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Stage, screen, et Al

Times Staff Writer

AL PACINO likes layers. A week before the first performance of “Salome” at the Wadsworth Theatre in West L.A., he drifts up and down the dark aisles like a wayward cloud formation of black and gray garments -- baggy pants, a couple of untucked shirts and a droopy blazer, his smiling face floating above them in Cheshire cat fashion.

“Suicide,” he says. “Murder. Sex.”

Pacino is ticking off the overlapping elements that keep him coming back to this odd script and the role of Herod, king of Judea. Less than three years ago, he was doing this on Broadway.

“Love,” he continues. “Betrayal. Religion ... It’s Jerry Springer with rhyme.”

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Actually, it doesn’t rhyme much, and in this 90-minute “presentation with music” -- some would call it a staged reading with bonus features -- most of the violence is offstage. But Pacino can’t resist the rigors of live theater, even when marking his 66th birthday Tuesday. And he has more elements at play than the nasty plot and stark look of “Salome.”

Along with 16 actors and two dozen crew members who will face these 1,100-plus seats, Pacino has a documentary team rolling on just about everything and everyone in the building. They’re aiming for release in time for Cannes next year, yet the film’s exact nature remains obscure.

“The working title is ‘Salomaybe?’ ” says Robert Fox, one of the play’s producers.

“There’s a lot of stuff that Al’s not telling us,” says Barry Navidi, producer of the film.

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This film, whatever it is, will almost surely be seen by more people than will “Salome” during its monthlong L.A. run. So here in the Wadsworth, there are questions: Which is the tail? Which is the dog? Will Los Angeles enjoy misbehaving Bible characters as much as Pacino does? And -- he isn’t catching a cold, is he?

The king hasn’t said. Or rather, he’s not spilling specifics. As a reporter dogs him through four days of rehearsals and one surreal foray into the real world, he talks plenty.

“The issues of the play are vast and interesting,” he says.

The film, he says, should be driven and enriched by language in the same way the best plays are -- “the specialty of language, the kind of feeling you get when you hear repartee that ignites and transcends. It just interests me, to see if I can do it,” says Pacino.

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“Man does not live by Oscar alone,” he says.

“Am I filibustering?” he asks. (Who would say yes?)

Did he get a chance to recharge batteries between his last film project and this? Pacino waves a hand at the stage.

“This,” he says, “is recharging batteries.”

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Six days to curtain

IT’S a blustery afternoon outside. Inside, the company is multitasking.

“Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full?” says a voice that might be God’s, resounding through the theater. It’s Kevin Anderson, who plays the imprisoned Jokanaan (a.k.a. John the Baptist), working with the sound guys on just how much portentous echo to give his bursts of prophecy.

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Jessica Chastain, the willowy young redhead who plays Salome -- she’s just two years out of Juilliard’s drama program, yet sufficiently well schooled to dodge questions about her age -- is up front, investigating movement options and bantering with the director.

Behind her, composer Yukio Tsuji, who will contribute a live tone poem underneath the action as he did on the show’s Broadway run, is testing flute sounds.

Pacino enters from the lobby, headed toward a conversation with a lighting guy and carrying his customary triple macchiato. He pauses to chat with two of the producers and a reporter, the cameraman and boom microphone advance, and suddenly there’s a second show going on in the theater’s back row.

“It sort of feeds you, having more obstacles,” he says. “It’s trying to break through those shackles of preciousness.”

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“I’m not in charge,” says Estelle Parsons. She’s the director.

“I work with Al,” she says. “He has wonderful ideas. Well, sometimes they’re terrible.”

Parsons is one of those wise, cheerful 78-year-olds who don’t much care what anybody thinks. She won a supporting actress Oscar for her role as a Barrow Gang member in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” She was among the original cast of the “Today” show, served as artistic director of the Actors Studio for five years, and played Roseanne’s mom on television for close to 10. She and Pacino have collaborated on stage projects for the last decade.

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When he’s out of the room and she’s slouching in the third row and barking up at the stage, she’s utterly in charge. When Pacino is in the room, they negotiate. While the cast watches.

“That,” says one of the actors, “I can’t begin to understand.”

Technically, it’s a simple show: just one act and a handful of props to accent about 70 pages of strange and elegant dialogue. Oscar Wilde wrote it nearly 115 years ago in French, then oversaw its translation into English, generously distributing moon similes among the cast. Even after the audience shows up, most of the characters will play it in street clothes, and as it begins, they’ll be glancing at scripts on music stands.

“It’s sooooo decadent,” says Parsons. “We always find something new. That isn’t always true with Shakespeare.”

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As Herod, Pacino doesn’t appear until more than 20 minutes into the show, and when he does, he is heard before he’s seen.

