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A director who sees the beauty of thinking small

Matt Almos and his Burglars of Hamm are hitting it big with comedy on the fringe.

November 03, 2002|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Matt Almos is a Moliere fan. The L.A. director's favorite play is "The Misanthrope," which he staged at California Institute of the Arts as a graduate student. It's his pick "because it's funny, not because it's supposed to be funny, like so many classics," Almos said.

No one, least of all Almos, has yet enthroned Almos as the Moliere of L.A.'s small theaters. Yet when he discusses Moliere's aims, and then his own, they sound remarkably similar.

Moliere "is not trying to change the world. He's throwing satirical darts, and they hit their mark." Ditto the goal of the Burglars of Hamm, the company of which Almos is resident director, as well as sometime writer and actor.

"A lot of theater companies in L.A. try to provide sumptuous meals," he said. "We serve snacks. I don't think it has less value. There are targeted places on the palate that a snack can get to and a meal can't. Thinking smaller sometimes allows you to break ground that can't be broken by a larger, more ambitious endeavor."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 05, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 439 words Type of Material: Correction
1903 shooting -- An article about theater director Matt Almos in Sunday's Calendar said L.A. benefactor Griffith J. Griffith was involved in a 1903 slaying. In fact, Griffith shot his wife, but she survived.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 10, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 5 inches; 196 words Type of Material: Correction
An article about theater director Matt Almos in the Nov. 3 Sunday Calendar said L.A. benefactor Griffith J. Griffith was involved in a 1903 slaying. In fact, Griffith shot his wife, but she survived.

And so the Burglars have become stars of L.A. fringe theater's comedy wing, especially with "Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk." It's a witty parody of a production of a faux-Strindbergian play, in which the domineering director analyzes the proceedings with a live commentary on audience headsets and barges on stage to try to fix the floundering performance.

"Resa," created and developed by the Burglars in collaboration with the Ghost Road Company in 1999, has gone on to fringe festivals in Seattle, Edinburgh and New York.

The idea for "Resa" arose when Almos' mother complained that she wished the group's sketches could come with written notes to explain their intent. Almos replied, "in a pompous tone, that next time she could wear headphones and I would tell her what it meant." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he exchanged glances with his wife, and they knew they had the idea for their next show.

More recently, audiences at the L.A. Edge of the World Theater Festival howled over the Burglars' "Easy Targets," in which each Burglar performed a different kind of cliched solo act while being pelted with rolled-up socks that the company rented to the audience.

Almos, 34, does not live on snacks alone. He's directing the premiere of Robert Fieldsteel's "Crazy Drunk." It focuses on the 1903 slaying involving Griffith J. Griffith. The L.A. benefactor best known for giving the city Griffith Park shot his wife in a Santa Monica hotel. Though it has "fantasy sequences that push it into farcical terrain," Almos said, "for the most part it's dramatic. It's a sumptuous meal."

"I'm excited to work on a play that can give L.A. audiences a sense that we're part of a larger, bizarre, twisted story. In East Coast cities, you're surrounded by a sense of history. Here you seem to be surrounded by Taco Bell. But the truth is that L.A.'s history is deep and interesting."

Born in La Verne, raised in Encinitas (where he played Bill Sykes in "Oliver!" in the eighth grade), an undergraduate at UC Riverside (where he staged "Seascape") and a grad student at CalArts, Almos has seldom strayed far from L.A.

After grad school, he got a close look at the L.A. underbelly by transcribing police interrogations for the district attorney's office, where he learned that "the good cop-bad cop cliche is totally true." He also was an assistant to attorneys for a property management firm.

He finally was freed from non-theater day jobs by A.S.K. Theater Projects, where he worked as a dramaturge from 1996 until earlier this year, when he resigned amid a shakeup. He encountered "Crazy Drunk" at A.S.K. The organization is one of the sponsors of the Hot Properties series at [Inside] the Ford, where "Crazy Drunk," featuring the Buffalo Nights Theatre Company, opens Nov. 16.

Mead Hunter, former director of literary programs at A.S.K. and Almos' former supervisor, said, "Matt's deadpan sense of humor can be disquieting. It's hard to know when he's pulling your leg. All the Burglars love scavenging from the scrap pile of pop-speak. Matt especially has enriched my vocabulary with such terms as 'heavyosity,' 'groovasaurus' and 'funkalicious.' "

Almos and former CalArts buddies -- including his wife, Carolyn -- created the Burglars of Hamm in 1996 from the remnants of Someone Stole Our Name, a sketch comedy group. The new name was inspired by the Hamburglar of McDonald's commercials, not by the character of Hamm in Beckett's "Endgame" or anything that respectable. "We all get a twinge of embarrassment when we say the name," Almos said.

The Burglars are considering doing three shows in repertory early next year: "Resa"; either "Easy Targets" or their 2000 show "Hot City" -- a lampoon of TV drama series -- plus the developing "The Party Show," a satire of the club scene.

They try "to bridge the gap between sketch comedy and theater," Almos said. He laughs a lot at the sketch masters the Groundlings, he said, and "that's part of why I don't want to do what they do. They do it so well. Instead, we're a little looser in setting up the jokes. We commit to the vocabulary of what we're spoofing and let the comedy fall where it may."

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