Times Theater Writer

Some theaters go for matched sets, others for personal points of view, but the prevailing passion at the Los Angeles Theatre Center continues to be extreme eclecticism, with a real appetite for controversy. Consider the just-announced 1987-88 season:

Chernobyl, Shakespeare, Dario Fo and Thomas Mann constitute its highlights. But not just Shakespeare: a rare-enough “Titus Andronicus” (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) will be “translated from the archaic” into contemporary American by former Theatre Center dramaturge Adam Leipzig in a version they say (and we pray) “will retain the poetic meter of the original and allow access to the complex story.” Access ? . . . Stein Winge directs.

To prepare us for the onslaught, we’ll get Italian playwright Dario Fo’s startling view of Shakespeare as a prattling militant who’s written this hit play “Hamlet,” and of this queen caught in a nasty tangle of conspiracies. Fo’s “Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman” will play Oct. 16-Dec. 13 and Fo’s translator will be his talented on-stage interpreter, Ron Jenkins.

We don’t just get Thomas Mann, either. Mann’s novella “Transposed Heads” will be transformed by writer/designer/director Julie Taymor into an erotic love story blending East and West--Western music and Indian legend--now subtitled “A Musical Tale of Passion” (Dec. 18-Jan. 17). Taymor created the gorgeous puppets for “King Stag” at the Doolittle last fall and will provide more for this production. Co-creators of the new show are Sidney Goldfarb (book and lyrics) and Elliot Goldenthal (music).


The season’s centerpiece, however, remains its previously announced kicker, the American premiere of Vladimir Gubaryev’s “Sarcophagus.” This piece by Pravda’s science reporter about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was first done in Tambov, outside Moscow. It has become (pardon the pun) the hottest play of the year, with major productions in Vienna and London, and fall productions planned in Oslo, Dublin, Yale and the Theatre Center, where it will be part of the wider Los Angeles Festival.

“Gubaryev continues to rewrite it,” said center artistic/producing director Bill Bushnell, who will stage “Sarcophagus” for a Sept. 18 opening (through Nov. 29) and calls it “unapologetically instructional.”

“He was the first journalist to arrive at Chernobyl and, feeling that he’d looked into the mouth of hell, found journalism inadequate to describe it--which is why he wrote the play.”

A recently added speech chillingly notes that, to contain the deadly radiation, the concrete entombment of Chernobyl’s damaged reactor will have to stand 100,000 years--long after our civilization will have disappeared and the pyramids of Egypt, 5,000 years young, will have turned to dust.

“The accident at Chernobyl may account for the Soviet Union’s change of policy in Europe and the real possibility of an arms treaty,” Bushnell said.

The balance of the season will include its eloquent poetry series and the ninth annual festival of new plays, now renamed the Los Angeles Theatre Center Festival which runs Jan. 15 to March 13. Under consideration are a commissioned adaptation of Dostoevski’s “The Idiot” by Jon Robin Baitz (who wrote this season’s “The Film Society”), Thomas Babe’s “Demon Wine” (part of this season’s staged readings), a new piece by Peter Sheridan called “The Emigrants” and other works.

The theater is continuing its 6:30 p.m. mid-week subscription series for those who want to beat the traffic and get to bed early (why don’t more downtown theaters pick up this cue?) and Lindsey’s at the Theatre Center (a division of nearby Lindsey’s restaurant) has set up shop in the LATC lobby.

As for the LATC’s ever-precarious financial health, “We have a long-term debt obligation to the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency),” Bushnell said. “I’m talking 30 years and about $4.6 million. They can’t give grants so they gave us long-term, interest-free loans. Collateral for those loans is essentially this (theater) structure. And we have a short-term deficit which we’re carrying forward amounting to about $260,000.


“The CRA’s been very positive. They’re taking care of facilities costs (security, insurance, janitorial, ticketing, technical and front-of-the-house staff) up to $1.4 million from March, 1987, to March, 1988. Not a loan. We don’t have to pay it back.”

The 1987-88 projected $6.4 million budget includes the CRA’s $1.4 million. Of the other $5 million, $3.6 will consist of earned income (ticket sales, restaurant and other concessions) and the remaining $1.4 million will have to be raised.

“The climate for raising money is never terrific,” Bushnell said, “but there are a couple of things in the works. Frankly, federal and state leadership on this issue is not changed and not terribly interested in the arts. I don’t have to tell you the impact of Reaganomics. . . . “

Meanwhile, according to the CRA’s John Tuite, it remains committed to the redevelopment of Spring Street and the Theatre Center remains its centerpiece.


TO BE OR NOT TO BE: Lily Tomlin stopped searching for signs of intelligent life in the universe at the Doolittle Theatre just last Sunday, but it was almost more than she could bear. So she’s reopening the show May 15--weekends only.

“It’s been a great engagement,” she said Tuesday. “We announced closing twice because of scheduled movies.”

But the threatened film directors’ strike caused postponements of Tomlin’s movies, “Big Business” and another film whose working title is “Nashville Plus 12.”

“Now ‘Nashville’s’ probably postponed to next spring and we go into rehearsal for ‘Big Business’ in mid-July. The Doolittle was still empty and I hate closing a show; it’s easier for me to come down slowly, so . . . we’ll reopen May 15 on weekends--four performances. That gives me time for other things.”


Is this the start of a new Los Angeles mode of doing theater?

“Only if one can afford to do just four performances a week.”

The new Tomlin schedule is Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. Sundays at 4 p.m. until June 28.