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They Are Troupers, Alas, in Every Way

Even as it moves from space to space, Circle X manages to stage original productions.

September 24, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for daily Calendar

Some days the folks at the Circle X Theatre Company must feel like the sailors aboard "The Flying Dutchman." The valiant creative collective has circled the Los Angeles theater scene endlessly in search of salvation--a permanent venue to call its own.

That port in a storm has been hard to come by. However, these wanderers are clearly not operating under a curse. Established in 1996, Circle X has generated waves of excitement on the L.A. theater scene. Notable recent productions include 1998's "Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22," a philosophically offbeat costume drama by Glen Berger, and last season's "Louis Slotin Sonata," Paul Mullin's fact-based piece about a physicist fatally irradiated in a Los Alamos laboratory accident.

Now, "In Flagrante Gothicto," a humorous sendup of the gothic genre, promises to be one of the group's biggest hits. Recently extended through Oct. 22 at the McCadden Place Theater, the play combines gothic novels and Hollywood potboilers into one hilarious whole.

In their playwriting debut, co-authors Alice Dodd and Jillian Armenante borrow most heavily from "Wuthering Heights," "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca"--not only the novels, but the films based on those stories. Armenante, who also directs "Gothicto," happens to be an old movie buff. Dodd, who plays the piece's scrappy, anguished heroine, is an ardent fan of gothic literature. Their madcap but faithful adaptation neatly balances camp and classicism.

"I'm very visual and conceptual," Armenante says. "I've been in love with those films, particularly 'Jane Eyre,' since I was a kid. I used to pretend I was Peggy Ann Garner [who played young Jane in the 1944 film], cringing around the house with my hands at my sides, until my mother put a stop to that. Alice is a more refined writer. She generated most of the text. I was the girl with the red pen, the trouble-shooter who helped mold the material."

Dodd acknowledges that she's in love with the gothic genre. "I had seen the films based on the books, but not with the attention that Jillian had paid them. I'm more a fan of the books themselves, the language," she says. "I really wanted to live in that gothic world, to wander through the castle and hear mysterious noises. It's fun to be acting out the fantasies I had when I was 14."

Finding the equilibrium between parodying the genre and pandering to it was the foremost concern for William Salyers, who plays Hampstead Hamilton, the show's brooding, Mr. Rochester-esque hero. "The thing that I continue to find challenging is walking that fine line," Salyers says. "Making that commitment to the total reality of the piece, but keeping it crisp and comic, with the slightest hint of the tongue in the cheek. You can't be unfaithful to the roots of your genre, or you're lost."

A Circle X regular, Salyers has had the opportunity to display considerable range in his work with the company, from the dying title character in "Slotin" to the ultimately hammy Hampstead. " 'Gothicto' gives me a chance to play at being Olivier," Salyers jokes. "But the main reason I wanted to do this play is that I think Jillian Armenante is brilliant at comedy--and I don't say that lightly. I knew I would learn things working with her, and I have."

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An established character actress, Armenante is a recognizable face on the television series "Judging Amy." She is also familiar from the Mark Taper Forum's production of "The Cider House Rules," in which she played Melony, a role she had initially played in Seattle.

"I'm originally from New Jersey," Armenante says. "In the late '80s, I helped someone drive a car across country and ended up in Seattle, with $8 in my pocket. I stumbled across a marvelous bunch up there, a theater collective called the Annex. A lot of my old comrades from the Annex are now at Circle X--Alice, Bill Salyers and my design team, costumer Michelle Dunn and set designer Gary Smoot. In fact, Gary still lives in Seattle. He just comes down and sleeps on my floor when he's doing a play."

In recent years, the once high-flying Seattle theater scene has made a precipitous descent, at least according to Jim Anzide, the co-producing artistic director at Circle X who also appears in "Gothicto." "I moved to Seattle in 1990," Anzide recalls. 'It was the hottest theater scene in the country. Then, around 1994, I felt like the city of Seattle just said 'no' to the creative community. It came down to a choice between the computer business and the entertainment industry, and Microsoft won. The small theaters in town began to close, one by one."

Seattle's loss has been Circle X's gain. "There was this mass exodus of talent from Seattle," Anzide says. "It's a sad situation--but Circle X has certainly benefited from that influx."

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