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STAGE : 91 YEAR IN REVIEW : Is There a Doctor in the House? : With traditional theater treading water, LATC gone and exhibitionism passing for art, malaise envelops the theatrical community

<i> Sylvie Drake is The Times' drama critic</i>

When French director Ariane Mnouchkine was asked if she thought theater could survive the electronic age, she was quick to reaffirm that, yes, it could. Individual theaters may go up and down, she said, but the art form would surely survive.

So, much evidence to the contrary, theater is not dead. It’s just having a bad year. Especially in Los Angeles. Let’s face it, this has been a terrible year for art as a whole. First there was all that wrangling over the business of the National Endowment for the Arts--who should get grants and what they should do with them. (Whose art is it anyway?) Then came the ravages of the shrinking economy, and, finally the most serious and emblematic blow of all, the October collapse of the Los Angeles Theatre Center after a six-year struggle.

Hindsight, which makes clairvoyants of us all, tells us that we should have seen this coming. The seeds for retrenchment were sown years ago. All we’re doing at the close of 1991 is reaping the stony harvest.

Broadway and “the road” are in crisis, which is why so many of the larger Los Angeles booking houses have been either dark or filled with second- and third-time-around revivals of such shows as “Cats,” “A Chorus Line,” “Man of La Mancha” or “Les Miserables.” While this reflects the extent of the commercial theater’s disarray, revivals are not bad news if producers see to it that the shows are not as tired as their titles.

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The edition of “Les Miz” that came to the Pantages in January, for instance, was enhanced by the presence of Gary Morris as Jean Valjean and was a lot more passionate than the one at the Shubert two years ago. The current two-piano revival of “Most Happy Fella” at the Doolittle is immensely pleasurable. But revivals, good or bad, are theater in a holding pattern. They don’t advance the art, especially not if they are clones of their original productions.

Much more troubling is the fact that the places where we would normally look for E & D (experiment and development) have dwindled to a precious few. The demise of LATC, by far the liveliest caldron of new work, has left us with only 2 1/2 major producing entities that do consistent spade work with new plays: the Center Theatre Group-Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson (which we’ll consider as one), South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and the Pasadena Playhouse (the half).

We had George C. Wolfe’s “Jelly’s Last Jam” at the Taper, Richard Greenberg’s “The Extra Man” and Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” at SCR and Rupert Holmes’ “Solitary Confinement” at the Playhouse. Good stuff amid the not-so-good, but nothing that quite bends the boundaries of the art the way Jonathan Marc Sherman’s “Veins and Thumbtacks” or Reza Abdoh’s “Bogeyman” did at LATC.

To look on the bright side--and one has to look hard these days--each of these theaters developed some interesting stagings of classic works and brought us a handful of strong productions new-to-us. Notable at the Doolittle was a creamy new version of Noel Coward’s 1923 “The Vortex,” drawn from Philip Prowse’s staging for the Glasgow-based Citizens Theatre. At Taper, Too were L. Kenneth Richardson’s hyperkinetic adaptation of Heiner Muller’s “The Task” and director Vladimir Strnisko’s very subjective, outlandish version of Brecht’s early one-act, “The Wedding.”

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South Coast Rep excelled with some seldom-seen modern classics: Brecht’s Guignolesque “Happy End,” the darkly layered social commentary of Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” and a lighthearted “You Can’t Take It With You.” Any season that contains those three can’t be too shabby. As for the Pasadena Playhouse, it brought us Kevin Conway in “Other People’s Money” (which later moved to the Westwood) and new artistic director Paul Lazarus’ stylish montage of Cole Porter songs in “You Never Know.”

Shakespeare fared well this year, though not at the Taper where an update of “Julius Caesar” sacrificed sense to trendiness. Shakespeare Festival/L.A.'s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” managed this ponderous script with brevity and lightness. And three of the most difficult comedies positively thrived at the Grove Shakespeare Festival, despite a major shake-up as founder Thomas Bradac resigned and director Jules Aaron stepped in temporarily to fill the void. Bradac’s “The Merchant of Venice” and Aaron’s “Measure for Measure” and “Taming of the Shrew” were all intelligent, brisk and clear.

However, such achievements masked a growing malaise in the theater community that saw a lot of escapist fare also take over its stages. Equity work weeks (which includes many racked up by LATC before it went under) were on the rise this year, but statistics can be deceiving.

The biggest difference, according to Equity’s business rep, Kevyne Baar, occurred in the mid-size houses where the actors’ union has wisely refashioned its contract. It makes theaters such as the Las Palmas (“Quilters”), the Balcony Theatre of the Pasadena Playhouse (“Rug Merchants of Chaos”), the Canon (“Love Letters”), the Coronet (“Brooklyn Laundry”), and the Westwood (“Yiddle With a Fiddle,” “Together Again”) easier to book. Yet looking at the list above, and with the exception of Eileen Atkins in “A Room of One’s Own” at the Westwood (a dynamite performance that did far less well at the box office), there was not much deviation from safe programming.

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The disappearance of LATC, a company that took the kinds of chances no one else did and was home to a multitude of minority workshops, cannot be seen as an incident apart. It tore a gaping hole at the very center of the fabric of theater in this town. Aside from its sorely missed, mandated cultural variety, its style was sufficiently different from that of the other major players in the Southland to provide both a response to them and an important stylistic balance. With LATC gone, a flatness has settled in, only made worse by the worsening economic climate.

