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THEATER

Taking On a Not-So-Quiet Killer

'Riga,' from the team behind the landmark AIDS drama 'As Is,' holds a mirror up to racial hatred and homophobia.

January 24, 1999|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

In 1964, when Mason was readying Robert Patrick's "The Haunted Host" for its premiere at the pioneering off-off-Broadway venue Caffe Cino, he needed "a young, good-looking hunk" for one of the roles. He chose Hoffman.

In 1968, Mason chose one of Hoffman's scripts, "Spring Play," to launch his American Theater Project. After that group became Circle Repertory Company, Mason directed Hoffman's "Goodnight, I Love You" there.

In the early '80s, they gravitated toward one another once again as Hoffman developed a play about the mysterious syndrome that was beginning to kill his gay friends. The resulting drama, "As Is," emerged shortly after Robert Chesley's "Night Sweat" and just before Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart." Together, these plays helped to shatter the silence surrounding the then-little-understood killer, AIDS. "We helped make it possible just to talk about it," Hoffman says.

Hoffman and Mason say that "Riga" is their attempt to shatter another silence: the one shrouding America's hatred of minorities. The pair hope to show that, when left to fester unacknowledged, this animosity can explode into violence toward minorities--sometimes, even among minorities.

As gay men, Hoffman and Mason are well acquainted with these forces. For Hoffman, who lost much of his extended family to the Holocaust, the issue is still more profound.

"Most of my family, on both sides, had been murdered" in Latvia and Poland, he says. "I grew up without grandparents and the normal thing. We came from a huge family that had disappeared."

He was only 7 or 8 when he realized that something bad was happening to his mother's family in Latvia. News was passed along by a Christian woman from that country, who spoke in her native language. Though young Hoffman didn't understand her, he deduced from her reactions--as well as his mother's--that something "horrendously traumatic" had happened. In later years, he asked his closelipped parents for details, and he traveled to Latvia to investigate. Gradually, he pieced together that a militiaman had snatched a baby from its mother's arms and smashed its head against a wall.

"My mother was unhinged by that, and never recovered," Hoffman says. "I don't think I've ever recovered."

The story makes its way into the play, and the city of Riga, Latvia's capital, takes on freighted importance.

Riga became a chilling footnote to history, Hoffman explains, when a Nazi experiment in mass-killing failed there. The response was to build Auschwitz and other camps, where death was mechanized.

For his part, Mason says he's glad "Riga" is receiving its premiere in Southern California, "the hotbed of contemporary fascism."

"Check out the Internet; you'll see," he says, and Hoffman jumps in to add: "Type up 'white power' and see what Yahoo! [an online search navigator] brings you. A lot of the sites are here."

The play "upsets people," Hoffman admits. "Some people have gotten nightmares" from previous readings and workshops. "I've had some people walk out. I lost one friendship." But, he adds: "I don't think people forget it."

*

"RIGA," [Inside] the Ford, John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., East, Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 27. Price: $20. Phone: (323) 660-8587.

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