Street Life Inside and Outside LATC : Theater explores, with uneven results, multiethnic community in which it lives

Nothing stands between Los Angeles Theatre Center and the streets.

Unlike the Music Center, insulated up on Bunker Hill, LATC is at the heart of down-and-out downtown, plunged in the daily hustle of its Skid Row neighbors. The devastation can't be overlooked. And the effect of this proximity has had psychological ramifications on this four-theater complex. It is no comfort zone.

On opening night of Dario Fo's "Elizabeth Almost by Chance a Woman," in late 1987, the audience had to be detained in the lobby after the play ended because a gang war had erupted in the street outside. People went home safely 20 minutes later.

Last month, During LATC's "Big Weekend," four days filled with lab work, discussion, performance, partying and play reading, a passer-by suffered a seizure on the sidewalk. A cop was close by and called an ambulance.

Readers should not infer from this that there is danger there. There is not. The theater and its parking lots are safe, well lit and adequately patroled. However, these incidents, and others, are emblematic--as opposed to symptomatic--of what increasingly appears to be the focus of a lot of this theater's new work.

A pattern emerges when you sit through the reading of new plays during the Center's annual Festival of Premieres and see pieces that begin there graduate to full productions (among them Marlane Meyer's "Etta Jenks," an expose of Hollywood's porno industry, or Thomas Babe's current "Demon Wine," the pursuit of moral definition through the rise and fall of social outcasts).

It's a cultivated taste. LATC has developed an infatuation with society's underbelly--the violence and despairing inertia that loiter on the streets outside. Inside, this stasis is transmuted into drama, curious eruptions leaning toward the laconic and offbeat and virtually exemplified by the items in this year's NewWorks Project.

Consider:

Mildred and Edward Lewis' "Spring Street" was a too-literal and dramatically naive adaptation of Gorki's "The Lower Depths," transposed to guess-where.

Neal Bell's "Ready for the River" was a muddled escape story wherein a penniless mother and daughter who don't much like each other careen down a highway across a nighttime landscape of foreclosed farms, fleeing a husband/father they have reason to fear. They are pursued by a man--or a ghost--with a shot-up face and eventually find refuge of sorts in a strange and isolated motel.

Marlane Meyer's latest piece, "The Geography of Luck," plopped a former singing star, recently out of jail, in the geography of the Las Vegas underground. The play works its way through a multitude of torpid characters who speak the language of the dispossessed in short, punchy, often funny lines.

Cherrie Moraga's "Shadow of a Man" was an overwritten bilingual piece in which a Latino family struggles with some unadmitted nasties that emerge about itself. New territory for Latino theater.

"I don't know whether the theater reflects the neighborhood or the neighborhood reflects the society of the larger community," said LATC's artistic producing director Bill Bushnell, who, when confronted by it, neither embraced nor rejected the assessment. "I think the work is becoming more contemporary. I think there are some new emerging writers who are ethnic in nature and we're on the edge of East L.A."

Besides, it's no secret that Bushnell's aim is to run a multiracial, multiethnic theater that explores precisely these kinds of contemporary problems. Nor is it anything new in the history of this theater. It was true when it was still the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre, located on Oxford Avenue in Hollywood, in the heart of a similarly depressed neighborhood.

It was true even before that theater came into existence, founded on a wing and a prayer in 1975 by actor Ralph Waite. Waite stated that he wanted to do plays "that dealt with the toughness of living." The LAAT opened with "The Hairy Ape." The first show it moved into a larger venue was Miguel Pinero's "Short Eyes" (1976). The first "world premiere" it staged was Felton Perry's "Buy the Bi and Bye" (1976), a gritty play written by a black actor.

"Ralph put that theater there for a reason," said Bushnell, who came aboard early and took charge when Waite moved on to other things. "I put this theater here for a reason. I never wanted to grow up and move into a marble palace."

Only a marble lobby. Around it we have seen as varied a menu as any major theater complex in this town should offer, complementing rather than competing with the Mark Taper, the Ahmanson or the Pasadena Playhouse.

Looking over the last two seasons and the current one, we find a healthy mix: new work, most of it American and multiethnic; classics (as in Shakespeare, Chekhov, Wilde, Moliere and Gogol); modern classics (Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Joe Orton, William Inge, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett) and some international cross-pollination in the designing and directing staff and in the upcoming importation of the Youth Theatre of Lithuania.

Quality? Wildly uneven, which is predictable when the menu is dense and the ambition large. This writer will remember the Simon Callow staging of Milan Kundera's "Jacques and His Master" or Boleslav Polivka's "The Jester and the Queen" or "Yankee Dawg You Die," but would just as soon forget the silicosis-inducing "Antony and Cleopatra" staged in a giant sandbox, the "King Lear" with a bouncy Norwegian king, and the overwrought and overbearing "Barabbas."

All in a season's fallout.

At least this theater, despite its eclecticism, has not tried to be all things to all people. It has stuck to its choices, created a successful poetry series (more than any other theater in town can claim), established workshops and labs on almost no money, thrown artists together the way experimental cooks toss ingredients into a pot, to see what happens, and out of these collisions developed something that may become known in the broadest sense as an LATC play.

Just as in the Mark Taper's early days the term a Taper play was coined to mean a liberally inclined, socially or politically conscious play (no one did or does them better than the Taper, then or now), an LATC play might be characterized as one steeped in psychological realism, inhabiting a haunted half-world, neither totally real nor totally symbolic, but lurking in the half-light between reality and dreams.

Not a shabby achievement--for now. You can sense its rewards in that marble lobby at high tide, when all four theaters are off and running. It's a vortex of energy.

The theaters themselves are another matter. They demand a lot more of the audience: No fear of heights and, if you're short, the ability to sit with legs hanging because of an original miscalculation in the distance from seat to floor when the theaters were built.

But who said theater should be comfortable? Dangerous, yes, which implies discomfort. At LATC, it's an idea that has been taken literally. Inside and out.

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