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A Director Who Relishes What-Ifs

Michael Michetti aims for the magical, from Shakespeare to a musical about famous painters.

April 15, 2001|DARYL H. MILLER | Daryl H. Miller is a regular contributor to Calendar

At an impressionable age, Michael Michetti's parents took him to see a show at the Old Globe Theatre, near his home in San Diego County. It was a Shakespeare play with scenes in a forest, and as the action shifted to that setting, actors holding branches became the trees.

Young Michetti was delighted by that little bit of stage magic.

Today, at 42, he is a Los Angeles-area stage director, and in much of his work, from an award-winning production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" set in colonial India to a recent staging of Bertolt Brecht's "Edward II" in a giant container of earth, he attempts to relive that sense of delight.

"It's still the sort of thing that attracts me-things that are nonliteral, that encourage the audience to engage their imaginations," Michetti says, "and make it magic."

In a rare moment of calm, the lanky, 6-foot-3 director is at home in Los Angeles' West Adams area, curled into a corner of his living-room couch.

He has been working nonstop since Thanksgiving, the busiest period in his 10-year-old directing career. The back-to-back projects began with "Oliver!" for Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera and continued in Los Angeles with "Edward II" for Circle X and "Titanic" for Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities.

Now he is staging "Poet's Garden," a new musical about Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and a woman who became their model in Arles, France, in the late 1880s. The show, which opens Thursday, is written by local actor-writers John Allee and Gary Matanky, who are renting the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue for the production.

"Poet's Garden" imagines how the overlapping visits of Van Gogh and Gauguin might have altered life in sleepy Arles. Drawn to the Provencal village for the extraordinary quality of its light, the artists set about painting the town red (not to mention yellow and blue) in vividly colored canvases of its people, streets and outlying countryside.

Yet the musical focuses not so much on the artists as on the people they met and painted. In particular, Allee and Matanky were inspired by paintings of cafe owner Marie Ginoux, who became the subject of Van Gogh's "The Arlesienne" as well as Gauguin's "The Night Cafe." Her husband, Joseph-Michel, also ended up in Van Gogh's canvases, as did postman Joseph Roulin and his wife, Augustine-all of whom are characters in the show. But as envisioned here, it is Marie who is most altered by the experience.

The character (played by Fiama Fricano) yearns for something more in life. "She's questioning," Michetti says. "One of the central metaphors is about choices-and is it too late to make new ones?"

Then the artists stumble into her life, and "they see her in a way that allows her to see herself in a different way."

Beginning as "a neutral canvas of possibilities," she gradually comes to "full color," Michetti says. So, the gradual addition of color, literally as well as figuratively, will be a key to his staging.

The act of painting is also handled figuratively. Michetti and his creative team realized that if the actors (Bjorn Johnson as Van Gogh and Steven Memel as Gauguin) worked at painted canvases, viewers would get caught up in thoughts of how fake or real the paintings looked, rather than focusing on the show. So the audience will see empty stretchers on easels, leaving the paintings to their imaginations.

"It's very much like the ...'-Michetti raises his arms, as if holding those long-ago branches in the Shakespeare play.

Michetti's artistic sense was instilled early on by his family.

He grew up in farm-and-horse country east of San Diego, in the community of Spring Valley. His father, Mario, ran an ad agency and was an avid amateur painter and photographer, while his mother, Toni, introduced him and younger brother Peter to music. She played the four-stringed tenor guitar and taught the boys to sing along in harmony.

Family outings often involved shows at the Old Globe and Starlight Musical Theatre. It was on one of these excursions that the human trees turned Michetti's thoughts to directing. He pursued this interest at USC, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater, with an emphasis on directing, in 1980.

While still at USC, he and classmate Dan Knowles began creating live industrial shows for corporate clients. Soon, their business was also supplying musical entertainment for conventions and caroling quartets for the holidays. In his free time, Michetti occasionally directed for the theater, but it was a singer hired for the company who led him to the show that would begin to root his stage reputation.

The singer was Brian Shucker, who with Bill Sawyer had written a musical called "Babes," about a group of fictional young screen stars in 1940s Hollywood. Presented, eventually, in a 1990 co-production with the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, the show earned critical praise and a lot of notice.

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