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Overflowing with ambition

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its extremely small size, the Black Dahlia Theatre has had an impressive string of successes.

November 07, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell

And count myself a king of infinite space,

Were it not that I have bad dreams.

-- Hamlet


If only the Royal Dane could have checked with Matt Shakman over at the Black Dahlia. He appears to have the problem solved.

Shakman runs a theater that is about as nutshell as theater gets: 28 tattered and scuffed, creaky wood-backed seats that look as if they might have done hard duty in a junior high school auditorium during the Eisenhower administration, augmented by a half-dozen black metal folding chairs. The truncated rows ascend on five risers, overlooking a playing space the size of a modest -- if that -- bedroom.

To get in, you buy your tickets out front, across Pico Boulevard from a big auto body shop. Look up, and a sign near what should be the front door informs you: "Please do not enter (you will be onstage)." Instead, you are directed to circle clockwise around the L-shaped, art-deco building to the brick-walled back, where another sign, on a reddish metal door, warns off latecomers: "The play has begun. Do not enter. You will be shot."

It's a king's prerogative to execute recalcitrant subjects, and Shakman, the otherwise benevolent ruler of this very finite space, hates late arrivals. Apart from that, the founder and artistic director of the Black Dahlia, a round-faced, boyishly dimpled-and-scrubbed looking fellow with tousled fair hair, seems not to have a complaint in the world.

And why should he? The dreams inside his nutshell are happy, and they keep coming true. The story of the Black Dahlia reads like the wish fulfillment of every young thespian who comes to L.A., hungering to do artful, warmly received work on stage, find mentors (preferably famous, powerful ones) and reap some of the more remunerative rewards of film and television.

Shakman, 29, sits in the front row of his theater, telling the saga at chatty length with his friend and ally, actor-producer Steven Klein, who is 28. They spin it engagingly, in mild yet eager voices, making even the backstage yarns from their college days together at Yale sound interesting.

Shakman and Klein, who is dark, slight, sharp-featured and just as boyish-looking as his friend, pursued acting careers in the Northeast after graduating, but by late 1998 they had made their separate ways to L.A., where they reconnected. Shakman, a doctor's son from Ventura, set about finding a cheap place to turn into a theater, much as he and the Boston-bred Klein had turned dining halls and a former squash court into play-spaces at Yale.

He found an abandoned storefront on Pico -- the landlord couldn't believe he wanted to squeeze a theater into such a nook -- and named it for a famous, unsolved 1940s L.A. murder case. The name fit with Shakman's enjoyment of mystery and legend; during an interview, he says several times that part of the thrill of doing plays is walking with the "ghosts" of theater's traditions. His mission from the start has been to stage contemporary plays never seen before in L.A., weaving in new discoveries that haven't been done anywhere.

While Shakman was still making his plans, an actor friend working at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, knowing his fascination with Orson Welles' youthful rise and long descent, sent him the script to "Orson's Shadow," a play by veteran actor-director Austin Pendleton that Steppenwolf was premiering. It revolved around a middle-aged Welles knocking heads with a middle-aged Laurence Olivier. Shakman thought it would be the ideal show to launch the Dahlia, catering to L.A.'s fixation with show biz and signaling that this young, new theater was no oat-sowing venture by kids just speaking to their own generation, but a diverse company interested in enlisting older actors and the whole gamut of L.A. talent to tell all kinds of stories.

How small did you say?

Shakman contacted Pendleton (another Yale alumnus) through mutual associates. The author liked his ideas and was agreeable to an L.A. premiere in a small theater (a major Southern California premiere at San Diego's Old Globe had been tepidly received). Re-creating the conversation, Shakman acts out the double-take Pendleton did over the phone upon hearing just how small the Black Dahlia was.

He enlisted Klein to produce and act in the show, then, having never directed older actors, grew a goatee for the auditions, hoping it would give him a seasoned look. The beard soon went -- too scratchy, Shakman says; too calculated and silly-looking, Klein asserts.

The reviewers came, and "Orson's Shadow" conquered, running for six months, including a successful transfer to the 99-seat Tiffany Theater. Opening during spring 2001, the show won a passel of awards from Backstage West, the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.

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