“Salome,” calls Pacino’s voice in three teasing, singsongy notes. This announces not only his tipsy state but his unwholesome interest in his stepdaughter, who is also his niece, who is also 14.

Over the next hour and a half -- this cast’s first full journey through the show -- Herod arcs from blowziest decadence to a sort of frontier morality, provoking more laughs than turn up in the average tragedy, toying with lines he’s had in mind for more than a decade.

“Let no king swear an oath,” Herod laments at one point. “If he keep it not, it is terrible, and if he keep it, it is terrible also.”

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“At this point, it’s in him,” says cast member Geoffrey Owens. “He’s just soaked in it.”

“One of the reasons he’s become this icon is there’s always something in his voice or his face,” says Parsons, “some signature.”

Then again, Parsons may hear Pacino more acutely than most. At the end of a run-through she calls “magnificent” but also “too spread out” -- a run-through in which Pacino’s fellow actors heard nothing amiss -- she has a question for Pacino.

Parsons: “Are you losing your voice?”

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Pacino: “Yeah.”

Parsons: “Well, then you’ve got to stop talking, that’s all.”

Pacino: “Basically, I should just shut up for a while.”

Parsons: “I think we should go home.”

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Pacino: “Why?”

Parsons: “Because it’s 10 o’clock. And if we stay, you’ll talk more.”

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In many ways, this dual project seems a sort of sequel to “Looking for Richard,” Pacino’s 1996 movie about playing Shakespeare’s Richard III. But it connects to his broader career too.

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As a Method actor, he’s long been famous for burrowing deep inside his roles. While making “Serpico” in the early 1970s, one famous but thinly sourced story goes, Pacino forgot he wasn’t a cop and tried to arrest somebody. Thirty years later, here he is climbing into Herod’s head while simultaneously climbing way, way outside him.

Instead of retreating between scenes to steep himself in Herod, Pacino offers counsel to the other actors and whispers with Parsons, Fox and Navidi. Occasionally, during pauses between Herod’s lewd advances upon Salome, Pacino takes cellphone calls from his 5-year-old twins.

Their mother, with whom the never-married Pacino is no longer romantically linked, is actress Beverly D’Angelo. To be closer to the kids during the school year, Pacino says, he moved to Los Angeles last year.

With so many roles to play inside and outside this theater, says Pacino, “I could only do this with a play I’ve done before.”

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Pacino, who spent several years onstage in New York before his portrayal of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” made him a star in 1972, has spent a good chunk of the last 20 years scraping stage work and screen work against each other like a Scout trying for sparks.

Pacino first saw this play in London in 1989, when his friend actor Steven Berkoff starred in and directed a spartan version that stressed the language. When a production succeeds as well as that one did, Pacino says, “something happens to you that’s tantamount to falling in love.”

He first did “Salome” onstage in New York in 1992. Then, working with Parsons, the Actors Studio and many of the people in this room, he did it again in 2002 and 2003, first in Brooklyn, N.Y., then Poughkeepsie, then on Broadway, with Marisa Tomei as Salome.

In his rave review, New York Times critic Ben Brantley commended the production for making “Wilde’s most arcane theatrical work feel as luridly immediate as this morning’s tabloids.” Brantley called Pacino’s Herod “a soul encased in the armor of jadedness that comes from years of exercising ruthless power.”

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Pacino and Tomei were going to bring the show to California last year, but scheduling fell apart.

“ ‘Salome’ for Al is like the never-ending tour for Bob Dylan,” says Fox. “He’s looking at the same material in a different way.”

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Five days to curtain

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PACINO shuffles in and takes the throne, hoping “to find nuance.” Actress Marthe Keller, a friend of Pacino’s and his costar in “Bobby Deerfield” 29 years ago, has come to watch.

“You know what I thought yesterday?” she tells him. “Salome is Hamlet. She has the same problems with her father.”

But before Pacino can get too far with this or anything else, his cellphone rings. He steps to the lip of the stage to answer. One of the twins.

“How is Tinkerbell?” asks Pacino. “Is Tinkerbell OK?”

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Eventually, they start from the top of the play. Pacino sidles up to Parsons and offers a thought.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” says Parsons, interrupting the cast. “We’re going to try a new beginning. Al’s got an idea.”

They try it. Doesn’t work. Back to the old idea.

Soon all eyes are on Chastain, who is working out her first entrance. It seems simple enough. On cue, she steps forward from darkness. But Pacino and Parsons each have ideas, as do the lighting people. These rehearsals, the producers whisper, are far more collaborative and less structured than most.

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“Where do you want me to start speaking? That’s the question,” says Chastain, thumbs hooked into her back pockets.

