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The Determined and the Furious

With a solid plan and a do-it-yourself ethic, six L.A. newcomers launch the Furious Theatre Company.

April 28, 2002|MIKE BOEHM

The story so far for the Furious Theatre Company brings to mind a soul music classic by Otis Redding: 2,000 miles they roamed, to make a loading dock their home.

But unlike the lonely, bereft fellow bewailing a life gone wrong in Redding's "[Sittin' on] The Dock of the Bay," the six young, unheralded proprietors of the fledgling Furious troupe have been so awash in good luck leading up to this weekend's debut that they find it almost stunning.

Nearly everything has gone right over the past few months for these transplanted Middle Americans, ages 25 to 28, who came to L.A. to make their way as actors and directors.

The Furious partners found a very un-theater-like venue they could use rent-free--the vast, empty shipping and receiving area of a former plastic-container factory in Pasadena. They have curtained off a 99-seat performance space from the rest of the echoing, high-ceilinged expanse, and were set to open Friday with the U.S. professional premiere of "Saturday Night at the Palace."

The 1982 drama is by Paul Slabolepszy, a leading South African playwright whose work seldom has been seen in America. It concerns two young, white men who arrive after midnight at a burger joint manned by a Zulu named September. One of the whites, a would-be professional soccer player, is seething with frustration and resentment over his lot in life. A blowup is preordained, but the surprise is in the shocking way it plays out.

Athol Fugard, South Africa's most celebrated dramatist, regards Slabolepszy as "one of the most mature and significant talents in the contemporary South African theater scene....His plays deal very directly with the issues that the modern country is facing." Fugard, responding by e-mail while immersed in rehearsals for the Mark Taper Forum's May 23 opening of his new play, "Sorrows and Rejoicings," said he considers "Saturday Night at the Palace" to be Slabolepszy's most powerful play.

The Furious founders say they raised $45,000 before they had sold their first ticket. They started with $15,000 of their own money, and an additional $25,000 came in corporate grants--a rarity for a theater with no track record. The kitty is big enough, and the rent-free expenses are low enough, they say, to see the nonprofit theater through two seasons of three plays each, regardless of box-office returns. The creative goal, says one founder, Sara Hennessy, is to do plays that "go beyond what is comfortable."

Furious theater, says Damaso Rodriguez, the company's managing director, will be defined by a sense of rawness and high energy, an attempt to make audiences feel a play's impact rather than intellectualize what they see. "We'll tell a story really intensely, and you'll go along for the ride."

The Furious founders have no illusions about the odds, so their planning has been meticulous. Keep expenses low. Raise money. Be committed. Be united. Do it yourself.

Their sojourn in Los Angeles did not begin with any special promise. The six arrived with unprepossessing academic credentials: bachelor's degrees in theater from Texas A&M, Illinois State and Southwest Missouri State. Rodriguez and Hennessy married before their senior year at A&M. After graduating in 1996, they headed to Chicago because they had contacts there and knew they could quickly land roles in small, professional theaters. Furious Theatre's first, informal incarnation was born in the Windy City.

It produced an original drama called "Ramblers," which the Chicago Tribune called "one of those shows that restores your faith in the regenerative powers of low-budget theater ... a veritable feast of raw talent."

Los Angeles had been the goal all along, so at the end of 1998 the initial Furious foursome--Rodriguez and Hennessy and another couple, Shawn Lee Martin and Vonessa Martin--packed their belongings and all the props and set pieces for "Ramblers" into a 22-foot Ryder truck and drove 2,000 miles west.

Joining them in L.A. were Eric Pargac, another Texas A&M graduate, and Brad Price, who grew up with Shawn Martin in Bonne Terre, a Missouri town of 4,000. They rented a small Hollywood theater in 1999 and put on a six-week run of "Ramblers." It received scant attention and lost several thousand dollars. At least, Rodriguez says, they learned how not to do it.

For a year, the six pursued careers separately, but remained close socially and continued to deepen their bonds on camping trips--the outdoor life was part of L.A.'s attraction, they say. What's more, four of them wound up working for the same Internet company.

Rodriguez and Hennessy took unpaid internships at A Noise Within, the classical theater company in Glendale. There they found a mentor in Art Manke, A Noise Within's co-founder and resident director. Rodriguez extended his apprenticeship with Manke beyond the internship by serving as his assistant director and dramaturge for productions of "Hay Fever" by Noel Coward and Shakespeare's "Pericles."

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