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Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ returns to battle

What could be more quintessentially convivial than a Greenwich Village bartender chatting with a regular customer? That’s how John Farmanesh-Bocca and Jack Stehlin came to know each other.

Now, at a remove of 15 years and 3,000 miles, they’ve reunited to put on a play that is one of the least convivial dramas ever written: “Titus Andronicus.”

With Farmanesh-Bocca as adaptor and director, Stehlin plays the titular Roman warrior as a traumatized American general back from fighting not the Goths but the Taliban. William Shakespeare’s double-barreled revenge tragedy comes already stocked with rape, limb-shearings, head-loppings and an unspeakable climactic culinary triumph. By bringing it all back home, this joint production of Farmanesh-Bocca’s Not Man Apart — Physical Theatre Ensemble and Stehlin’s Circus Theatricals may strike audiences at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as even more harrowing than the Bard’s original.

It’s titled “Titus Redux” to signify the extreme liberties taken with the text and its waking-nightmare staging. Although the bulk of the lines are straight from Shakespeare, Farmanesh-Bocca, who also plays Titus’ nemesis, Aaron, has invented flashback scenes that return the general to the heat of combat.

Stehlin recently finished four seasons on Showtime’s “Weeds,” ending with the death of his character, Roy Till, a tightly wound gay federal narcotics agent. He shares top-billing with Brenda Strong, who plays Mary Alice, the mostly unseen narrator on " Desperate Housewives.” She’s playing the formidable Queen Tamora, her first stage role since starring in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Much Ado About Nothing” seven years ago at the Montana Shakespeare Company.

Margeaux J. London, who plays the piteous Lavinia, may not be a familiar name, but as Jennifer Landon she won three consecutive Daytime Emmy Awards on “As the World Turns.” She says her name change, which starts with this show, is not meant to distance herself from her father, Michael Landon, who died when she was 7, but has personal resonance. The “Bonanza” and “Little House on the Prairie” star was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, but his daughter says he considered London as a professional name before picking Landon.

Not Man Apart emphasizes dance as a key feature of its experimental approach, and dancers’ knee pads are mandatory for Stehlin, London and two young actors who play Tamora’s sons. The director also interpolates songs, with Graham Nash’s “Our House” serving much the same function as “God Bless America” did in “The Deer Hunter.” Nine video interludes help set the tone and drive the narrative and characterizations.

In the most radical change from Shakespeare’s original, in which Tamora begins as Titus’ prisoner of war and quickly becomes the empress of Rome, Farmanesh-Bocca envisions the two characters as an American husband and wife. “Titus Redux” becomes the story of a marriage that goes horribly wrong and an attempt to grapple with what a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq is doing not only to military families but also to America as a whole.

Farmanesh-Bocca, brimming with friendly energy even after a full day’s rehearsal, said he began with the idea that “a country that gets divided, that has mistrust, begins to devour itself.” And in today’s fragmented America, it bothered him that most citizens live as if the nation were not at war. “We’ve been asked to disassociate from it and go about our lives and purchase things, and forget about blood being spilled,” said the director, whose older brother is a military doctor who has served in Iraq. To remedy that, “I’m taking [audiences] on a journey of madness with Titus. This is essentially a nightmare.”

The show springs from a chance reconnection between Farmanesh-Bocca and Stehlin at a Westside health club.

They’d met in the mid-1990s, when Stehlin was near the end of a long run of Shakespearean supporting roles for New York’s Public Theater. There, his credits included a 1981 “Henry IV, Part I” with Mandy Patinkin as Hotspur and, lower in the credits, a bunch of up-and-comers including John Goodman, Val Kilmer and Stehlin’s Juilliard classmate, Kevin Spacey. Stehlin went on to play opposite Kevin Kline in “Henry V,” and with Al Pacino and Martin Sheen in “Julius Caesar,” while winning leading roles on regional stages.

Farmanesh-Bocca, who had just graduated from New York University’s theater program and was working at a bar near the Public, was all ears as they talked about the acting life and actor training.

But Stehlin thought he was near the end of his run as a stage actor. In 1995, he moved to Los Angeles. He was 39 and tired of the hand-to- mouth life. “I’d sworn off theater. I was more broke than I’d ever been,” and he aimed to remedy that by jumping into film and television. But when he got to L.A. he attended a play reading at the Hudson Theatre. Its operator was looking for an artistic director and asked Stehlin to meet with the producing director, Jeannine Wisnosky. They fell in love, married two years later and Circus Theatricals has been one of their mom-and-pop projects ever since — the others being three daughters, ages 6 to 10.

The company’s name honors Stehlin’s family heritage. He comes from three generations of big top performers, the Colleanos, who were featured in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. Now based at the Hayworth Theatre, Circus Theatricals has a foundation in Shakespeare, Moliere and Chekhov, along with a steady mix of new plays and revivals of contemporary works, such as recent stagings of Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out” and Davey Holmes’ “More Lies About Jerzy,” about which a Times reviewer wrote that Stehlin was “quite simply, luminescent” as a scandal-ridden novelist patterned after Jerzy Kosinski.

But Stehlin also had a strong taste of avant-garde director’s theater in the late 1980s, performing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., under such luminaries as Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis, Andrei Serban and Richard Foreman. When he reconnected with Farmanesh-Bocca, he was ready to enlist on a joint venture back into experimental territory.

The younger man, who grew up in Monterey County, had led a bicoastal professional existence, teaching at NYU while also establishing himself as a leading actor and director for the Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel. In 2005, Farmanesh-Bocca finished a postgraduate directing fellowship at Juilliard, then decided L.A. was ripe for experimental theater.

No Man Apart got on the map in 2007, with “Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath,” an award winner at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. “Pericles Redux,” Farmanesh-Bocca’s humorous adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” won more acclaim at Edinburgh, then played to strong reviews and full houses last summer as a rental engagement at the Douglas, where a $50,000 grant from the L.A.-based Dax Foundation helped pay the bills.

Stehlin showed up on the last night of the run; his former barkeep had invited him to the show. He went backstage after the performance and told Farmanesh-Bocca that they should work together. With Stehlin in mind, the director began adapting “Titus Andronicus” last summer.

While talking in one of the back rows at the Douglas, Stehlin got a note to call his agent. Post-"Weeds,” he says, “I have a lot of action in TV now,” but offers will have to wait until “Titus Redux” finishes its two-week run. “I passed up a couple of things in the last week. I can’t be distracted and do this stuff, because it’s so challenging. I have to be here and be on top of it.”

Stehlin agrees with Farmanesh-Bocca that the show’s telescoping of Shakespearean ancient Rome into troubled 2010 America aims for something bigger than topicality or political commentary. “I like the abstract connection to the modern dilemma we’re all in. If artists are good for anything, it’s to explore the question of what war is good for.”

mike.boehm@latimes.com


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