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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Dramatic Shift in West County Makes Acting Troupe a Hit

March 01, 2000|KATIE COOPER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Considering that the fledgling Rubicon Theatre Company is housed in a former Pentecostal church, maybe its improbable early success should be called a miracle.

But Executive Director Karyl Lynn Burns also credits a little old-fashioned moxie for the good fortune that has shone on the 14-month-old repertory company, including the latest coup--recruiting Jack Lemmon for a special performance tonight.

Having met the acclaimed Oscar-winning actor on only one occasion a few years back, Burns did not think twice about writing him to request his appearance in a production of the romantic two-character play, "Love Letters."

"Crossing the Rubicon, that's our credo," said Burns, explaining the expression describing commitment to a decision. "We take risks and look forward and we don't hold ourselves back."

Still, Burns, 42, said she sometimes has to pinch herself when she thinks how quickly the theater company has found success where others have not.

"It just seems like a miracle," said Burns, a professionally trained actress who regularly alternates between serious artistic reflection and a fit of the giggles.

The repertory company got off to a running start in late 1998 with performances of "Jesus Christ Superstar," casting the same actors who played the lead parts in the film and national stage productions of the musical. One of the actors in the touring production was her husband, James O'Neil, who portrayed Pontius Pilate.

In a short time, the company moved into the Laurel Theatre, the former United Pentecostal church, at Main and Laurel streets, and in quick succession presented the plays "Shirley Valentine," "Darrow" and the musical "Forever Plaid" to critical acclaim.

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The theater company's board of directors, currently at 70 members, raised nearly $90,000 during Rubicon's first season, and ticket sales, from more than 13,000 audience members, nearly topped $200,000.

Rubicon also recently received $60,000 from the city of Ventura as part of its downtown revitalization effort. The company's number of annual subscribers also recently climbed above 1,000.

Burns, Rubicon's co-artistic director with her husband, has more than 30 years' experience in arts management. She said the community's response to the company's presence in its initial year was remarkable.

"For the first year for any nonprofit organization, it was phenomenal," she said. "It represents the longing the community has for professional theater."

Also during its inaugural season, the repertory company launched its student outreach program, staging "Romeo and Juliet" at 10 local high schools, many of whose students had never seen live professional theater, Burns said.

Lemmon's performance tonight, along with his wife, Felicia Farr, is part of a series of fund-raisers for the outreach program, which Burns and O'Neil plan to expand to include acting classes for local members of the Boys & Girls Clubs and for children of farm workers.

Tickets for the benefit performance cost $135, and some are still available, although Burns expects the 200-seat theater to sell out before the opening curtain.

"He so rarely performs on stage and he has never done this play before," she said.

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Sonia Tower, Ventura's cultural affairs manager, credits the Rubicon's ability to draw name talent for its success so far. Among those name performers are television actors Larry Hagman and Linda Gray, former spouses on the nighttime soap opera "Dallas," in another presentation of "Love Letters"; and Linda Purl best known for television's "Matlock," who will be in an upcoming production of "Little Foxes."

"Truly the level and caliber of actors they're bringing in is unprecedented," Tower said. "And Jack Lemmon is undeniably one of the greatest artists in our era."

Lemmon, who has appeared in nearly 100 films, won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for "Mister Roberts" in 1955 and for best actor in 1973 for "Save the Tiger." And he is well known for his partnership with Walter Matthau in numerous comedies, including "The Odd Couple" and "Grumpy Old Men."

Although a number of other companies with professional aspirations have tried to set roots in the city, but come up short, Tower said "things look very promising for Rubicon . . . the organization they have created in a short period of time makes us cautiously optimistic."

Indeed, the energy and enthusiasm of Burns and O'Neil for live theater--hers delivered high-octane style and his with a more introspective and reserved manner--have been a source of inspiration for local arts patrons.

Claire Bowman, chairwoman of the board of directors, said she admired the couple's courage in bringing professional theater to the west county, where others have failed.

Board member Dottie Novatt, who has known Burns since she was executive director of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, said Burns makes everyone involved believe the venture will succeed.

Burns said she knew the Ventura area was hungry for live theater, because nearly half the audience at the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera when she had worked there was from the west county.

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Still, she knows the next two years will be the proving ground. After 2002, the theater company will be eligible for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts foundations.

"Running a professional theater company is hard," she said. "If it was easy, there would be 10 of us and we'd know what to do. But we're pioneers and we don't have any maps, only vision and tenacity."

In addition to its production of "Little Foxes," the Rubicon, where tickets typically sell for $25, will present a world premiere of the play "Murder in the First," starring Ted Neeley, who had the title role in "Jesus Christ Superstar." "Murder in the First" was written by Dan Gordon, one of the screenwriters of the recent Denzel Washington film "The Hurricane."

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