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2 Smaller Theaters Tune In to Radio Days

Times Theater Writer

If quite a bit of theater found its way onto radio in 1988 (particularly through the joint auspices of KCRW-FM and L.A. Classic Theatre), radio as medium and subject matter will raise a couple of stage curtains in 1989.

Traditionally, Stage Watch sweeps into the new year by taking a look at some of the more promising and/or offbeat offerings coming to smaller theaters. There seems to be no shortage of such items, in spite of the Waiver Wars of ’88. Life in the trenches goes on.

Topping the list of potentially fascinating smaller theater projects of 1989 will be a transposition from radio to stage of writer/actor Joe Frank’s “Rent a Family” at Stages--and John Olive’s “The Voice of the Prairie,” a luminous play about the early days of radio, which will have its Los Angeles premiere at the Back Alley. It scored a major hit last year at the San Diego Old Globe.

Frank, a risen star of National Public Radio, whose much-lauded “Works in Progress” airs twice weekly over KCRW-FM (89.9), is an artist who defies classification. As much improviser as writer, he’s an archivist of the human soul with a gift for seizing contemporary concerns and exposing the timelessness within them. “Rent a Family” traces the psychology of a divorcee with children who hires herself and the kids out to single men anxious for a taste of family life.

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“My shows address the universals that speak to so many of us,” he said in a recent interview. “Loneliness, mortality, the questions of suffering and evil, the problems of loving, ambivalence and anger.”

You can’t get much more contemporary than that. Frank, who took part in the Stages tribute to Eugene Ionesco last March, has given its artistic director, Paul Verdier, carte blanche to attempt this stage version without him.

“It’s going to be his work,” Frank said. “His interpretation. I like and admire Paul, but it’s not so much a matter of confidence (in him) as it is a matter of wondering if (the transposition) can be done. I’m intrigued by the idea.”

So is Verdier. “The theme of renting out a wife and kids in a society that won’t commit to either is part Salinger, part Kafka and the best of Joe Frank,” he said. “Joe has an incredible sardonic humor, very original, very absurdist in its own very Joe Frank way. Can we transfer it to the stage? We’ll have the answer after opening.”

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Opening is expected in late February or early March.

Despite the radio connection, “The Voice of the Prairie” at the Back Alley in Van Nuys, is an entirely different animal.

Where Frank’s play was written for radio, this one’s about radio. By tracking the Tom Sawyerish misadventures of a young man and his blind companion who ride the nation’s freight rails, and later the further adventures of this young man and the mentor who pushed him into broadcasting, Olive has written a serendipitous fugue for three or six actors. It celebrates language and storytelling and the pioneering spirit that made the country possible.

Back Alley producer Laura Zucker says she and director Bob Clark (“Porky” and the film version of “Tribute”) have opted to go with the six-actor format, reportedly also preferred by Olive.

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Feb. 23 is the opening.

If the combination of “be-bop, street slang, rap and theater"--as described in a press release--fall mainly into the province of theater, then “Earth Life,” with musician Wayson Jones and poet Essex Hemphill may be something to look at during Jones’ and Hemphill’s three-performance stay at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) next Thursday-Jan. 14.

We’re told the performance piece by these new-to-us Washington, D.C., artists “examines contemporary issues through a pastiche of driving rhythms, a cappella duets, funk and blues.” Consider yourselves as informed as we are.

A poet who, by contrast, needs no such introduction is Alice (“The Color Purple”) Walker, who makes a one-night appearance at the Los Angeles Theatre Center Monday as part of that theater’s ongoing poetry series. Enough said, but be warned that tickets for that event are going fast. . . .

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“West Memphis Mojo,” a play by Martin Jones that received high marks in a 1987 production at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, returns to the Southland in a staging that will feature Obie-winner Larry Riley (“A Soldier’s Story,” “Dreamgirls”). It will open at the Ensemble Studio Theatre Jan. 15 and will also constitute the directing debut of Michael Peters, a Tony winner as co-choreographer for “Dreamgirls” with the late Michael Bennett.

More potential notables:

The Gnu Theatre production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” (opening next Thursday) with Dennis Christopher, Joe Spano and Robert Costanzo; The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s “Spring Awakening” (Jan. 14), translated by Rick Foster and staged by Michael Arabian as part of the citywide German celebration “Jugendstil Fest : Young Moderns of 1900"; A Director’s Theatre’s Los Angeles Premiere of British playwright Snoo Wilson’s “More Light” (also Jan. 14); the rescheduled world premiere of Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s thirtysomething-year-old black comedy about life in the relocation camps, “Laughter and False Teeth,” to be directed by Robert Ito at East West Players (Jan. 18); the return Friday to the Chamber Theatre of “A Gift From Heaven,” and--are you ready for this?--a “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” only slightly too late for the Eugene O’Neill Centennial. It opens at the Skylight Theatre Jan. 28 with a couple of faces familiar to viewers of daytime soaps--those of John Anniston and Julie Adams.

PIECES & BITS: A staged reading of Tom Cole’s “The Eighties,” which was to have taken place Monday as part of the Pasadena Playhouse’s Discovery Series has been canceled. . . .

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Stephen Jeffries’ delicious five-actor adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” will replace Christopher Durang’s previously scheduled “Laughing Wild” beginning March 17 in South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage. . . .

And staff and board members of nonprofit arts organizations eager to know more about the ins and outs of government grant applications may want to sign up for Arts Inc.'s fourth annual three-part workshop beginning Monday. They may, however, need a grant to do so. Fee for the workshop is $90 (213-627-9276).


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