Theatre West's mission as a workshop for its members, he said. Some years, only one play may be ready for a full production; this year, seven "could not be denied."

One of the shows--a new musical version of "A Christmas Carol" by Steve Allen, starring Harold Gould--will operate on Actors' Equity's Hollywood Area Theatre contract. The others will use a special letter of agreement with Equity; at least 20% of the proceeds must go to the shows' Equity actors, but contributions to the union's health and pension plans aren't required.

Because of the company's 37-year history, predating current mid-size contracts, the union granted it such concessions. As long as Theatre West provides a certain number of workweeks for Equity actors each year on a regular contract (a number that rises over the years), other productions can use only the special letter of agreement. The company meets most of its Equity workweek requirement with its programming for young audiences, but this year "A Christmas Carol" will add to the total.

The season:

* Four Thornton Wilder one-acts, recently discovered (Sept. 9-Oct. 3).

* "Tallulah & Tennessee," by Charles Rome Smith, starring Jim Bailey as Tallulah Bankhead (Oct. 14-Nov. 7).

* "A Christmas Carol" (Nov. 24-Jan. 9).

* "Thicker Than Water," an Italian family comedy by Roy Battocchio (Jan. 27-Feb. 20).

* "The Shift--Fables of New York," a "restaurant comedy" by Charles Mount (March 9-April 7).

* "Come Baby, Cradle and All," a family drama by Doug Haverty (April 20-May 14).

* "Elinor Adjusting," a love story by Eugene Pack (June 1-25).

EXEUNT: Peter Hall's Shakespeare repertory at the Ahmanson Theatre closed last weekend. It attracted more than 76,000 theatergoers--more than any other nonmusical production since the Ahmanson started eight-week runs of nonmusicals in early 1996--and filled 76% of the seats. "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which had been anticipated to be the more popular of the shows, received seven more performances than its mate, "Measure for Measure"--so even though "Measure" wound up with better reviews, "Midsummer" outdrew it, approximately 42,000 to around 35,000 for "Measure."

Producer Gordon Davidson said that the plays fulfilled their primary aesthetic goal: "for American actors to speak those speeches trippingly on the tongue, using American speech, and not being idiosyncratic about it." He believes they also demonstrated the ability of the renovated Ahmanson to accommodate Shakespeare, at least in its 1,600-seat configuration: "Standing on that stage, the actors felt they could reach that audience."

Reviews for "Midsummer" weren't good. The concurrent release of a movie version probably didn't help. Davidson said he didn't know about the movie release when the plays were picked, and he has "no way of knowing if it was a positive or a negative" in its impact on box office. But the relative regularity of the verse in "Midsummer," compared to the more complex verse of "Measure," was valuable for the actors, he said. Their work on "Midsummer" made their successes in "Measure" possible--"it gave them a base to go home to."

"We didn't quite make our budget expectations," Davidson said. "We tried to do two for the price of one, but you can't quite do that." Next time Hall does Shakespeare here, in the 2000-2001 season, "I'll have to raise more money." Lillian and Jon Lovelace were the previously unnamed philanthropists whose $250,000 allowed the production of two plays instead of just one. They told Davidson they liked the results, he said. But next time, he continued, "I have to bring a few more people to the table. We must find ongoing subsidies for the repertory. Which is an OK challenge."

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