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At play in Orange County

Feisty small theater companies make the county their rumpus room.

July 15, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Jesus and his apostles appeared as a brotherhood of gay men onstage in downtown Santa Ana. Elvis reclaimed his throne at the Block at Orange. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street terrorized a warehouse row in Fullerton. And Richard III? He's currently wreaking slaughter in an Anaheim office-industrial park.

These are not flashes from a drama teacher's fever dream, but vital signs from a promising small-theater scene in Orange County.

Though long overshadowed by the county's two big regional companies, South Coast Repertory and the Laguna Playhouse, the little stages in storefronts and industrial complexes are percolating. On some nights, especially at Rude Guerrilla Theater Company (which gave the gay Jesus of Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi" his West Coast premiere), they take risks that contradict the community's reputation for conservatism, and place themselves on the edge of what theater almost anywhere is willing to dare. They regularly offer new works by local playwrights while staging stuff that's too experimental, or maybe just not common-sensical enough, for the big guys to touch.

The gathering energy has given birth to the Orange County Theater Festival, the first attempt to celebrate the county's small theaters as a cohesively linked movement. It starts this weekend and runs through September in the 246-seat outdoor amphitheater at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton.

But it's too soon to declare the triumph of a scene that still faces many of the struggles confronting small theaters everywhere. Production budgets typically come to $1,000 or less, while the sweat of volunteers -- including actors, who seldom are paid for Orange County storefront shows -- compensates for chronically scarce funding. Seating capacities range from 37 to 70, and playing to 20 or 30 pairs of eyes per night is often considered a solid achievement.

Nevertheless, Rude Guerrilla in Santa Ana, Stagestheatre and the Hunger Artists in Fullerton and the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills all have survived six seasons or more -- pretty good runs for as notoriously ephemeral an endeavor as small theater. Insurgo Theater Movement, noted for stoking "Richard III" and other Shakespearean history plays with heated battle scenes, and the Maverick Theater, which pioneered mall-theater in the Block at Orange, were launched in the last three years.

Maverick's impresario, playwright-director Brian Newell, has drawn attention with his fanciful musical, "The King," which imagines a cryonically preserved but now thawed Elvis trying to persuade the world that he's the real item and not just another impersonator. Featuring a live band, a white-jumpsuited King and about 20 Presley numbers, it has succeeded at three venues in the county and is headed for the Buena Park Civic Theater, en route to what Newell hopes will be its apotheosis in Las Vegas. Despite the play's word-of-mouth success, Maverick recently lost its shopping-mall home to a pet store that could pay higher rent.

Fullerton's Vanguard Theatre Ensemble can testify to the perils of changing venues. The eldest surviving sibling among O.C. storefront theaters is emerging this weekend from two years of suspended animation. Its members never thought it would take so long to find and finance the more visible downtown location the troupe decided it needed to survive.

Vanguard is dreaming large in its well-placed new spot -- while staring at the prospect of having to retire $50,000 in debt incurred in the move.

Growth phase

AS Vanguard returns, the youngest, most buzzed-about arrival is finding its footing. The Rogue Artists Ensemble, begun this year by eight recent graduates of UC Irvine, creates a theater of the fantastic out of puppets and masks. The current show, "Hyperbole: Changes," eschews dialogue while using songs, dance, shadow puppets and a vulture "emcee" to probe the subconscious of a troubled girl-puppet. The troupe has made a mark after just two shows, winning a late-night residency at Rude Guerrilla.

"We create shows for folks who have not stepped into a theater -- and will love it," says Sean T. Cawelti, at 26 the Rogue Artists' artistic director and oldest member. "Our goal is to make sure theater stays alive, to create something you can't get anywhere else, even in a film."

Rude Guerrilla, which has few peers -- anywhere -- in its willingness to take on harrowing subject matter replete with violence, nudity and sex, is currently moonlighting in Burbank with the second U.S. production of "Blasted," a landmark of boundary-pushing, antiwar themes and horrific imagery by English playwright Sarah Kane.

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