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L.A. sifts through pieces of Evidence

Its Bart-of-all-trades artistic director will soon leave what's become a go-to place for inventive drama. Will the vibe go with him?

May 07, 2006|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

IN quality and quantity, Los Angeles is unquestionably a theater town. But what even the best L.A. theater doesn't have often enough is a sense of event -- a feeling that it's part of a larger cultural life that spills out the stage doors into lobbies, bars, plazas and streets. The buzz generated by even the most thrilling play tends to die at the valet parking kiosk.

Each decade has had its shining, Camelot-like exceptions -- theaters that were destinations not only for the work onstage but for the scene that swelled around them. The 1980s saw the ill-fated social experiment of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, whose cavernous downtown lobby rang with cocktail chatter as crowds spilled in and out of four theaters. In the 1990s, L.A. theater had a more modest but still unmistakable epicenter along Hollywood's El Centro Avenue: Audiences for Justin Tanner's irresistible slacker comedies huddled before and after shows in the small, festive "beer garden" of the Cast Theatre, and up the street the two spaces of the Actors' Gang's old home on Santa Monica Boulevard created a free-ranging hipster hub, often till the wee hours.

No theater, though, has had a run like the Evidence Room, the former bra factory on an unprepossessing block of Beverly Boulevard near Alvarado, which since its definitive 2000 production of Charles L. Mee's "The Berlin Circle" has housed not only L.A.'s best, most daring theater company but, not coincidentally, has provided the city's most indispensable artists' hangout. On a show night, the Evidence Room's high-ceilinged lobby, festooned with paper lanterns, banquettes and bachelor-pad furniture, typically rages past midnight with spirited conversation, fueled as much by the provocative work onstage as by beer and wine from the low-lit bar. Though the theater seats just 99 people, the buzz around the Evidence Room somehow recalls the old LATC commotion, both in its expansiveness and in its sense of being the nerve center of a vibrant scene.

Standing merrily at the helm of both the Evidence Room's stimulating stage and its lively lobby has been Bart DeLorenzo, the company's artistic director, talent scout and gatekeeper. He has directed most of the shows there and painstakingly curated the rest, and through it all he has played the venue's genial host, planted in the lobby before and after a show, his tall, thickset frame draped in a rumpled suit. It made a kind of exaggerated sense when former Actors' Gangster Jack Black once half-jokingly dubbed the lordly DeLorenzo "The King of L.A. Theater." But after his production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," which opens May 27 and runs through July 2, the king will leave the building. With him will go the Evidence Room name, a group of loyal company members, and -- it's impossible to imagine otherwise -- the unique vibe, even the soul, of the place.

"It was the closest thing the L.A. theater scene had to a home base," said Stefan Novinski, who directed ER's deconstructionist take on Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" in 2003. New York-based playwright Kelly Stuart, whose "Mayhem" and "Homewrecker" were produced there in 2003 and 2004, respectively, was more blunt: "It was one of the few places in Los Angeles that was alive. For me it felt like L.A. theater was becoming more and more of a dead end; now there's no reason to go back."

The bicoastal director David Schweizer, who helmed "The Berlin Circle" and has long been a mentor and sounding board for DeLorenzo, put the place's significance in context: "L.A. is so scattered and fractured that any time there is that kind of energy around a space, it has a great deal of influence. That space had a real style and real mischief to it."

The past tense is understandable, though the space, in fact, is not going anywhere. Despite DeLorenzo's inarguable prominence, the Evidence Room did not have a single author. And while the official story of his abrupt departure cites a lease dispute with unnamed "landlords," the building's owners are actually DeLorenzo's former artistic partners: Ames Ingham and the husband-and-wife team of Jason and Alicia Adams, who originally joined forces with DeLorenzo in the mid-1990s.

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