“Is it possible,” Parsons asks Chastain, “that you can come in with a little different attitude?”

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Amid the darkened, mostly empty seats, a cough rings out. Pacino.

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“Don’t tell me I’m getting a cough,” he says, looking toward the ceiling. “Please, God ... I’m terrified I’m getting a cold.”

The scent of Halls cough drops is on his breath.

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Four days to curtain

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TIME for jewelry shopping. While the rest of the cast takes the day off, Pacino leads an excursion to Harry Winston on Rodeo Drive. The idea is to check out the baubles that management may lend to the production. Or rather, to be filmed checking out baubles.

Soon they’re stationed at a countertop, looking at sparkling rocks of green, purple, blue and yellow, together worth slightly more than $1 million. At the door, a security guard keeps the outside world at bay.

“This is something the actress takes off my finger,” Pacino says. “It’s the death ring. It’s very significant in the play. It represents an action that’s going to take place.”

Randy Soto, the salon director, isn’t in the habit of marketing death rings, but he plays along, and the cameraman zooms in on Pacino’s ordinary hands, ring finger size 11, and beat-up nails.

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And then Pacino, with a delinquent glint in his eye, pipes up with a question.

“This is a very nice place,” he says. But “why are we here?”

“Because you wanted the real thing,” says Fox, evenly and patiently. It’s part of his job, after all, to supply money and remain calm.

“I wanted the real thing,” Pacino repeats. “And my reason was?”

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Now Fox speaks more slowly, in the hesitant tone of a quiz-show contestant.

“That the real is better than the unreal,” he says.

Suddenly a rote exercise is inflamed with tension. The film crew doesn’t miss a minute, which is, of course, what Pacino probably had in mind all along.

“Never miss an opportunity to try things out,” Pacino told the cast the other day. Something he didn’t say then seems quite clear now: Whether you’re an actor or not, if you’re in a room with Pacino and a camera, you’re not safe.

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Three days to curtain

WITH Pacino up on the balcony taking a call, the rest of the cast gathers at the foot of the stage to talk about Salome’s dance. Parsons quizzes them on what they’ll do while Chastain is writhing and shimmying for Herod and the audience.

“They’re not going to be looking at us,” quips one of the cast, a little too quickly.

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“Bob, you do not know what they’re gonna do,” says Parsons. “Some people are so disturbed by that dance, they can’t look at it.”

Anderson, still trying voices, jumps up to a near falsetto.

“He’s going up!” whispers Parsons. “I was hoping he’d go down.” But for now she keeps mum.

As for Pacino, he seems to have three triple macchiatos in him today.

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“I connect to the role,” he says of Herod. “That’s one thing. And I’ve done it a long time too. There’s something to be said for doing a thing a lot. Because certain things, if you’re lucky, begin to come. Things that wouldn’t come earlier on.”

For years, Pacino has been telling interviewers that it was seeing the movie “The Lost Weekend,” with Ray Milland, that awakened him as a teenager to the possibilities of acting. But to illustrate his point about repetition and command, he reaches for another memory, a Frank Sinatra concert long ago. Buddy Rich was on drums, taking a solo.

“It started out he was just drumming,” says Pacino. “By the end, he was doing something else.”

Up on stage, they hit a snag. Pacino leaps up there, looking to keep things light, starts jabbering in an Asian language all his own. Later, after he’s made his point, he segues to faux French, gross German, indefensible Italian -- a bravura throwaway performance, with film crew in place.

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The hours wind down. Chastain has solved the riddle of her entrance. Anderson is huddled with the sound guys.

“I did a sort of Gregorian chant yesterday. Nobody really told me what they thought of that,” says Anderson. “Today it was more of a robotic thing.”

Pacino and his assistant take the midafternoon off to pick up the twins from school, and they return in a shiny black Lincoln Navigator at about 5 p.m. Rolling up near the lobby, the movie star throws open the passenger-side door and improvises a little scene of death by exhaustion.

As it happens, the box office is only 20 feet away, and a woman, a playgoer, is standing there. She takes in Pacino’s entrance as if she’d expected it for days.

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“Don’t die yet,” she deadpans. “Don’t die until after the 19th.” Then she turns back to the clerk and buys three tickets for the 19th.

“Thanks,” Pacino tells his public. “Thanks for that.”

The film crew misses it all.

But three days later, an honest-to-God audience shows up in the rain to fill 90% of the seats. Salome’s entry and Jokanaan’s voices go fine. Fox clocks the performance at 1 hour, 28 minutes, followed by standing and shouting. Pacino’s cold, if he ever had one, is nowhere in evidence.

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‘Salome’

Where: Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

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Ends: May 14

Price: $68 to $93

Contact: (213) 365-3500


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