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A DUAL LIFE IN THE THEATER

His name means “the sign of the monk,” but lately Tony Abatemarco’s life has been anything but measured and calm. Currently, he’s appearing in the acclaimed English version of Eduardo Pavlovsky’s “Camaralenta” at Stages and directing John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” at the Pasadena Playhouse (opening Sunday).

“It started when Paul (Verdier, Stages artistic director) called and said I might be right for this role,” Abatemarco explained, digging into his chicken pasta at the theater’s adjoining restaurant. “I loved his sensibility--it felt like ‘there’s real quality here.’ Then Suzi Dietz (Pasadena Playhouse co-producing director) called me from her car and said, ‘I’m on the Pasadena Freeway and I’ve got this idea that you might be the perfect director for our show. Why don’t you come in?’ So I did. There were lights on in their eyes, lights on in mine, and I got the job.”

“ ‘Blue Leaves,’ ” he says, “is about the dissolution of an American family, the need that so many people feel to be--or be near--a celebrity. It’s part of the disease that functions in this household: a marriage where the wife (Rue McClanahan) has stopped functioning emotionally. The husband (Buck Henry) is a zoo keeper who wants to have an interesting, fulfilled life--and he’s coming home to a zoo. It’s a very black comedy.”

Blacker still is his role at Stages (which alternates with a separate Spanish-language version), a bone-deep portrayal of the physical and mental disintegration of Dagomar, a former boxing champ.

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“I’ve never prepared so hard for a role,” Abatemarco noted. “I read boxing magazines like Ring, looked at tons of photos of boxers, read biographies. I went to a boxing match--which I wouldn’t call fun , but it was interesting to be involved in that kind of arena. I didn’t yell, I listened. I used my eyes, my ears, my nose; I took it all in. It really is its own thing, very different from other sporting events. I mean, you’re going for blood.”

Abatemarco, 35, got an even closer perspective when he opted for some private boxing instruction.

“An artist friend was also training then, and we wound up putting on the gear, getting into the ring together and throwing punches Saturday at 9 a.m. After all the training, learning the exercises, shadow boxing, hitting the punching bag and jumping rope, nothing does it like a fist coming at your face. My impulse was totally to turn and run, but I realized I couldn’t. That’s not what it was about. It wasn’t about me . It was about taking it and keeping myself there--as Dagomar does.”

Even before the role came up, Abatemarco believes he was laying the psychic groundwork to handle it: “I’d just come back from a holiday on the East Coast with my family,” he said. “Dealing with them meant uncovering a lot of old demons, old joys. It was painful, exciting, depressing--all of that.

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“At the same time, I’d gone with a certain (artistic agenda) in mind, and I started getting involved in a memory-type project: my past, the past. A lot of what Dagomar’s dealing with has to do with memory: what he remembers, what he wants for the future--and his mental collapse won’t allow. So I was emotionally ready for this.”

And physically?

“When you have no rest,” he sighed, “change is rest. So the change of coming here and immersing myself in this role, which is basically laid out, functions as my rest from the brain-burn that occurs from directing--being paternalistic, taking care of everyone else. Those really are two of my favorite things: taking care of other people and taking care of myself. As an actor, you take care of yourself; as a director, you take care of everyone else. So I’m very balanced right now.”

With a body of work in theater (“Kid Twist,” “Brain Hotel,” “Notes: On Performance,” “Plato’s Symposium”), Abatemarco has also begun to pursue film and television work, something not stressed in his acting studies at Juilliard.

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“I came out here with that elitism of New York actors, saying: ‘I’m not interested in doing “Laverne and Shirley.” ’ Well, I sing another tune now. It’s a whole new field, a different craft--and I’m just beginning to learn about it.”

As a performer, he’s also relishing the chance to work alone.

“I’ve done a lot of work on other people’s productions,” he nodded. “Part of what turned me toward directing was knowing how talented some of my friends were--and seeing a freeze in their ability to come up with a project for their skills. So I thought of myself as a sort of facilitator: ‘Come on, I know how good you are. We can do this.’

“I was helping people to generate their own things, but my own generator was starting to short out. It was like, ‘If I help you, then I don’t have to work on myself.’ A real saint syndrome--and ultimately, I’m not the most generous person that ever walked the Earth.

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“You begin to think, ‘Where’s me in all this?’ I guess it had something to do with ego--a purer sense of self-worth. So I’m letting myself off the (collaborative) hook for a while. But sure, I’m still interested in working with other people; there’s no way around it. And I am perceived as a nice guy, even though I’m really not.”

Abatemarco chuckled. “It’s just that at some point, you realize that the most important thing is not to be a nice guy: It’s being truthful with your actions. Knowing what my potential is, being empowered with myself, feels very happy. . . . Gardening has also been extremely centering.” Is that the secret to his success? “No. I think great love is the secret: being loved and loving. But gardening is also very nice.”


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