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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

It's a 'Devil' of a Good Time for One Actor

Jay Fraley's Satanic Turn Is His Latest Plum Role in Community Theater Stage

October 31, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is hard to imagine any actor anywhere having a juicier selection of roles over the past 12 months than Jay Fraley has had while starring at the Empire Theater in Santa Ana.

In November 1999 he opened as Jesus in Terrence McNally's gay passion play, "Corpus Christi."

Next he was Robert Falcon Scott, doomed Antarctic explorer, in "Terra Nova" by Ted Tally--a role that demanded the heroism, hubris and elicitation of pity and terror that are the classic requisites of tragedy.

Next, treading what may have been virgin Shakespearean turf, he played Kate, the title role in "The Taming of the Shrew"--not as a female impersonator but as a fellow named Kate who gets tamed by a woman named Petruchio in a gender-reversing experimental production.

And since Friday, Oct. 13, an appropriate opening date for an appropriately seasonal play, he has been appearing as Lucifer in Clive Barker's "The History of the Devil or Scenes From a Pretended Life." No encumbering horns, pitchfork and spiked tail in this one--just an opportunity to flex all manner of acting muscles as the piece's protean, many-faced, inevitably evil yet oh-so-human antihero. The play is very sparing, with Barker's trademark violence and gore while providing a nice dollop of philosophical speculation. It's a richly entertaining and surprising leapfrog through the history of the devil--and the human race that made him what he is.

For all his recent laurels, probably no actor has been more underpaid than Fraley. He has earned a token stipend of $5 a show while helping set the tone for the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's emergence as Orange County's most daring ensemble.

Fraley isn't complaining. He earns his living from a photography and graphics business that he runs from his home in Laguna Beach, a modest but plushly situated stucco house with an ocean view out back. He shares it with two affectionate dachshunds named Spencer and Tracy.

When Fraley, now 40, moved here seven years ago from Los Angeles, he consciously stopped striving for a career as an actor. Having given up the world of his dreams, he gained, in amateur performances done for the love of it, an invigoration of his creative soul.

About 20 years ago he came west from Texas--his family runs a prosperous soda pop bottling business in Abilene--to earn a master's degree in acting at CalArts in Valencia. Then he joined the vast majority of actors--"lost in the numbers," as he puts it, fighting 200-to-1 odds at auditions, getting typecast as too boyish-looking for villain parts and not handsome enough for hero parts, foraging for what was available in tiny theaters that put on fringe plays by fringe writers.

Fraley had hoped to make it in television and film; the closest he came was a bit part on an obscure, short-lived 1986-87 TV series called "Stingray." He played a kid freaked out on drugs who screams, tries to point a gun at himself, and is stopped by the hero. No lines, no springboard.

Fraley rekindled an old interest in photography as a necessity; his day jobs before that had included waiting tables and delivering singing telegrams. Contacts in the advertising and modeling businesses brought him to Orange County, and into its community theater orbit.

"I think my skills got better because I got to play leads and major parts in better shows and I wasn't scrambling for leftover biscuits, which is what was happening up in L.A.," he said.

Dave Barton, artistic director of Rude Guerrilla, needed a villain in a hurry last year when an actor dropped out of his revival of " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore," John Ford's post-Elizabethan blood-bath drama. Fraley came highly recommended by Sharyn Case, a veteran director on the local community theater scene. He had seen Fraley in comedies at the Theatre District in Costa Mesa and at the Huntington Beach Playhouse. Sure he was good, but he seemed too nice, too endearing, to play the malevolent plotter needed for " 'Tis Pity."

"He came in and it was amazing how this person had transformed from Mr. Nice Guy to someone who could slit an old woman's throat," Barton recalled. "That's when I realized, 'Oh my God, I've found somebody who's really good.' "

Barton and Michael Piscitelli, a Los Angeles actor-producer who has played opposite Fraley and cast him in three shows at small Los Angeles theaters, agree that not only can he carry a production as its star, but is an ensemble-conscious team player who helps make everybody else better.

Said Piscitelli: "A lot of actors are out for their own and don't really listen to the other actors. Jay really listens to you; if you say something differently one night, he picks up on it and goes with it. You can automatically trust him on stage, that he's going to give you what you need to feed your character."

Fraley's mercurial year in the Empire spotlight has given him an array of modes to play.

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