Some Valley theaters are trying on surprising new identities for the holidays, and the actors involved feel pretty jolly about it.
Interact Theatre Company--known for staging powerful revivals like "Counsellor-at-Law," and hard-hitting contemporary plays like "The Root"--is opening Stephen Sondheim's dark musical "Into the Woods" on Friday.
That's a wonderful gift to actors who relish the chance to stretch their vocal chords and dancing muscles. Amanda Carlin, who's been on Broadway in "The Heidi Chronicles" and "Front Page," will play the Witch. Matthew Ashford, who has been very busy lately as the noble Dr. Tom Hardy on "General Hospital," will be the Wolf.
But singing and dancing isn't what pleases them most. It's the complexity of the characters they play. Carlin's Wicked Witch causes all the trouble in the show. But when the spell she's under is broken, she is transformed into a beautiful Witch with decided ideas about what's right and wrong. As the Wolf, the one who gets to eat Red Riding Hood's granny, Ashford gets to metamorphose into Cinderella's Prince Charming.
Both actors bemoan the stereotype-casting that haunts their film and television careers.
"It makes it easier for the audience," Ashford says with a shrug.
Replies Carlin, who has played a variety of roles in film and TV, "But it is harder for the actor, because versatility isn't valued in our industry in this country."
"Versatility is encouraged early on in our careers," Ashford continues. "Then it gets narrower and narrower. That's in the media. Then you go back to the theater, and someone gives you a chance. Interact has given me a chance to say there's more to me than what you see."
Carlin relishes her character switch in the show, but says the two sides of the Witch are interrelated, two aspects of one woman.
"She has to make the hard choices in the play," Carlin explains. "Everyone else is running and hiding, saying they don't want to be victims. And the Witch asks them, how do you not be a victim? She tells them how: You make a choice."
Ashford says he is always Prince Charming as "General Hospital's" Dr. Hardy, while some other guy plays the Wolf. He would really like to be a combination of the two, but that concept is too complicated for TV.
"In the play," Ashford says, "after he marries Cinderella, the Prince is running after all these women. He's real. He says, 'This is the way I am.' Is he wrong? Is he right? You cannot ask these kinds of questions between two commercial spots."
* "Into the Woods," Interact Theatre, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. (No performances the weekend after Christmas; reopens Jan. 3.) Ends Jan. 19. $22. (213) 466-1767.
A Scrooge Within: Another group known for its serious approach to theater is Glendale's A Noise Within. They troupe's departing from its classical repertory for the holidays with resident director Sabin Epstein's new seriously musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." The production plays this weekend at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center and moves to the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Tuesday.
It promises to be unlike any "Christmas Carol" you've ever seen.
Epstein says, "I don't think there are any like this."
Besides reframing the story with Marley and the other ghosts as the narrators, Epstein is looking at Dickens' tale through a glass darkly.
"I would not call Dickens' novella a children's story," he says, "but the theatrical nature of this production should appeal to children. But we're dealing with what Dickens wrote, which is fairly heady, mature stuff. The more profound aspects of the story have to speak and resonate to adults."
Although Epstein is firm in pointing out that this adaptation is not to be confused with musical comedy, most of it is sung, with music set to Dickens original text.
"It's a departure," Epstein says. "At times it borders on opera, but it's consonant with the work we do at A Noise Within. The audiences will be stunned to see our actors doing what they're doing."
* "A Christmas Carol," at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, 750 W. Lancaster Blvd. tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. $12-22. Call (805) 723-5950. At the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, Dec. 10-15. Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m.; Sunday at 2 & 7 p.m. $24-$28 general, $16-$20 students and seniors. Call (818) 546-1924.
Jolly, Not: A more skewed take on Christmas opens this weekend at North Hollywood's Actors Workout Studio. The theater's artistic director, Fran Montano, calls the two one-acts, under the umbrella title "No Ho Ho in NoHo," very different holiday fare.
One of the plays, Pepin Valera's "Wingless in L.A.," is a sendup of the holiday standard "It's a Wonderful Life." It's set in today's Los Angeles, and Montano says the material is very current. The second play on the bill is Dan W. Davis' black comedy, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" about a social misfit whose New Year's party draws only one guest, an escaped convict.
"We wanted to do something that would laugh at the holiday thing, instead of going with a classic," Montano says. "A lot of people are fed up with the classic Christmas things. That's where the 'No Ho Ho' in the title comes from. I like to take some chances."
Chances like the production's logo, one presumes, which shows an angel garroting a boggled Santa Claus.
* "No Ho Ho in NoHo," Actors Workout Studio, 4735 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Jan. 9. $12. (818) 506-3903.