The Center Theatre Group has had to deal with its share of a million-dollar Music Center shortfall. Artistic Director Gordon Davidson says this was done with hiring and salary freezes, a 10% staff reduction through layoffs and attrition, and by modifying programming next spring at its more experimental Taper, Too. A potential loss.

Another loss: The Pasadena Playhouse, which had used its 120-seat Balcony Theater mostly for new work, is giving it up--too expensive to operate under current union contracts, says Lazarus, who hopes to redefine the space. And South Coast Rep reports that subscriptions are down 5% and single ticket sales are flat, despite strong artistic product. So far, though, no cutbacks.

“We’ve felt the impact of the recession,” says SCR’s David Emmes. “Businesses have been affected and impacted. Both public and private agencies are a shrinking resource. The biggest area of concern is fund raising. We’ve cinched ourselves in and are looking carefully at next year. . . .”

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Even the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, which does a mix of productions and bookings and brought us Tommy Tune in “Bye Bye Birdie,” has cut down on its use of live musicians in an effort to cut costs. And the California Music Theatre’s “Wizard of Oz,” which closes today, is a non-Equity show--a first for this company--largely for similar reasons.

This leaves L.A.'s smaller theaters to the rescue. Or does it? In Los Angeles, theater reached a peak of sorts with the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival--if only in revealing that there was an audience out there hungry for world-class theater. Yet the grass-roots theater movement that welled up in L.A. in the early ‘70s and thrived for 16 years under the Equity Waiver Plan (whereby the actors’ union “waived” its rules, though not its jurisdiction, in theaters of fewer than 100 seats) has dwindled down to a trickle.

While the number of small theaters has not shrunk, the nature and quality of the work has shifted and not for the better. There is more showcasing, more vanity productions and more plays that look like movies. The 1988 modification of the waiver is only the marginal reason. More like it is a panoply of ills: burn-out, the cyclical nature of small companies and runaway costs made worse by the funding crunch.

More than half-a-dozen institutional small theater companies that once did exuberant, bracing work, have disappeared or exist in name only (Catalina, L.A. Theatre Works, Actors for Themselves at the Matrix, the Back Alley, the Victory, Pipeline, American Theatre Arts). The MET Theatre, one of the earliest to vanish, is making a comeback at a different venue. We can still look to Stages Trilingual Theatre to deliver challenging, internationally oriented, language-based work under the leadership of Paul Verdier, and to the Bilingual Foundation for the Arts for upholding a Hispanic literary tradition. But the Gnu in North Hollywood, which can be counted on for solid mainstream work, may not be around much longer as Artistic Director Jeff Seymour’s interest shifts to films.

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Even such a long-term innovator as the Odyssey Theatre’s Ron Sossi (whose sizzling production of Arthur Kopit’s “The Road to Nirvana” is currently on the boards) has had to rent out the Odyssey spaces more frequently than before. And Theatre/Theater, that jumping mom-and-pop booking house/asylum for the iconoclastic and offbeat has been in what producer Jeff Murray calls “a strong survival mode” since the end of the Gulf War. Box office for the year: down 30%.

Box office was up 20% at the CAST Theatre, where David Steen produced and performed in his “Avenue A,” the year’s most memorable and disturbing new piece about urban despair, but Artistic Director Diana Gibson says it’s largely thanks to the one-night-a-week “Zombie Attack,” an ongoing ghoulish comedy by Justin Tanner that has developed a cult following. As for rentals, Gibson, who’s been running the CAST since founder Ted Schmitt died in 1990, says she’s done some co-production deals but that “rentals I would want to consider at all are hard to come by.”

Of the newer small groups that have surfaced more recently, only the Actors’ Gang, the Pacific Theatre Ensemble and the West Coast Ensemble have had more than a passing impact. Director/choreographer Gregory Scott-Young bears watching at Burbank’s Golden Theater. But that’s it, as we pray for more fresh young companies to hit the ground running.

Underlying these problems is one of another, more pernicious sort. The Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts, which was to infuse fresh cash into the arts, has turned into something of a procedural nightmare. Political correctness appears to be the excuse for a selection process that shows little regard for artistic excellence as a criterion for funding and barely differentiates between professional arts producers, worthy amateurs and social therapists. So much so, that a number of eligible companies gained their grants this year only on appeal.

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With traditional theater at a relative standstill, performance art and one-person shows are moving in to fill the void, discovering and defining themselves as they go, setting their own erratic standards at such percolating crucibles of alternative art as Highways Performance Space or Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. This is theater huffing and puffing to reinvent itself.

Given how radically L.A.'s demographics have changed in the last decade, one wants to believe, in a best-case scenario, that the city still holds the potential, if not yet the promise, for a theater of the future that would successfully meld Eurocentric traditions with the cultures of the Pacific Rim to create something indigenous and new.

What’s in jeopardy--and this is the worst-case scenario--is the word. The literary tradition. In a world where language is increasingly supplanted by image, that peril is real. We see too many teleplays that pass for plays and too much exhibitionism that passes for art. But without a literature to support it, theater, ephemeral enough as it is, can leave no imprint behind.

Like a phoenix, it may need to burn itself down to a cinder before it can refashion itself and soar anew.

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