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Radio’s ‘Rent a Family’ Jumps to Stages

The work of storyteller Joe Frank (heard locally on KCRW-FM) moves into another medium as Stages presents the premiere of “Rent a Family, Part 1,” opening Thursday at the theater.

“I’ve been a fan of Joe’s for a long time,” said adapter/director Paul Verdier. “For two years, we’ve been meeting, flirting with the idea of doing something. But transferring a piece from radio to the stage is a big challenge. Radio is almost always a secondary activity: You’re driving a car, doing something else; you’re listening subconsciously. But when you have a (theater) audience for 1 1/2 hours, there are no distractions.”

The story centers on a divorced mother who “leases” herself and her two children out to a wealthy publishing executive.

“I think he’s a major force,” Verdier said of Frank, “incredibly creative. He’s been called ‘The Fellini of the Airwaves,’ (the material) radio noir . Yet he’s never been heard on stage. When we bring it to the theater, we are adoptive parents to the piece. It’s a child born in radio; now on stage, it’s definitely not a conventional stage play, there’s no linear plot. But it’s funny, dark, quite wonderful. I can’t figure why no one has ever done it before.”

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WATCHING WILSON: An all-night New York diner is the setting for Lanford Wilson’s dark comedy “Balm in Gilead” (1965), opening this weekend at the Heliotrope Theatre, in a revival by the Friends and Artists Theatre Ensemble.

“The diner is a haunt for junkies, petty thieves, hookers and various lowlifes--a place where the lost of society, the hopeless and helpless find solace,” said director Sal Romeo. “The title is from the Bible, Jeremiah 8:22, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Is there no salve?’ The people in this diner are the forgotten; there’s never been a safety net to catch them. It was like that in the ‘40s--and (will be) in the ‘90s.”

Among 25 characters who move in and out of the diner, conversing and interacting with each other, Joe and Darlene are at the center of the piece.

“They give us hope that they’ll be able to transcend this--find comfort in each other, find a way out of this cockroach hole,” said Romeo. As for similarities to other Wilson works, “It reminds me of his other stuff in (terms of) his insights into people, character and environment. But it’s different in that it’s his biggest (work), his most eclectic. There’s some wonderfully dark humor. As soon as you’re laughing and comfortable, it comes and slaps you upside the head.”

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PLAY MONEY: Twenty-five public and private Los Angeles County high schools have been invited to participate in the first Young Playwrights Competition, sponsored by A Directors’ Theatre. Three teen-agers will receive a $1,000 savings bond and have their plays mounted as part of ADT’s 1989 season. In addition, the winners’ schools will be awarded $500 for “program enhancement.” Submissions (which must be received by April 15) should be mailed to 6404 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 329, Hollywood, Calif. 90028. Information: (213) 465-8431.

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: “Spring Awakening,” Frank Wedekind’s 1891 story of teen rebellion, makes a leap into 1989 at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Michael Arabian directs a new translation by Rick Foster.

Said Don Shirley in The Times: “The communal rituals that Arabian added convey a sense of the universality and timelessness of the adolescent Angst that we’re watching. They take ‘Spring Awakening’ into the territory covered by ‘The Rite of Spring.’ ”

In the L.A. Weekly, Maryl Jo Fox wrote: “Under Arabian’s exquisitely imaginative staging and direction, a young, energetic 19-member cast magically captures the enthralling innocence and fateful romanticism of adolescence in a supposedly bucolic era.”

Noted the Herald Examiner’s Richard Stayton: “Wedekind’s adolescents remain woefully naive, victims of a Victorian sensibility; the boys and girls on the Odyssey stage are obviously familiar with the birds and the bees. Adolescent actors pretending innocence quickly becomes cloying.”

From the Daily News’ Tom Jacobs: “ ‘Spring’ isn’t really a drama of ideas, but it does ask whether we can guide youngsters through the mine field of adolescence in such a way that fewer of them die. The Odyssey production isn’t a total triumph, but it is a creative, ambitious, important piece of theater.”

Said Jane Lieberman in Daily Variety: “Foster’s translation is like a breath of fresh air in its expressionistic interpretation of teen-age Angst . . . . The actors take on their various roles with verve. Sean Six is superb as the troubled Melchior. Jon Mathews brings a frantic sense of urgency to his character, the tragedian Moritz.”

In the Outlook, Willard Manus found the play “pretty heavy going, classic or no. Maybe it’s the kind of play Americans can’t do well, no matter now Americanized the text is. Or maybe the fault lies in hoping a big bunch of youngsters can carry such an immense, complicated work.”

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From Polly Warfield in Drama-Logue: “It’s not so much ahead of its time as timeless and universal.”


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