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A Fresh Look at Playwright’s Fantasy Vision : Director staging ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ after exploring his Armenian and artistic connections to Saroyan.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

William Saroyan looked at the world around him with childlike wonder and found the meaning of life in a fantasy vision painted in primary colors and broad strokes. As a result, there are those who find his work dated and sentimental.

Paul Dounian, who will direct the West Coast premiere staging of Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” which opens Friday at the Limelight Playhouse, has found a connection to Saroyan.

“The Armenian connection was really strong for me,” Dounian says. “So I went back to Saroyan, and said, ‘Gee, there’s something to this.’ There’s a lot of talk and criticism about Saroyan being sentimental and sappy. That was his strength.”

In spite of his Armenian heritage, Dounian didn’t become familiar with Saroyan until he was in college and found references to the writer in works by authors as varied as Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski.

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“My Heart’s in the Highlands” resonates for Dounian beyond the ethnic connection. The play’s central character, Ben Alexander, is a writer who is under the illusion that he can be an artist and not have a money-making job. The plot has fascinated Dounian for a long time.

After leaving college with a degree in computer information systems, Dounian auditioned for an acting part in a production by Los Angeles’ Pacific Theatre Ensemble. To help support himself, Dounian had already gotten a job waiting tables. None of his decisions appealed to Dounian’s father, who, Dounian said, “went nuts” after hearing that he’d gotten the part. His father couldn’t understand how someone who was going to have a family someday could make a living as an artist.

“The play,” Dounian explains, “is about this artist without a safety net. It’s irresponsible in a way for him to try and support the family with no money coming in, sending his son out to get free food from the grocery store. It’s setting you up for his ultimate failure. I didn’t have the courage to do that.”

Producer, Berj Beramian, who formed Lazarus Productions with Dounian to stage “Highlands,” agrees with Dounian about the ideas in the play.

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“Ben Alexander is going to be a writer, he’s very determined. That’s all he’s focused on,” said Beramian. “But he has these ultimate responsibilities he has to face up to.”

It’s a simple play, framed in fantasy, but Dounian says it still has something to say to anyone with an artistic temperament who must face real world problems and responsibilities.

* “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” Limelight Playhouse, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays 3 p.m. Ends Feb. 11. $12-$15. (818) 568-5822.

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Actress Jill Holden knows about all that. For 10 yeas she traipsed around the country working in regional theaters, doing classics and modern plays (including five productions of “Isn’t It Romantic?”). But she found that she lacked security and something else as well, and decided to put down roots in Los Angeles. She still works as an actor--recently she appeared in an episode of “Cybill.” But she also found a job as a substitute teacher. And it is the children she has met and worked with who are the basis of a one-woman play “Private Stories: Public Schools,” playing at the Eclectic Company Theatre.

The play is not about Holden’s being an actor. It’s about the children.

“There’s no such thing as a day job,” Holden says. “How you spend your day is how you spend your life. When you’re with these kids, so much can happen that’s intrinsically valuable. I was so monomaniacal as an actress, and anything not pertaining to that was beside the point. Boy, there’s a whole lot more of life out there that’s surprising, and deeply touching.”

* “Private Stories: Public Schools,” Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 25. $12.50-$15. (213) 466-1767.

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And finally, from England comes a classic children’s form of theater, the pantomime. A “panto” has no mime. It’s a holiday romp for kids and their parents, and many a big star in England started in pantos. Cross-dressing, musical turns and low comedy are intertwined with popular children’s stories. Such is the case with the Mayflower Club’s post-holiday offering, opening Saturday--the hook is “Dick Whittington.” As in England, children are encouraged to attend the matinees. The humor gets much bawdier at evening performances.

Pantos are pretty standardized, with the Dame a man in drag, the Principal Boy a lovely girl in shorts and high heels, and of course an evil villain. But it’s all in fun, and it’s a chance to see a theatrical tradition that has been a British favorite for over a century.

* “Dick Whittington,” Mayflower Club, 11110 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees (Jan. 20 & 27), 1 p.m. Ends Feb. 3. $10; children under 16, matinees only, $5. (818) 760-9367.

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