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A theatrical revival

The restored Orpheum theater in L.A. has a major role in 'The Taming of the Shrew,' the first theater production there in years.

September 08, 2003|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Shakespeare's rowdy battle-of-the-sexes romp "The Taming of the Shrew" features some memorable characters, but the theater usually isn't mentioned on the cast list.

It could well be, however, in one production in which the actors will have to step lively to avoid being upstaged by their theater of choice: the palatial Orpheum, recently restored to its original 1926 splendor and one of a handful of grand vaudeville-movie houses of yesteryear that have survived in varying stages of blowzy beauty and decay on unglamorous Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.

In its illustrious heyday, the Orpheum was a major circuit stop for the likes of Judy Garland, Duke Ellington, Jack Benny and Lena Horne. From the late 1960s through 2000, this fading grande dame ran Spanish-language and subtitled English-language films. Most recently, it hosted Michael Jackson's offbeat birthday bash.

Playing through Oct. 4, "The Taming of the Shrew," presented by the Orpheum in partnership with the Los Angeles Conservancy and in association with Zoo District Theater, is the first live theater production at the historic theater since the early 1960s.

Its environmental staging takes place not only in the 2,000-seat house but also throughout the theater. Orpheum owner Steve Needleman was first approached by Zoo District with a request to stage a show in the lobby.

Instead, Needleman came on board as one of the show's executive producers and offered the company free run of the theater, inspiring Tamar Fortgang, Zoo District's co-founder and the show's Kate, to unveil the space theatrically as the audience follows the play's action.

The show opens in the mahogany-paneled lounge downstairs where Petruchio (Ed Cunningham) and Kate later sit down to their tempestuous dinner. Kate and Petruchio tussle in the lobby, which, with curving walls of white marble and copper-leafed chandeliers, doubles as a street of Padua.

On the mezzanine level's marble-railed balcony, Lucentio (Matthew Siegan) and Bianca (Sarah Sido) share their first kiss; the false Vincentio (Tim Forrest) denounces the real one from one of the ornate Paris Opera-style boxes that line the sides of the opulent, cavernous house, where the decor includes stained-glass discs, fleur-de-lis-figured panels, gilded ceilings and massive chandeliers.

In the final scene, the small audience -- a maximum of 80 or so at a time -- attends the wedding feast on the main stage, dipping bread in olive oil and sipping wine while witnessing Kate's final surrender.

"It's an interesting, rather dangerous prospect," director Alec Wild said of so much moving about.

One recent rehearsal came to a standstill when Cunningham exited via a stage door to get to his next entrance down center aisle -- and found himself locked out of the theater.

"That's an example of the kind of challenges we face when we're moving from space to space, trying to use every possible entrance and exit," Wild said.

Needleman, whose "bread and butter" income from the theater is its use as a locale for TV, film and music video shoots, said his goal was to bring live theater back to L.A.'s historic Broadway district on an annual basis.

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