There's a lot of theater going on in the San Fernando Valley, ranging from storefront showcases to strong resident companies like Interact, Alliance Repertory, Actors Alley and the Road Theatre. What we haven't had is a strong resident classical theater company. For that we've had to speed down the Ventura Freeway to witness A Noise Within's fine classical repertory in Glendale, or wind up into Topanga Canyon to the Theatricum Botanicum in the summer.
Beginning Saturday that void will be filled by the Antaeus Company. Their new production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" opens at the Ventura Court Theatre and marks the beginning of a long-term residency in the NoHo Arts District.
Antaeus began its life in 1990 when co-founders Dakin Matthews and Lillian Garrett-Groag joined forces with the Mark Taper Forum to build a classical repertory company. It is now 60 members strong, and its players are very visible on stages in Southern California. Gregory Itzin is in "Psychopathia Sexualis" at the Taper; Mark Harelik is playing Petruchio at San Diego's Old Globe; and Harry Groener and Nike Doukas are just finishing a run in Shaw's "Arms and the Man" at South Coast Repertory.
Antaeus is the same group that staged a stunning production of Chekhov's "The Wood Demon" at the Taper a couple of years ago. They have a lot of ammunition, and they're here to stay. Following this production, they'll move into their own space, the New Place Theatre, now under construction at Vineland Avenue and Huston Street.
Antaeus' voyage from the Taper to the Valley is like a chick being nudged into flying, says Matthews, the company's producer.
"It's been a really good six years for the company--developing, and having a sort of supportive nest, an institution in which to start working," Matthews said. "But it was time. It was time for us to start producing on our own. A lot of us got anxious to produce, have had our taste of it. Especially since almost all of the sort of important productions in Southern California right now have at least one or two Antaeans playing the leads. It's because we haven't offered them the production opportunities that they go elsewhere to do it."
Frank Dwyer, who has been the Mark Taper Forum's literary manager just about as long as he has been a member of Antaeus, is directing the Steinbeck play--he also directed the Taper's "Wood Demon." He adds that even some members of Glendale's A Noise Within are Antaeans.
Dwyer says he is passionately committed to the notion of a classical repertory ensemble.
"This city needs to be reinvigorated by the particular miracle of the always new, live event of a play--especially the masterpieces of the classical repertory, things that have been hits for 400 years, and have entertainment and information at various levels. Children and older people, and men and women from all different cultures and backgrounds, can come together in an almost holy place," he said, referring to theater's origins in religious miracle plays. "It's a prescription for the cultural health and vitality of Los Angeles."
Matthews agreed that these writers--from Shakespeare to Moliere, from Chekhov to Ibsen--had important things to say. "But this is the only medium through which they can be said authentically. . . .
"Someday, people are going to look around and say, amid all the explosions and the blood and the naked ladies on the screen, 'I'm not learning anything about how to live my life. Where are the people who will tell me that?' And they'll come back to the theater."
Matthews explained that classical theater, the live event, is not only only important to audiences, but also to actors. He compares classically trained actors to mountain climbers, adding that generally actors in Hollywood are weaving their way through molehills. "If you put a mountain climber in the middle of Iowa," he says, "he would go crazy. Sometimes here we feel as though we're in the middle of Iowa, culturally."
That's why so many Antaeus members are in this company. Tuck Milligan, who plays the sensitive George in the Steinbeck play, was in both the Taper and Broadway productions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Kentucky Cycle." He is busy in film and television but says that a working actor's need to make a living sometimes is at odds with other basic needs.
"There are a lot of things that you can do to ignore that you have a brain. Or a soul, for that matter," he said. "For me, personally, it's a matter of an opportunity to work, not only on good material, but to work with great people in the theater, which is always a struggle here in Los Angeles."
Matthews concurred, nodding thoughtfully. "Most of the members of Antaeus are not here to break into the business. They're here because something is missing from their lives, and their memory is that it is theater."
* "Of Mice and Men," Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 25. $12-$16. Call (213) 466-1767 or (818) 953-9993.