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Spark of the New

Four years in the making, an avant-garde 'King Lear' may define the future of experimental theater in L.A.

June 09, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER

Young women wearing coveralls take their places in front of a vast white wall that will, when it comes time for performance, become an apocalyptic video montage. This may be a theater rehearsal, but electronics are everywhere: Projectors occupy niches in the wall, cords thread over the ground like so many Medusa's snakes, and 10 tiny TV monitors rest on the floor.

Director Travis Preston picks up a handheld microphone and narrates the sequence of events for his body-miked actors. "Ladies of the army," he says, speaking to the supporting players, "the audience is coming into the space." He's referring to the smaller of two cavernous areas in a mammoth warehouse near downtown L.A.

As they walk to and fro in the long, narrow room, the young women intone fragments of Shakespeare's text. In performance, they will don masks bearing the face of Lear.

"Does Lear walk thus, speak thus?"

"So young and so untender?"

"Are you our daughter?"

The chorus forms an undulating line across the length of the room. "A little lighter on the vocal texture, ladies," says Preston, observing their movements from a perch midway through the space.

"My wits begin to turn," says a regal voice, cutting through the babble. The forbidding figure enters, striding through the waves of bodies, who remain trance-like in her presence. She is King Lear, played by veteran actor Fran Bennett, the longtime Guthrie Theater player known more recently to L.A. audiences from her outings at South Coast Repertory, L.A. Women's Shakespeare Company and elsewhere.

Clearly, Bennett is no ordinary Lear. Directed by Preston and staged environmentally, in six sites in a 30,000-square-foot former power plant just off the 5 Freeway, this "King Lear" features postmodern aesthetics, a suspended car wreck and an array of other, similarly outsized effects. It opens Friday at the Brewery Arts Complex.

Four years in the making, the production is one of the theater community's most highly anticipated events this season. However, it will be a tough ticket; only 140 people can see each show during its short run. Naturally, a lot of aspirations are riding on it. But more than the usual wishes for a well-received production, those involved hope the success of this "King Lear" will prove there is, indeed, an appetite here for this kind of large-scale avant-garde work--and will justify their plans to produce more such events.

The stakes are high. The budget is $450,000--much bigger than anything Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts has done, including 2000's Richard Foreman-Sophie Haviland world premiere, "Bad Behavior," which was produced with a student cast for a fraction of the budget, at $65,000. What's more, "King Lear" is an even bigger show than that number suggests. Produced in the circumstances of, say, a major regional theater, this same show would cost more than twice that amount, because it would lack the advantage of cost-sharing with an academic institution.

However, the nearly half-million dollars is seen as seed money for future productions. "King Lear" is intended to serve as a calling card for a new producing entity, the Center for New Theater, the professional producing umbrella for the School of Theater at CalArts.

In fact, the center has several commissions out. Foreman, one of the American avant-garde theater's most important artists who is best known for his New York-based Ontological-Hysteric Theater, will collaborate with musician Michael Gordon on a musical theater piece called "What to Wear," which will have its first workshop next year. Chen Shi-Xheng, director of a highly ambitious international opera-theater opus, "The Peony Pavilion," is adapting a script called "Peach Blossom Fan" by Edward Mast. Also, CalArts faculty members Preston, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog") and puppet artist Janie Geiser have projects in the works.

"We wanted to do something that was a real announcement that the center was arriving," Preston says. "In the past, movements in the theater have often coalesced around productions of Shakespeare. We needed to demonstrate that we could approach a work of sufficient scale."

Initially, the plan was to present "King Lear" in the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater, or REDCAT, the CalArts-controlled theater under construction at the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex. REDCAT is intended to be CalArts' home away from home, giving L.A. the focal point for experimental performing arts that the city has long lacked.

Because the Center for New Theater is a key part of the programming there, the site made sense for the kickoff production. But ultimately that didn't work out. There were two major delays, due to construction problems and a change in contractor. Finally, in October, it became clear the center wasn't going to get enough rehearsal time in the space.

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