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Making the scene

Eclectic venues -- nooks, landmarks, weathered warehouses and a revamped Mark Taper -- color the landscape of the L.A. playgoing experience.

September 14, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

Touring the newly renovated Mark Taper Forum a few weeks before its official unveiling was a bit like standing at the crossroads between the past and the future. It wasn't merely the sight of stage carpenters readying the set for "The House of Blue Leaves," John Guare's delirious 1970 farce, which will inaugurate the next chapter in the Taper's 41-year history when the show opens today. Nor was it the mix of old construction and new, the way the striking carousel-shaped building has been endowed with a freshly carved-out basement lounge complete with luxurious bathrooms, not to mention all the technical improvements that have the crew happily humming as they work.

No, it was more than all that, extensive as the $30-million remodeling job turned out to be. Something else was in the air, a palpable accrual of the achievements and aspirations of a building whose primary purpose is to grant imagination the brief privilege of a communally shared three-dimensional life. Ghosts are said to feel especially at home backstage, but whether or not that's just silly thespian lore, you won't need a medium to be in contact with the Taper's glorious theatrical apparitions.

This isn't just any legit venue we're talking about. The house that Gordon Davidson built to showcase bold American playwriting is still Los Angeles' flagship theater. At once intimate and substantial, the Taper (now led by Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie) has long been one of the most respected platforms for drama in the country. But the refurbished Taper is a reminder that it's not simply architectural majesty and attention-grabbing world premieres that give a theater its distinctive identity.

Consider any of the area's stages -- from one of the prominent, big-budget establishments to any of the obscure 99-seaters -- and note what images pop into your head. Chances are, those treasured recollections of shows are layered with logistical and atmospheric details that, no matter how trivial, have become an inseparable part of the dramatic memory. The neighborhood (in terms of local color and all-important driving distance), the accessibility of parking, the quality of the restrooms (more unsettlingly divergent than you might think), intermission mingling spots, general decor (old school or modern, polished or rough), seat (or bench) comfort, the nearness of the stage -- like it or not, these factors impinge subtly and not so subtly on how a performance is viewed.

Like politics, all theater is local, which is to stay that while an artist's reputation develops nationally and internationally, the actual art form is experienced at a particular site on a particular street inside a particular building. Yet there's been a false or perhaps idealistic assumption that theatrical space is characterless and interchangeable -- "empty" in director Peter Brook's famous formulation -- offering merely a neutral ground for the show to begin.

Islands in the storm

"THE house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." This is how French philosopher Gaston Bachelard defines the special values of domestic settings in his classic exploration "The Poetics of Space." If one were to contemplate what a poetics of theatrical space might encompass, one might borrow Bachelard's list, making a slight yet consequential modification: The theater shelters daydreaming, the theater protects the collective dreamer, the theater allows one to dream collectively in peace.

A site that's been reserved for performance is simultaneously a public and private zone. Strangers are instantly transformed into a group -- ideally, with a heightened civic and cultural awareness. Yet they must also be allowed to remain solitary individuals enshrouded in a darkness that keeps all extraneous encroachments (from the stage to the people sitting nearby) at bay. How a theater balances this double reality largely determines the uniqueness of its personality.

The diversity of L.A.'s stage has a kind of horticultural splendor to it, with plays and musicals blooming in carefully cultivated land as well as the most unlikely patches of soil. On the one hand, you have larger, relatively well-heeled entities, such as the Geffen Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse, with their handsome edifices and breezy courtyards signaling their deep roots in their respective Westwood and Pasadena communities. On the other hand, you have countless easy-to-miss holes-in-the-wall such as the Black Dahlia Theatre, cleverly concealed on a stretch of Pico Boulevard behind a sprightly home accessories boutique, and City Garage, a former police department parking lot tucked away in an alley running behind Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.

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