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Suspend disbelief

Getting Biggie Smalls and Hamlet on the same bill? Applaud Matt Sax.

September 19, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Matt Sax could have opted for the soothing bath, the stiff drink, the private sulk -- one of those little indulgences to which actors who've bombed at an audition should be entitled.

Instead, he resolved, in his own words, "to change the face of the American theater."

No offense to Anton Chekhov or to the student producers who nixed the sophomore acting major's bid for a part in Northwestern University's undergraduate staging of "The Seagull." He decided he had better things to do than poke around in the Russian provinces for a few hours each night spouting from a century-old script. That had been done.

But a full-length book musical, written, composed and performed by a solo rapping-and-singing actor cum MC -- well, that, Sax told himself, had not.

Four years later, his initial notion that Biggie Smalls and Sir John Falstaff had more in common than bulging stomachs -- that a rap musical could sample and twist licks from "Hamlet," ancient Greek tragedy and Bertolt Brecht as deftly as a rap record producer cops hooks and beats from Gil Scott-Heron or James Brown -- has brought Sax and his show, "Clay," to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, where it opens today.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
'Clay': An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about the play "Clay" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre said that its director, Eric Rosen, earned a master's degree from Northwestern University. He also holds a doctorate in performance studies from that university.

The 23-year-old Sax is confident that before long "Clay" will have been molded into versions on Broadway, on screen and on audio album.

Having doffed the dark hoodie that is all the costume he needs for "Clay" -- a chair, a handkerchief and two microphones, one on a stand, one hand-held, are the only props -- the actor settles in after a rehearsal to talk about the road from Chekhovian wannabe to fresh prince of rap theater (Prince Hal, that is, whom his title character in "Clay" glancingly recalls). Sax gives the impression of being very mature for his early 20s. And he has his brashness amplifier turned down from 11 to a middling five or six.

In hip-hop's Falstaffian creed, there's no such thing as too much braggadocio, and when he was first trying to launch his show, Sax let fly with claims that he was revolutionizing theater for the rap age -- initially, he says, to get grant-makers' attention, and then, during the show's successful run last year at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, in the Windy City press. But now he's toning down assertions of innovation and giving props to such hip-hop theater precursors as Danny Hoch.

"I would like to take part in changing the face of American theater," Sax says now. "I don't think anybody single-handedly can do that. But I haven't seen another full-musical hip-hop theater piece yet. I can make that claim."

Stage director Eric Rosen says that, along with helping Sax clarify the storytelling and sharpen the music, he's given him counseling on brash claims of new invention as a PR strategy.

"I told him to never say that again," says Rosen, 36, who earned his master's degree at Northwestern, runs the small About Face Theatre in Chicago and came up listening to what he calls the "intellectual hip-hop" of De La Soul and KRS-One. "I'd seen a million plays that used hip-hop as a means of expression" before the day 2 1/2 years ago when his and Sax's mutual mentor, Tony-winning stage director and Northwestern professor Frank Galati, invited Rosen to the campus to check out the first U.S. performance of "Clay."

"The method of the play did not strike me as so unusual," Rosen said. "Matt is so unusual -- this charismatic presence. And I fell in love with the music and the way the music was theatrical. He did this remarkable physical breakdown at the end, very like the Greek catharsis feeling of watching somebody shed and cleanse. And I look over at Frank, and he's crying."

Kelley Kirkpatrick, associate producer for the Douglas' parent Center Theatre Group, flew to Chicago to scout "Clay" during the run Rosen directed last fall in a 50-seat space at Lookingglass. He'd gotten a heads-up from Rosen and read the reviews. Chris Jones hailed Sax in the Chicago Tribune as "a prodigiously powerful writer" with performance chops reminiscent of "a kinder, gentler version of Eminem . . . or a younger incarnation of Anna Deavere Smith. . . vulnerable, hip, smart and compelling."

"I approached it as openly as I could, not being a person who listens to hip-hop or rap at all or has any knowledge of the genre whatsoever," Kirkpatrick said. "It grabbed me from the beginning. And it was exciting to see younger folks in the theater and how they were relating to Matt."

To lure the younger L.A. audience, said Joe Carter, CTG's ticket sales director, the Douglas has hired APB Media, versed in "guerrilla marketing" tactics such as sending out street teams to distribute handouts and talk up the show in spoken-word venues and plastering posters on youthful, bohemian turf.

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