April 24, 2003 


THE WICKED STAGE and the gag reel


by Rob Kendt


Christianity and the theatre are not two topics you'd expect to talk about on the noisy, bustling exhibit floor of Showbiz Expo, the L.A. Convention Center's annual gear-fest, where one can survey the latest digital editing software or production rental equipment. But that's the place where, in 1995, I wandered the floor in the company of David Schall, then the producing director and publicist for Actors Co-op, the theatre company run by and for Christian actors on the property of Hollywood Presbyterian Church.


I recalled this unlikely conversation last week--Easter Week, appropriately enough--because of the unexpected sad news that Schall died the previous weekend of a massive heart attack, just an hour before the opening of the Co-op's new production of Uncle Vanya. He was a mere 53. I'm told he'd enjoyed the show's two previews and particularly a last bit of pre-opening rehearsal under the direction of the Fountain Theatre's Simon Levy. "He was doing stuff he'd never done before," said one Actors Co-op member. "He was very excited about the work he was doing." He was off to a nearby Mayfair Market for a pre-show salad when he reportedly pulled over, looked both ways, and quietly put his head back. The TV show The Guardian was shooting across the way, and two on-set cops observed Schall's graceful exit--otherwise, Co-op members say, they might not have known where David had gone.


My stroll with David eight years ago through booths of camera cranes and video monitors came about because I'd asked him to speak on a Showbiz Expo panel I was hosting called "Getting the Word Out: Maximizing Your Play's Press." In my short time at the head of Back Stage West I'd been impressed by his ingratiating, courtly courting of the media, particularly given his theatre company's unique mission. (The other panelists included the L.A. Times' Don Shirley, the Taper's Nancy Hereford, and two publicists who've since departed from the L.A. theatre scene, Rick Miramontez and Ellen Friedberg.) He talked about how Actors Co-op's first few productions were dismissed by critics for being too overtly religious--he particularly relished Steven Leigh Morris' early dis of one play as "militant Christian propaganda"--and how the company realized it needed to change its approach if it was to be taken seriously. Its mission became to produce plays "that celebrate the positive aspects of humanity, exploring such themes as redemption, healing, hope, and forgiveness." Over the years, the Co-op has assayed a wide range of plays within that mandate--from an award-bedecked production of Terra Nova in 1997 to last year's lauded Fools, from the Diane Venora-directed Seagull in 2000 to the current Vanya. I recall fondly its 1994 production of Into the Woods, as good a 99-Seat Sondheim as I've seen on L.A. stages, and especially its hit '94 production of The 1940's Radio Hour, in which Schall played the show's avuncular announcer with perfect period slickness; he was a showbiz sharpie, but there was a touch of lovable Frank Morgan bluster about him. And the stage snow blowing outside the "studio" convinced me, for moments at a time, that I'd been transported.


Theatre can do that, which is why for years I've told myself, with a touch of defensiveness, that the theatre has become my church: my ritual gathering with a community of believers (for what are theatregoers but believers in the theatre? Few are casual walk-ins) to share the same space for a few hours and be enlightened, moved, challenged, even entertained. The defensiveness comes because I am a member of a church, Hope Lutheran in Hollywood, to which I am too often a stranger. (It's not a showbiz church, though Barbara Passolt sings in the choir and Ron Dennis has been a member.) Those late Saturday nights at the theatre "church" tend to wreck my Sunday mornings. Determined to wreck my Sunday mornings for the foreseeable future is the return of The Strip, the Evidence Room's late-night serial, every Saturday at 11 p.m., for which I've again signed on as a musician. Writers Justin Tanner, Patty Scanlon, and Hugh Palmer have returned, along with some of the favorite characters from last year's long Strip run--Brian Newkirk's flaming Stevie, Tad Coughenour's Teutonic fashionista Romeo, Kevin Costigan's plug-dumb porn star Rail Splitter, and the irreplaceable Laurel Green as foulmouthed 8-year-old Sunshine. New to the mix with a narrative called "American Nympho" is Michael Sargent, the pulp-culture-surfing savant whose plays tend to be disarmingly straight-faced genre parodies. "Nympho" has a Russ Meyer/Valley of the Dolls/soft-porn sensibility, with Liz Davies as a breathless ditz who can't get enough and Keythe Farley as her cop husband, scheming to satisfy them both. Farley--Actors' Gangster, co-author of Bat Boy: The Musical, and busy animation voiceover director/teacher--is also, I've learned, an ordained Presbyterian elder; he directs worship at that great old battleship on Wilshire and Western, the Wilshire Presbyterian Church. The father of two critters with costume designer Ann Closs-Farley, Keythe can obviously get by on less sleep than some of us.


Speaking of the Gang and religious themes, up next on the mainstage is Brian Kulick's take on the medieval Mystery Plays, which tell Biblical stories as folk dramas. Farley said he thinks the production might bring back some of the Gang's old hands, some of whom have been on unofficial hiatus in the past year. Tom Fitzpatrick, seen at the reopening of The Strip, was considering a part. (And why not Jack Black, also glimpsed at the reopening? This Gangster of yore may have his plate full with those big Hollywood movies and that band of his.) Incidentally, last year Angelenos were supposed to see a contemporary take on the Mystery Plays via Cornerstone Theater Company, which signed up the playwriting/screenwriting priest Bill Cain (Standup Tragedy, Nothing Sacred) to adapt the medieval texts as part of Cornerstone's project with Catholic immigrant communities. Cain, though, objected to what he saw as anti-Christian bias in Peter Howard's play Zones, and withdrew. The immigrant project, staged in and around the Cathedral of St. Vibiana's last summer, became the indelible Crossings, in which various writers--including Howard, with a heartbreaking Book of Ruth-based piece--told Catholic immigrant stories using Biblical analogies.


A hit at the Gang's El Centro space is Progressive Chain Bowling (through Apr. 26), which uses a beguilingly deadpan framing device: that we're watching the theatrical "thesis statements" of graduates of the San Fernando Valley Life Studies Institute, a fictional self-help group that's trumpeted in the program and promoted by the ticket table. I loved everything to do with the framing device--including an onstage table of audio equipment, from which cast members switch on quirky cues--but found the actual geek-love-triangle story within the frame too thin to sustain interest. The performers are all smirkingly adorable--Ken Palmer, Elizabeth Dement (who suggests a young Cheryl Hines), and the gangly author himself, Haynes Brooks. The sport of the title--a Brooks-conceived notion, in which teams move down a lane after each frame, playing havoc with bowling strategy and score--had never been tried until this week. As Brooks told BSW critic Jenelle Riley recently, the cast tried it out at the cozy eight-lane Montrose Bowl, rented for the occasion by a curious theatregoer who had approached Brooks and "wondered if it was a real sport or not, and was kind of embarrassed to ask. I explained I just made it up," said Brooks, "but he wanted to do it." The match went down on Apr. 22, after presstime. Last week, Brooks effused in anticipation: "It's sort of cool, because a sport is born. Nobody knows what it will be like until we try it."