Poking fun and sharing 'The Pain'

If you customize your latte at Starbucks, choke up at images of the Obamas from election night and TiVo at least one show on PBS featuring British accents, playwright Bruce Norris has you in his sights.

After successful runs in New York, London, Chicago and Boston, Norris' wicked satire of blue-state family values, "The Pain and the Itch," opens Saturday in a co-production between Pasadena's Furious Theatre Company and Theatre @ Boston Court. With an elaborate set, production-specific videos and a central role for a 4-year-old, "Pain" required the combined resources of two theater companies known for risky programming.

Sometimes it takes a village to offend liberals.

"Pain" initially appears benign. Thirtysomething marrieds Clay and Kelly have invited the taciturn Mr. Hadid for a meal in their tastefully affluent home. The evening slowly devolves as the family's all-organic, socially conscious facade starts to crack in front of their guest. Imagine "Stuff White People Like" on a bender.

In Boston Court's arctic rehearsal space on a recent night, Brad Price, as Clay, and Kevin Vavasseur, as Mr. Hadid, block an awkward moment. Vavasseur, wearing a skullcap and speaking with a slight African accent, considers the weathered family dinner table.

"It is easy to fix. If you were to use the sandpaper? . . . And then you use the beeswax. In this way, you bring out the pattern in the grain."

Price, the careful host: "Well. But. You know. It's distressed."

Vavasseur: "But you could fix it."

Price: "No, I mean, it's supposed to look like that."

Pause.

Vavasseur, deadpan: "Ahhhhh."

"The play makes fun of the majority of the people who go to theater," says Scott Lowell, who plays Clay's brother, Cash, a sardonic plastic surgeon. "It's brave enough -- and funny enough -- to do that."

Norris also embeds a puzzle in "Pain" -- a mystery involving a half-eaten loaf of almond bread and the rash that inspires the title. The result is a classic exercise in misdirection. The characters -- and the audience -- spend most of the show looking the wrong way. In part that's because Norris gives you plenty of eye candy: The play's setting is a two-story urban home featuring "expensive modern decor" and "a colossally large TV."

Furious Theatre, in residence at the intimate, low-ceilinged Carrie Hamilton Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse, knew it didn't have the right venue to stage the play. "You need to be able to give the impression of wealth," observes "Pain" director and Furious artistic director Damaso Rodriguez. "In an older, black box space, something is lost."

Rodriguez approached Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti, co-artistic directors at Boston Court, about working together on the piece. Considering a shorter season because of financial pressures, Boston Court jumped at the idea of a co-production. The companies have long admired each other's bold aesthetic.

Furious brings a track record of tackling tonally challenging dark comedies, such as "Back of the Throat" (racial profiling) and "Hunter Gatherers" (cannibalism), on a shoestring budget. Boston Court, known for conceptual pieces like "Courting Vampires," which featured a set made entirely of filing cabinets, offers the performance space and infrastructure necessary to pull off Norris' send-up of American entitlement.

"It's both a blessing and a bit of a challenge," admits Kubzansky, referring to the $5.5-million space, the gift of Pasadena resident Z. Clark Branson. "We're a 99-seat, Equity waiver house like any other. Directors see the building and get extremely excited about the finances they think we have. They're quickly dismayed by the realities of our budgets."

What Boston Court does have is state-of-the-art facilities and the staff to run them, including a full-time technical director, a stage with an 18-foot span from floor to grid, and the same type of sound system used by Cirque du Soleil (a trade-out with Level Control Systems, a company that uses the theater to demonstrate its product).

"Pain" calls not only for a high-end set but features a toddler-age character central to the plot. The producers double-cast the role of Kayla, Clay and Kelly's daughter, with Olivia Aaron and Ava Feldman, both of whom are older than the character they play.

Child actors bring their own set of issues, and Rodriguez, himself the father of two, did considerable research on how to proceed responsibly. But he didn't anticipate certain barriers. "Kayla is subject to the itch of the title," explains Rodriguez. "Even though this character is 4 years old, she's experiencing some potty training regression. The Huggies she has to wear become a bone of contention in the play. Well, Olivia and Ava are very much beyond potty training. When the Huggies first came out during rehearsal, they made faces: You mean we have to wear these? So in a show of solidarity, all the adult actors put on Huggies too. Most people could only get them over one leg. But it set the girls at ease."

Did Rodriguez also get down with a diaper? "I left that to the cast."

Boston Court provides certain amenities for the youngest performers. Their parents can observe rehearsal on a video monitor in the lobby, and there is an additional space for the kids to drill their blocking (which involves fighting, tickling, and silently handing the adult characters props that are clues to the play's secret). Often, though, the girls keep a close eye on the action. As Price and Vavasseur rehearse the distressed dinner table bit, Olivia watches with a Zen focus that would impress Phil Jackson. Already a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, she enters the scene exactly on cue. Sitting near the prop table, Lowell smiles. "Clearly, her parents forced her into this."

But the actor admits "it's a different dynamic when you're rehearsing with kids. There's a big fight in the second act between my character and Clay. We really go at it. I looked down at one point and there's this little girl staring me right in the eye. It was kind of shocking. I think the playwright is interested in exactly that moment -- he puts Kayla right there to make you uncomfortable. The play is really all about what's happening to this child while all the adults are behaving like worse children."

Then there's the small matter of the porn video that keeps turning up on the giant flat-screen TV as little Kayla tries to watch cartoons. After talk of licensing existing material, the producers decided to make their own movies to satisfy the demands of the script. Furious member Doug Newell, the production sound designer drafted into becoming the videographer, storyboarded a clown cartoon easily enough, but "the challenge was to make a porn video that people don't pay that much attention to. You have to get what it is immediately, but it has to be boring enough to keep the focus on the live performers on stage."

Everyone has been anxious to see the results, but Newell isn't worried. "We could definitely put this material on prime-time TV," he insists.

As the two-story set slowly takes over the stage, Boston Court hums with anticipation, and there's a palpable sense of energy about a show that represents a departure for both companies.

"We tend toward highly conceptual design, so 'Pain' is one of our more realistic sets," Kubzansky says. "The number of props for this play is insane. Also we don't do tons of comedies. 'Pain' is funny and horrifying -- it targets the ways in which people believe they're being good while actually being complicit in terrible things."

Kubzansky sees co-productions as a model more companies could explore, given current recession challenges: "To me, there's even more of a need to tell stories in difficult times. One of the ways you don't stop the storytelling is to share resources. This co-production allowed us to solve a pressing financial issue with further creativity."

As in, to mount a play that goes after the audiences that consider themselves most open-minded. "We had a run-through a couple nights ago and there was definitely a weird tension," Lowell says. "You could sense people thinking, 'Is it OK to laugh at this?' They were checking in with their own political correctness. With this play, you either really like it or you hate it. I don't think there will be too many people saying, 'Yeah, it was just all right.' "

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'The Pain and the Itch'

Where: Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 23.

Price: $27 to $32

Contact: (626) 683-6883

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