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Honesty That Isn't for the Squeamish

Dave Barton's Rude Guerrilla Theater seeks hope as it probes the dark side of humanity

July 21, 2002|MIKE BOEHM

Dave Barton regrets that he spent his teens and early 20s putting up a false front. That's one reason why he now devotes himself to staging plays that frankly depict sex, brutality and the dark side of the soul.

During the past five years, the artistic director of the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company in Santa Ana has earned a reputation--and frequent critical acclaim--for taking audiences to the limit.

The Rude aesthetic was on display in the company's recent West Coast premiere of "Cleansed," by the late British playwright Sarah Kane--a play largely made up of beatings, rapes, killings, mutilations, extensive nudity and numerous bluntly portrayed sex acts. It fit Barton's predilection for making audiences face the darkest impulses in human nature--and his insistence that some vision of tenderness and love be allowed to flower amid the bleakness. If a play descends deep into darkness but not to the point of nihilism, Barton is interested.

"I've had people tell me that the ending of 'Cleansed' is very depressing," he says. "But I look at it as very hopeful, because you have these two people who have gone through hell together, wounded, messed-up people who reach out to each other. What's more beautiful than that?"

Barton is 42. His big frame, ample belly, inelegant dress and round, meaty face would be more stereotypical of a longshoreman than an artiste. One of the most resonant experiences he ever had, he says, came during the early 1980s, after that face had been multiply fractured by a gang called the Suicidals during a punk rock show at the Olympic Auditorium. He staggered to the bathroom, where Gary Floyd, the hulking, Mohawked, ranting Marxist singer of the Dicks, saw him and bathed his bloody face.

"It was the most gentle, kindly act, and it was in such marked contrast to what he sang onstage," Barton recalls. "My life seems to revolve around these light and dark moments and the blending of the two, and that's often why I'm attracted to the material that I am. Horrible things happen to the characters, but there are some loving moments in all of them."

Barton credits punk rockers and existentialist philosophers with delivering him from the trap he found himself in during his teens: "a budding queer boy" closeted deep in fundamentalist Christianity.

He grew up in Orange, where he still lives, the oldest of four children of a police officer and a nurse. His mom found Jesus, and as he entered his teens, Barton followed. At his Christian high school, he targeted effeminate boys, hurling epithets, cracking jokes and mocking them with a limp wrist.

"I was a religious fanatic, sadly," he says. "And as a boy whose sexuality was highly confused, I did my very best to find those who were similarly confused and point the finger at them so people wouldn't look at me. I'm very ashamed of that."

He remains a Christian, but his abhorrence of fundamentalism motivated him during the early 1990s as he became a founder of the Orange County chapter of the confrontational anti-AIDS activist group ACT UP. In 1991, Barton and three others disrupted a right-wing Christian conference in Anaheim on "Preservation of the Heterosexual Coalition." Barton read a passage from the New Testament about the importance of love. He was arrested, tried and convicted of disturbing the peace--drawing a $100 fine and a year of probation.

Soon this veteran of politics-as-theater discovered theater as an art form. After starting film studies at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, he attended an evening of short plays on campus and was struck by how free the student actors and directors were to explore sexual themes and use uncensored language. Barton began taking theater classes and directing plays.

Rude Guerrilla debuted in 1997 with "In the House of the Lord," a play about an abortion clinic held hostage by fundamentalists. Barton was the director and co-writer, and he felt humiliated when the critics drubbed it. But the company persisted, led by Barton and his two contentious but loyal co-founders--Dawn Hess, a roofing company owner who provided cash and set-building know-how, and Michelle Fontenot, a former girlfriend of Barton's who made a point of reconnecting with him years after they had broken up. "If there's a way to ruffle people's feathers, he'll find it," Fontenot says. "He's fully convinced that society doesn't feel anything, so if he can do something to change that, he does."

By its second season, Rude Guerrilla was earning strong reviews. In 1999, it cemented its reputation as the edgiest performing arts troupe in Orange County when Barton directed the West Coast premiere of "Corpus Christi," Tony winner Terrence McNally's play envisioning Jesus as a sexually active gay man. In 2001, Mark Ravenhill's "Shopping and ..." pushed the envelope with its bleak, grisly and sexually violent depiction of people reduced to commodities. It's all enacted within a coin's toss of playgoers in Rude Guerrilla's 50-seat Empire Theater.

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