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THEATER

A venue as odd as its stage acts

The Steve Allen Theater sits in an old office basement, where works can grow out of the limelight.

June 01, 2008|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

ALOVE scene between logophiles: "I want to put my words in your mouth," the woman says. "I want to put my words all over your face."

The man is silent.

Woman: "Could you just say something?" Pause. "Anything."

Man: "I voted absentee last year?"

Woman: "I love that."

Claire Titelman and Josh Fadem are rehearsing their upcoming show, "Claire and Josh Hate Themselves but Love Each Other," an absurdist sketch comedy about "wordvert" romance. Afterward, Amit Itelman, artistic director of the Steve Allen Theater, sits with the two performers in the 99-seat space. Fadem wonders if some of the piece's later material needs to be darker. Not darker, says Itelman. Deeper. "You're taking the audience on a journey to the other side of the tunnel. We want to see you really living the experience of this relationship."

A few days earlier, Itelman had been the first in line to be slapped by the Poubelle Twins, professional wrestlers/burlesque dancers, just before a screening of David Cronenberg's "Crash." Why the slapping exercise? "Because the movie examines the connections between violence and sexual gratification," says Itelman. "I thought it would be interesting to explore those themes in a direct manner." And the smack? "It really, really hurt. But I have to say, the majority of the audience chose to get slapped."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
'Tomorrow Show': An article on the Steve Allen Theater in Sunday Calendar's Arts & Music section said that "The Tomorrow Show," a variety program at the theater, is presented Fridays at midnight. It plays at midnight Saturdays.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 08, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
'Tomorrow Show': An article about the Steve Allen Theater last Sunday said that "The Tomorrow Show," a variety program at the theater, is presented Fridays at midnight. It plays at midnight Saturdays.

The bar for eccentricity may be pretty high in Hollywood, but the Steve Allen Theater clears it easily. Let's start with the location: the basement of the Center for Inquiry West, a clunky edifice sitting on a typically schizophrenic stretch of Hollywood Boulevard whose neighbors include the Barnsdall Art Park, a Goodwill store and Cheetah's strip club.

By day, CFI West serves as an outpost for the national advocacy group founded to promote reason and the scientific method. The organization, which publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine, has its roots in the mid-'70s, when the mysticism of "Chariots of the Gods" and Uri Geller had reached epidemic proportions. CFI's L.A. branch presents lectures on science, hosts a non-theological version of AA, and even pays house calls to examine claims of paranormal activity.

By night, CFI is the scene of uncategorizable performance acts held in a frumpy auditorium, an unlikely lab for some of the freshest, strangest work in town.

"At first I thought it was a horrible place," says comic Craig Anton, who hosts a variety program at the Steve Allen, "The Tomorrow Show," Fridays at midnight. "The lobby looks like a community college theater snack bar. The stage reminds me of my elementary school."

Then there are the names of immortal skeptics such as Spinoza and Galileo emblazoned along the wall. "Yeah," Anton says with a laugh. "People constantly ask, 'Now are you involved in this religion?' "

If anything, Itelman's artistic credo reflects CFI's mission of "not accepting things as they are," says mentalist Max Maven, who for several seasons has performed at the theater. "It gives permission for a certain idiosyncrasy."

This summer's lineup includes vintage music "archaeologist" Janet Klein playing lost barrelhouse jazz and ragtime. Duncan Trussell is developing a show about the science of happiness. And beginning June 7, former carny Aye Jay will tell stories about growing up on the carnival circuit. (Yes, there was a reason you were creeped out as a child.)

The bearded, ever-buoyant Itelman, 33, has spent time feeding the Hollywood development machine, having worked for Comedy Central and at HBO's Workspace. "Every show or sketch was put on as a way to market a sitcom. It was a microcosm of L.A. theater in general."

He jumped when CFI West's Executive Director Jim Underdown called to ask if he wanted to run their new theater. "I saw the Steve Allen as an opportunity to provide a space for theater that exists for the performance moment alone," Itelman explains. "I want to produce shows that challenge current ideas about what's acceptable to put on stage. And that doesn't necessarily mean subversive or dark."

Although it can. Among the Steve Allen's first productions was "Hollywood Hell House," a send-up of a fundamentalist preacher's scare-the-kids-straight-to-heaven kit. Audiences were led through a series of lurid rooms, each depicting sinners facing damnation for a "sin" (homosexuality, drunk driving, teen suicide). Celebrities lined up to skewer the fear-mongering: Sarah Silverman screamed her head off on an abortion table; Bill Maher played Satan. Eventually the fire marshal closed them down, but not before the event drew national -- even a smattering of international -- press.

"We thought it was great to have the attention," says Barry Karr, executive director of CFI, speaking by phone from national headquarters in Amherst, N.Y. "It put us on the map in L.A. But when I went out there a few months later, I thought, 'My God, they trashed the place!' Props were still lying around. The carpet had fake bloodstains."

You win some . . .

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