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The Joads' river flows on a dry stage

November 14, 2002|David C. Nichols

Astandout sequence in West Coast Ensemble's acclaimed production of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" depicts the Joad men folk's midday sojourn in the Colorado River.

This episode finds audiences looking around for the water. It's representative of the "absolute simplicity" that the ensemble's managing director Claudia Jaffee, who staged "Grapes," was going for.

She delayed accepting the assignment until a cold reading convinced her that the script could stand alone. "I hung my hat on that and Frank Galati's author's note saying not to fear the technical demands."

In the Tony-winning 1990 Steppenwolf production, these demands included a real Ford Model A, flown-in chain-link fences and onstage fire and rain. The original cast breakdown (35 actors in 62 roles) was also imposing.

Jaffee therefore selected her 26 players for personality as much as for talent, "because their attitude was critical." Pulling the creative staff from colleagues who would be "12 steps ahead of me," Jaffee began integrating design elements two weeks before technical rehearsals.

Still, achieving cohesion took some doing. "On headphones, the rushing river sounded fine," says sound designer and assistant director David Mark Peterson. "In the house, Claudia said it sounded like popcorn."

He settled on waterfall sounds, "slowed by about 30%," trusting that with the addition of lights and bodies, "the illusion would sustain." For the splashing sounds, Peterson threw himself into the mix.

"I used my spa at home, around midnight to avoid traffic noises, approximating what the actors were doing," he says. "I didn't count on crickets."

Peterson's visit to the Weedpatch camp featured in the play inspired the song "One More Mile to Go."

Such collaborative largess ways, artistic director Les Hanson says, "typical of company response to this show."

-- David C. Nichols


'The Grapes of Wrath'

Where: West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.

When: Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. through Dec. 15.

Info: (323) 525-0022

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