Play Finds Parallels in Irish, Caribbean Life

Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to Calendar.

An Irish bar becomes a Caribbean rum shop in Mustapha Matura's "Playboy of the West Indies," a retelling of John Synge's classic "Playboy of the Western World," currently at Hollywood's West Coast Ensemble. "It's about father-son relationships," said the company's artistic director, Les Hanson, "the folly of first appearances--and what happens to a mob."

Synge's 1907 story is a comic coming-of-age tale of a boastful young playboy who becomes a local hero to a group of villagers; Matura's version has been transplanted to 1950s Trinidad and features an all-black cast of 10. "With everything that's happened," Hanson said, referring to the devastation of the recent riots, "we decided that this was one positive thing we could do: show blacks and whites working together."

Matura's "Playboy" debuted at the Oxford Playhouse in England in 1984 and has since played in Chicago, Washington, New Jersey and New York (at Yale Rep). In 1985, Matura, a Trinidad native based in London, wrote an adaptation of it for BBC-TV.

He recalled seeing Synge's play many years ago but had no intention then of creating a Caribbean counterpart. "The humanistic portrayal of village life must have struck a chord in me," he said. In attempting this hybrid, he added, "I wanted to explore the possibility of adding Calypso rhythms to a European classic--the metaphors, the lyrical quality, poetry--and show the parallels between the cultures."

Matura, who's since penned a Caribbean version of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" titled "Trinidad Sisters," found the similarities between Irish and Caribbean life "obvious and natural. Some experiences are separate, of course. But people's attitudes to each other, how they deal with happiness and problems, their expectations--it's all the same. This is a very human story. Life is never how it seems to be, or how we want it to be."

Hanson, who half-kiddingly allows, "I spend my life reading plays," came upon the comedy last year. "I was looking for something to use the African-Americans in our company," he said. Of the 150-member company, about 12% are black. "We'd done 'Colored Girls' with some success, then a new play, 'Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery,' and--for the men in our company, 'Brother Champ' last summer."

Although his staging of "Playboy" is clearly occupying a lion's share of his time and energy, Hanson is also overseeing the West Coast Ensemble's current Shakespeare series. The repertory program of "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Dreamers"--Tony Tanner's musical adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"--began this month in the theater's second space.

"It's certainly challenging," Hanson said cheerfully. "Of course, last summer we had our Neil Simon trilogy. And we're already planning for next year's rep: probably Moliere, 'Troilus and Cressida' and 'Much Ado: The Musical' " (also by Tanner, whose adaptation and recent staging of "Gorey Stories" was a big hit at the theater.) "The plays we put on are eclectic," the director said, "classics, new plays, musicals--everything."

Born and raised in Montana, Hanson helped launch the Montana Rep in the early '70s and worked as an actor in various stock companies. After studying in New York--"my training is a little Stella Adler, a little Uta Hagen, basically Stanislavsky"--he moved to Los Angeles in 1977. "I decided this was the place to be. Of course, small theater was just starting out then."

Banding together with "a group of people with similar training who wanted to put on some shows," West Coast Ensemble appeared in 1982--first in a small rental house in Burbank, then in 1983 at Hollywood's Richmond Shepard Complex, then to a now-nonexistent house on El Centro Avenue in Hollywood. "I'm amazed we're still here," Hanson said, in view of the years of struggle. In October, 1986, the group set up shop in its current space on Argyle Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.

The membership company now boasts a year-round subscription series, a mailing list of 8,000, an Actors Workshop twice a month, a weekly Directors Lab and a weekly Playwrights Unit. "I suppose my job is keeping the vision for the company, making sure each show is going in the right direction," Hanson said. Sometimes he even gets a chance to be an actor again. "I make myself audition--it's only fair," he said. "Sometimes I've been cast, sometimes I haven't."

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