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Collaboration makes way for 'The Pain and the Itch'

Pasadena's Furious Theatre Company and Boston Court combine resources to stage the Bruce Norris satire, which pokes fun at liberal proclivities.

July 19, 2009|Charlotte Stoudt

If you customize your latte at Starbucks, choke up at images of the Obamas from election night and TiVo at least one show on PBS featuring British accents, playwright Bruce Norris has you in his sights.

After successful runs in New York, London, Chicago and Boston, Norris' wicked satire of blue-state family values, "The Pain and the Itch," opens Saturday in a co-production between Pasadena's Furious Theatre Company and Theatre @ Boston Court. With an elaborate set, production-specific videos and a central role for a 4-year-old, "Pain" required the combined resources of two theater companies known for risky programming.

Sometimes it takes a village to offend liberals.

"Pain" initially appears benign. Thirtysomething marrieds Clay and Kelly have invited the taciturn Mr. Hadid for a meal in their tastefully affluent home. The evening slowly devolves as the family's all-organic, socially conscious facade starts to crack in front of their guest. Imagine "Stuff White People Like" on a bender.

In Boston Court's arctic rehearsal space on a recent night, Brad Price, as Clay, and Kevin Vavasseur, as Mr. Hadid, block an awkward moment. Vavasseur, wearing a skullcap and speaking with a slight African accent, considers the weathered family dinner table.

"It is easy to fix. If you were to use the sandpaper? . . . And then you use the beeswax. In this way, you bring out the pattern in the grain."

Price, the careful host: "Well. But. You know. It's distressed."

Vavasseur: "But you could fix it."

Price: "No, I mean, it's supposed to look like that."

Pause.

Vavasseur, deadpan: "Ahhhhh."

"The play makes fun of the majority of the people who go to theater," says Scott Lowell, who plays Clay's brother, Cash, a sardonic plastic surgeon. "It's brave enough -- and funny enough -- to do that."

Norris also embeds a puzzle in "Pain" -- a mystery involving a half-eaten loaf of almond bread and the rash that inspires the title. The result is a classic exercise in misdirection. The characters -- and the audience -- spend most of the show looking the wrong way. In part that's because Norris gives you plenty of eye candy: The play's setting is a two-story urban home featuring "expensive modern decor" and "a colossally large TV."

Furious Theatre, in residence at the intimate, low-ceilinged Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse, knew it didn't have the right venue to stage the play. "You need to be able to give the impression of wealth," observes "Pain" director and Furious artistic director Damaso Rodriguez. "In an older, black box space, something is lost."

Rodriguez approached Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti, co-artistic directors at Boston Court, about working together on the piece. Considering a shorter season because of financial pressures, Boston Court jumped at the idea of a co-production. The companies have long admired each other's bold aesthetic.

Furious brings a track record of tackling tonally challenging dark comedies, such as "Back of the Throat" (racial profiling) and "Hunter Gatherers" (cannibalism), on a shoestring budget. Boston Court, known for conceptual pieces like "Courting Vampires," which featured a set made entirely of filing cabinets, offers the performance space and infrastructure necessary to pull off Norris' send-up of American entitlement.

"It's both a blessing and a bit of a challenge," admits Kubzansky, referring to the $5.5-million space, the gift of Pasadena resident Z. Clark Branson. "We're a 99-seat, Equity waiver house like any other. Directors see the building and get extremely excited about the finances they think we have. They're quickly dismayed by the realities of our budgets."

What Boston Court does have is state-of-the-art facilities and the staff to run them, including a full-time technical director, a stage with an 18-foot span from floor to grid, and the same type of sound system used by Cirque du Soleil (a trade-out with Level Control Systems, a company that uses the theater to demonstrate its product).

"Pain" calls not only for a high-end set but features a toddler-age character central to the plot. The producers double-cast the role of Kayla, Clay and Kelly's daughter, with Olivia Aaron and Ava Feldman, both of whom are older than the character they play.

Child actors bring their own set of issues, and Rodriguez, himself the father of two, did considerable research on how to proceed responsibly. But he didn't anticipate certain barriers. "Kayla is subject to the itch of the title," explains Rodriguez. "Even though this character is 4 years old, she's experiencing some potty training regression. The Huggies she has to wear become a bone of contention in the play. Well, Olivia and Ava are very much beyond potty training. When the Huggies first came out during rehearsal, they made faces: You mean we have to wear these? So in a show of solidarity, all the adult actors put on Huggies too. Most people could only get them over one leg. But it set the girls at ease."

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