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EAST MEETS WEST IN THEATER : MERGING OF CULTURES AT THE BOWERY

Robyn Hunt, associate artistic director of the Bowery Theatre, has a list of criteria that a play must meet before she’ll present it. It can’t be racist, or sexist. It must suggest that the struggle to improve life is worthwhile, and it must “reinforce how we’re conjoined, how we interact with each other.” And certainly, she’ll tell you, it must fire the imagination.

What Hunt probably won’t mention is that it must also present a powerful acting challenge, something she and her artistic collaborator, Steve Pearson, can dig into with their new, Japanese-influenced acting tools, bringing to their audiences a riveting hybrid of Eastern formality and American realism.

Such was the case when the founders of the now-vanished San Diego Public Theatre tidied up Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” into a 90-minute package that grabbed Hunt a best actress award and Pearson a nomination for best director from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle.

When San Diego Public Theatre disbanded a year ago, the two slipped out of notice for a while. They went back to Japan for a third summer with the source of their Eastern inspiration, director Tadashi Suzuki. Last fall they returned to UC San Diego, where Hunt is a visiting lecturer in the department of communication, and Pearson teaches acting and movement in the drama department.

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Then in January, the two came to the aid of the Bowery Theatre’s absentee artistic director, Kim McCallum, with a thrilling production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight.” The 19th-Century melodrama was a surprise hit, packing the house for a six-week extension.

Hunt and Pearson’s dazzling performances resurrected the dated script. Hunt as Bella, slowly being driven mad by her demonic husband (played by Pearson), was so convincing that many wondered how her own life fared during the nine rugged weeks of performances.

“Obviously, if I would have done such a role 10 years ago, I would have been a wreck. I used to iden-ti-fy,” Hunt said, drawing the word out, “because I wanted to become that person.”

But her study with Suzuki made the difference, she explained.

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Pearson describes the Japanese training method as “very formal, very rigorous.” It has to do with very strong, concentrated movements, he said. It works beautifully on classical plays like “Clytemnestra” or “King Lear"--drama that requires “large, oversize emotional states,” he said.

But he and Hunt are bringing the Suzuki style to smaller-scale, realistic plays--like “Gaslight.”

“What’s interesting is that we find that we don’t have to . . . invest so much psychologically in the thing,” Pearson said, “but that we are able to work with more technical control.”

In his odd double role as Bella’s tormentor and director of “Gaslight,” Pearson urged Hunt to approach Bella’s character with the same principles she used to evoke the elaborate grief of “Clytemnestra” last summer in Japan.

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She focused on the “relationship of the body to the ground and, in particular, strong legs and feet that are really grounded, and a very low center. And then, the magic ingredient is the breath,” Hunt said. “Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going crazy, I’m going crazy,’ I would think, ‘How does Bella breathe?’ and I would begin to breathe that way.”

Once she was moving and breathing differently than Robyn Hunt, images began to appear in her mind. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, or trying to work herself into Bella’s fearful state, Hunt used her body as a kind of tuning device that sent a message of psychological distress to her own mind, and to the minds of those watching her.

Pearson demonstrated the visual power of such concentration by imitating a “realistic” turn of the head, a diffuse, wobbly movement that involves about 45 separate actions, he said. Then he performed a Suzuki-style move: a straight-line firing of head and eyes directly toward his partner. The chilling evil of Bella’s husband settled instantly upon the room.

“What we’re experimenting with is not becoming, but creating enough of the (character) so that then the major work, the most significant work, is done by you. I don’t lay on the table a complete, psychologically sound, fully fleshed-out being for you,” Hunt said.

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“Finally, the audience really has something to do--not to be a voyeur, not to be privy to something because this wall is gone. But the act of completion is really in your hands. And the picture you make is so much better than anything we could give you.”

Their cross-cultural experiments will continue with “Vanya Works,” a “new vision of Anton Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ ” It opens Thursday and is directed by Ross Wasserman at the Bowery, 480 Elm St. Joining Pearson and Hunt on stage will be Douglas Roberts, Kurt Reichert and Ginny-Lynn Safford.

“Vanya Works” is another probing of the spare efficiency the two find so intriguing, this time in dramatic structure as well as acting style. The piece derives from the Hunt-Pearson theory that today’s audiences are more sophisticated than Chekhov’s, trained by films and television to follow greater presentational leaps--in fact, to demand them.

“We’ve taken some liberties with the text, and we’ve cut enough of it out that we just felt like it wasn’t ‘Uncle Vanya’ anymore, it was our idea, or our cutting” of Chekhov’s play, Pearson said. Thus the title “Vanya Works.”

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Some characters have been eliminated in the streamlining performed by Wasserman. They hope the new version will keep imaginations ticking among the audience.

The editing experiment “doesn’t mean to make it like fast foods, or easier,” Hunt hastened to add, “but to my mind it means to make (the play) more dense, but more immediate in some way. We hope that we bring something that’s going to be uniquely ours, that has energy that’s fresh to it, while still honoring Chekhov’s genius.”

And giving tribute to ideas borrowed from another corner of the global village.


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