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THEATER : Rome in L.A. : Shakespeare’s obscure ‘Coriolanus’ is updated and has an actress playing the title role at Burbank Little Theatre.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov is a regular contributor to The Times

When Michael Eugene Fairman decided to mount a modern-day version of “Coriolanus,” he didn’t intend to do it as a gender-bender.

“It all happened because I had announced to the company that I would hire the best actor for any role, regardless of gender or race,” said the actor-director. “And Mary Eileen was just phenomenal in the part.”

Consequently, Mary Eileen O’Donnell will play the title role in Fairman’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which kicks off its run Thursday at the Burbank Little Theatre in a benefit preview for Equity Fights AIDS.

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Fairman, 40, who’s served as artistic director of the resident Actors’ Company since May, originally read “Coriolanus” in college, but was not an immediate fan. “It’s a pretty obscure (Shakespearean) play,” he said. “Only ‘Timon of Athens’ is more obscure. And there are a lot of problems in it--like it’s very repetitive. It also looks like someone else probably wrote part of it, because it’s not very good.”

What stuck with him, however, was the emotional intensity of the piece. “It’s very violent,” Fairman said. “Not in terms of a blood bath, like ‘Macbeth.’ But it has all this rage in it. And it’s always haunted me.” Yet it wasn’t until last spring’s riots, watching the flames from the Hollywood home that he shares with his wife and two children, that Fairman began thinking about the play.

“I started to see similarities between Coriolanus’ rage and what was going on here,” he said. The real-life soldier Coriolanus--whose story Shakespeare used as a springboard--was destroyed by the empire that he would have given his life for. The Indianapolis native likened that sense of betrayal and exile to the have-nots of Los Angeles “not feeling part of the community--so they destroyed the community.”

For this adaptation, Shakespeare’s text has been trimmed, but the words (except for gender references) left unchanged. The action takes place in the fictional Roma de Los Angeles circa 1993; the theatrical conceit is that the Roman Empire has never perished and now controls the planet.

“It’s a state-controlled ‘1984’-type society,” said Fairman, whose directing credits include the TV soap “Another World” and “Town Meeting”--which he also wrote--for the Actors’ Company in 1991. “The books I’ve read about the Roman Empire reminded me of Nazi Germany: a place of stone, masonry, flowers and banners. So in our version, the colors are bright, beautiful, vibrant, brassy. And I’m using footage of the L. A. riots, both live and taped video.”

At the Burbank Little Theatre (which the six-year-old company has occupied since moving from the Gypsy Playhouse in 1991), the seven women and four men in the cast play multiple roles--except for O’Donnell’s title character.

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“I see her as a 36-year-old career military person who’s risen through the ranks by sheer cleverness, might and bravery--a one-woman kamikaze SWAT team,” she said. “Even when you change the sexes, you still have this mass of truth.”

The actress is modeling her characterization on “a guy I know who’s killed a few people; he’s very rigid and moral, but has a terrible temper. It’s certainly not based on me. I have a terrible temper--and it’s gotten me in a lot of trouble--but I haven’t killed anyone.”

Where and When What: “Coriolanus.” Location: Burbank Little Theatre, 1100 Clark Ave., George Izay Park. Hours: Benefit for Equity Fights AIDS, 8 p.m. Thursday. Opens next Friday, and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Closes March 7. Price: Benefit and opening night gala (includes post-performance buffet): $20. All other performances: $6 to $12. Call: (818) 954-9858.

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