The Determined and the Furious

The story so far for the Furious Theatre Company brings to mind a soul music classic by Otis Redding: 2,000 miles they roamed, to make a loading dock their home.

But unlike the lonely, bereft fellow bewailing a life gone wrong in Redding's "[Sittin' on] The Dock of the Bay," the six young, unheralded proprietors of the fledgling Furious troupe have been so awash in good luck leading up to this weekend's debut that they find it almost stunning.

Nearly everything has gone right over the past few months for these transplanted Middle Americans, ages 25 to 28, who came to L.A. to make their way as actors and directors.

The Furious partners found a very un-theater-like venue they could use rent-free--the vast, empty shipping and receiving area of a former plastic-container factory in Pasadena. They have curtained off a 99-seat performance space from the rest of the echoing, high-ceilinged expanse, and were set to open Friday with the U.S. professional premiere of "Saturday Night at the Palace."

The 1982 drama is by Paul Slabolepszy, a leading South African playwright whose work seldom has been seen in America. It concerns two young, white men who arrive after midnight at a burger joint manned by a Zulu named September. One of the whites, a would-be professional soccer player, is seething with frustration and resentment over his lot in life. A blowup is preordained, but the surprise is in the shocking way it plays out.

Athol Fugard, South Africa's most celebrated dramatist, regards Slabolepszy as "one of the most mature and significant talents in the contemporary South African theater scene....His plays deal very directly with the issues that the modern country is facing." Fugard, responding by e-mail while immersed in rehearsals for the Mark Taper Forum's May 23 opening of his new play, "Sorrows and Rejoicings," said he considers "Saturday Night at the Palace" to be Slabolepszy's most powerful play.

The Furious founders say they raised $45,000 before they had sold their first ticket. They started with $15,000 of their own money, and an additional $25,000 came in corporate grants--a rarity for a theater with no track record. The kitty is big enough, and the rent-free expenses are low enough, they say, to see the nonprofit theater through two seasons of three plays each, regardless of box-office returns. The creative goal, says one founder, Sara Hennessy, is to do plays that "go beyond what is comfortable."

Furious theater, says Damaso Rodriguez, the company's managing director, will be defined by a sense of rawness and high energy, an attempt to make audiences feel a play's impact rather than intellectualize what they see. "We'll tell a story really intensely, and you'll go along for the ride."

The Furious founders have no illusions about the odds, so their planning has been meticulous. Keep expenses low. Raise money. Be committed. Be united. Do it yourself.

Their sojourn in Los Angeles did not begin with any special promise. The six arrived with unprepossessing academic credentials: bachelor's degrees in theater from Texas A&M;, Illinois State and Southwest Missouri State. Rodriguez and Hennessy married before their senior year at A&M.; After graduating in 1996, they headed to Chicago because they had contacts there and knew they could quickly land roles in small, professional theaters. Furious Theatre's first, informal incarnation was born in the Windy City.

It produced an original drama called "Ramblers," which the Chicago Tribune called "one of those shows that restores your faith in the regenerative powers of low-budget theater ... a veritable feast of raw talent."

Los Angeles had been the goal all along, so at the end of 1998 the initial Furious foursome--Rodriguez and Hennessy and another couple, Shawn Lee Martin and Vonessa Martin--packed their belongings and all the props and set pieces for "Ramblers" into a 22-foot Ryder truck and drove 2,000 miles west.

Joining them in L.A. were Eric Pargac, another Texas A&M; graduate, and Brad Price, who grew up with Shawn Martin in Bonne Terre, a Missouri town of 4,000. They rented a small Hollywood theater in 1999 and put on a six-week run of "Ramblers." It received scant attention and lost several thousand dollars. At least, Rodriguez says, they learned how not to do it.

For a year, the six pursued careers separately, but remained close socially and continued to deepen their bonds on camping trips--the outdoor life was part of L.A.'s attraction, they say. What's more, four of them wound up working for the same Internet company.

Rodriguez and Hennessy took unpaid internships at A Noise Within, the classical theater company in Glendale. There they found a mentor in Art Manke, A Noise Within's co-founder and resident director. Rodriguez extended his apprenticeship with Manke beyond the internship by serving as his assistant director and dramaturge for productions of "Hay Fever" by Noel Coward and Shakespeare's "Pericles."

Manke has been impressed by Rodriguez's commitment and work ethic--and by the detailed, carefully reasoned approach the Furious founders have taken in mapping the launch. "So many theater companies are started by actors who have far more enthusiasm and artistic temperament than patience for putting together the foundation of a business," Manke said. "Damaso has a balance, a maturity beyond his years in being really business-savvy."

Last June, the six Furious founders convened for a weekend of brainstorming in a rented Palm Springs condo. The agenda: to lay the conceptual groundwork for a theater company that would last. They covered the sliding-glass living room doors and a kitchen wall with poster board. Then, with markers, they filled the walls with their dreams and goals, and the do's and don'ts of turning their ambitions into realities.

In the ensuing months, they accomplished much of what they had scrawled. They found a rent-free home--thanks to an agreement with the Armory Center for the Arts, which holds a lease on the city-owned former factory known as the Armory Northwest. Several other grass-roots arts organizations are quartered in the building, including an Armory-run art gallery, a folk-dance company and the Conservatory of Puppetry Arts.

Scott Ward, Armory executive director, says other performing groups wanted to move into the warehouse. But he was struck by "the sheer energy, the sheer ambition" of the Furious leaders--along with a mild-mannered politeness that Ward says belies their hard-edged name. "They demonstrated that they meant what they said they were going to do."

The Furious founders kept their remodeling expenses low--about $10,000--by bargain hunting and doing the work themselves. The Pasadena Playhouse contributed used theater seats. Hennessy, armed with experience from a college course in costume-making, and with a sewing machine bought at a garage sale, stitched remnants into the 15-foot-long black velour curtains that serve as walls cordoning off the performing space from the rest of the warehouse.

She spilled blood doing it, skewering her left index finger just as the job was nearly done. An X-ray of the broken-off needle point that lodged in Hennessy's finger will be part of the lobby decor, the Furious founders say--proof that blood and tears, as well as sweat, went into the making of their theater.

The company has set a lineup of plays it thinks will brand Furious Theatre as something distinctive on the L.A. scene.

After "Saturday Night at the Palace" will be another U.S. premiere: "Noise," by British playwright Alex Jones. It depicts a confrontation between a young couple who are expecting a baby and trying to get ahead in life, and the slacker in the apartment next door who blasts them with techno music. The season ends in September with the company's first attempt at a classic: J.M. Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World."

Manke sees adventure--and risk--in the Furious programming approach. "Starting with a premiere of an unknown work--that's really hard for an audience who doesn't know anything about the company or the play. It's a big hurdle, a big challenge. But on the other hand, it's very exciting."

With marriages and long-standing friendships as their glue, the Furious founders think they have the staying power to make their venture work.

Leaning against the ladder she was using to hang the stage lights, Vonessa Martin recalled a recent debate over group finances that got a bit heated.

"Someone can be snappy, but it washes away--like with a brother and sister," she said. "We have become unconditional."

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"SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PALACE," Armory Northwest, 965 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. Dates: Fridays-Sundays, 8:30 p.m., including a performance tonight. Ends May 19. Price: $15. Phone: (818) 679-8854.

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Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer.

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