Stefan Haves stands clad in shiny red boxer shorts amid semi-chaos. The gym floor of the Gascon Institute fencing school is filled with huge puppet heads on 20-foot stilts and sundry huddles of partially costumed performers.
It may look like entropy, but there's method to this madness--"Moon Over Madness" to be exact. Director-performer Haves' comic variety spectacle opens the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre's Summer Nights series on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It is an ambitious undertaking. Not just because the show's scale is what Haves dubs "Busby Berkeley in the '90s," but also because this genre of silent theater lacks an established Southland audience base.
The recent popularity of Cirque du Soleil and "Fool Moon" notwithstanding, this is the type of performance that Americans usually associate with kiddie birthday parties. "There are so many obstacles when you have a discussion about variety arts," says Haves. "People think of it as the low of the low, basically. However, in Europe it's the high of the high."
And Haves, for one, is out to show Americans what they've been missing. "When I was in Europe I would see shows and not understand the language, but amazing actors would captivate me based on their relationship to their bodies and other actors," he says. "The most amazing shows I ever saw were silent theater."
The Los Angeles-born and raised Haves, 35, started out as an actor. "When I was 18 or 19 I did some television, but I wanted to earn my stripes as a theater artist, to feel a sense of not being an impostor," he says. "Variety arts is the one place where, if you put in enough hours, you can pass torches or learn to unicycle."
There is an emphasis on craft for its own sake. "Once you get a good seven minutes, you own that," says Haves. "But it takes a certain kind of discipline. It's like haiku--honing something very small and precious--but the typical L.A. actor doesn't understand that."
Haves attended Cal State Northridge and Brandeis. He trained with Czech director Antonin Hodek, among others, and studied Lecoq movement training in Paris.
He met David Shiner when both were working as street performers in Europe in 1981, beginning a long-term professional association that most recently resulted in Haves' stint as a creative consultant for the New York and L.A. productions of Shiner and Bill Irwin's "Fool Moon."
"Stefan is a great help in my work and he's a creator in his own right," says Shiner. "I can always trust Stefan to give me clear critiques, to guide me when I get stuck. He has a great eye for the style of work that we do and he's one of the rare people who's trying to bring this style of work back."
Haves' own performances include his signature comic contortion act "Backman," for which he was awarded $10,000 as one of "America's Funniest People."
He is best-known in L.A. theater, though, for his 1990 adaptation of Jack London's "The Call of the Wild" and the more recent variety showcase "Vaudevillage." These productions also marked the advent of Haves' company, the Physical Theater Project, now known as the L.A. Physical Theater Project.
Yet Haves hasn't attempted anything as big as "Moon Over Madness" before. A fantasy montage that starts out looking like "Shakespeare under the stars" and jumps to 1994, the show incorporates music, clowning, masks and puppetry and features such artists as Wolfe Bowart ("Harold's Big Feet"), puppeteer Steven Ritz-Barr and Guggenheim fellow Daniel Stein in his L.A. debut.
Most important, says Haves, it's a chance for his fellow variety performers to stretch their creative wings. "I'm offering an opportunity for artists who wouldn't otherwise be able to do this kind of work," he says. "We all do gigs with our signature pieces, but what's attractive is collaborating. Yes, we're going to put in signature pieces with artists who can fill a 1,200-seat house by themselves. But these same artists can also go out on a limb with new material."
Fortunately, Haves and company get a break when it comes to union requirements. Because there's not a word spoken in the show, the contract falls under the jurisdiction and more lenient requirements of AGVA, the variety artists' union, rather than Equity, the actors' union.
"Moon Over Madness" is billed as a show "in the tradition of Cirque du Soleil," and features at least one ex-Cirque performer, Denis Lacombe. "I look at what I'm doing here as a visual comic symphony--closer to jazz," says Haves. "There's a whole other story happening in rhythm and behavior."
Such simple humanism is particularly appealing in tough times. "There are a lot of people who are looking for escape now, something where they don't have to think about what's happening on the outside," says Haves. "I don't want anything outside the theater to come into the theater while I'm performing. I want to transport the audience."
In fact, Haves' characteristic comic impulse is to reach the Everyman in each audience member. "I'm interested in the power of the pathetic, of mortality," he says. "I'm just this guy onstage, with just a stick. If I have the courage to be that pathetic or vulnerable onstage, that becomes a metaphor for all of us."
"Comedy is about obstacles," Haves continues. "The obstacles I have with a toaster are the same obstacles that we all have 12-14 hours a day. Being a schmuck on this planet, we are all having to deal."
* "Moon Over Madness," John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood, Friday-Sunday, 8 p.m., $15-$23. ($12, Friday preview). (213) 466-1767.