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Having Staged 2 Plays, Theater Is an Illusion in Name Only

The kid has moxie. First, he sues the Walt Disney Co. Files the suit himself because, he says, “no lawyer would take the case.” Next, he negotiates an out-of-court settlement. Then--and here’s the really good part--he invests the settlement in a storefront theater that even Disney wouldn’t underwrite in its wildest dreams.

Meet Jeffrey Ault, the 21-year-old founder of Illusion, Fullerton’s newest theatrical venture. Ault, who was born and raised in Westminster, is tall and thin with pale gray eyes, long sideburns and a wispy goatee and mustache. He doesn’t look the part of the reluctant giant-killer any more than Huck Finn did. But if Mark Twain were still around and living in Orange County, he would have to adopt Ault.

“I told Disney I would go public if they didn’t settle--so they did,” Ault, who used to drive floats for Disney, said last week about the suit he filed in Orange County Superior Court in 1987 alleging that a supervisor had assaulted him. Ault would not disclose the amount of the settlement--"I’m not allowed to say"--but he did say he has invested $12,000 of it in his artistic enterprise.

For all that, the theater looks as unassuming as Ault himself. It holds only a few dozen people. To get to it, you have to walk through the New View photography studio at 3030 Brea Blvd., a corner store in the small Town & Country shopping strip. Black and spare, the performance space seems an outpost that more properly belongs in West Hollywood’s funky theater district or New York’s East Village.

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“When I told people around here that I wanted to open a theater, they thought I meant a huge house of 400 or 500 seats,” said Ault, who founded the company with Patrick Brambila, 21, and Larry McCauley, 30. “People didn’t seem to understand the concept of a 50-seat theater. But the audience so far has enjoyed our shows.”

The first production, which opened in June, was a musical called “Something’s Afoot” by James McDonald, David Vos and Robert Gerlach. It was considered a hit--although not by city officials, who, after two sold-out weekends, closed down the theater for operating without a conditional-use permit.

Earlier this month, the theater reopened with “Cat’s-Paw” by William Mastrosimone, scheduled to run through Nov. 12.

An absurdist hostage drama typical of the playwright’s work (he is best known for “Extremities”), “Cat’s-Paw” smolders with tension, barely suppressed sexuality and a persistent threat of violence.

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The script is melodramatic, but it is no worse (and a lot more relevant) than “In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe,” the histrionic comedy by Eric Overmyer currently occupying the South Coast Repertory Second Stage in Costa Mesa. And if the acting in “Cat’s-Paw” could use more polish, to judge from a recent performance, the overall effect of the bare-bones production is absorbing nonetheless.

The two-act play unfolds in a warehouse in Washington, where an official of the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been kept hostage for 35 days by the People’s Guard, an urban guerrilla group. The official has committed murder, in the group’s view, because he has signed documents allowing carcinogens to pollute the Crystal River. Water pollution of this type kills about 2,500 people a year across the country, the group leader argues.

In light of recent Department of Energy revelations that the federal government covered up radioactive accidents at the Savannah River Nuclear Power Plant in South Carolina for 30 years, Mastrosimone’s 2-year-old play seems strikingly prescient. Although the plot becomes increasingly improbable--it revolves around a TV interview of the terrorist leader at the warehouse hide-out--thematically the play addresses a meaningful issue head on, sometimes with considerable eloquence.

The staging is intelligent, moreover, and never boring; credit should go to the director, Carl Berg.

Beverly Arrowsmith plays the reporter capably, and James Hoff, although too young for the role, is reasonably persuasive as the abducted EPA official. Hayne Bayle, however, as the terrorist leader, could dispense with much of his glaring. He seems to confuse petulance with menace. And Betsy Fernandez is strictly at sea as a terrorist disciple.

Whoever made the sound track of the incidental street noise--uncredited in the program--deserves special mention. Although it is only a small touch, it lent the production a large measure of reality to accompany the understated warehouse set by Ault and Brambila.

When the “Cat’s-Paw” run ends, Ault said, he and his associates will begin preparing two one-acts for a 5-week run from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The pairing will include an original, “Three for One,” about a young man trying to find his dream girl, and “A Christmas Stranger,” about a family whose life is changed one afternoon because of a chance encounter.

“We’re taking everything a play at a time,” Ault said. “We’re not a nonprofit theater. We’re for-profit, but we haven’t seen any yet.”

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“Cat’s-Paw” by William Mastrosimone continues Thursdays through Saturdays through Nov. 12 at Illusion, 3030 Brea Blvd., Fullerton. Curtain: 8 p.m. Admission: $7 to $8. Information: (714) 990-9605.


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