On a Monday afternoon during tech week, with the 2012 presidential election less than two months away, a decidedly avant-garde director of opera and theater and the leader of arguably the most politically conscious theater company in Los Angeles are sitting around and talking about”¦
“¦a respite Â from the weighty stuff?
“The time period is so precarious and nervous-making and the Actors’ Gang is known for its political consciousness,” says director David Schweizer of the rationale behind staging a revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Actors’ Gang. “There was the decision to do something spirit-lifting and in a sense escapist to just help people through this moment.”
Uh, Mr. Robbins. Yeah, you, the guy behind the programming of fare like The Exonerated, The Guys, et al, does Schweizer speak true?
“I wouldn’t say “˜escapist’ because I think there’s enough thematically in the piece that is relevant,” says Tim Robbins, who founded the Gang 30 years ago out of UCLA.Â “But we have been doing 1984 and [a workshop of] Heart of Darkness. We’re heading into an election season and I don’t want to do a satire right now. It’s not about the current political situation. It’s irrelevant to me.Â There are larger issues, larger stories to tell than just elections. This period of time is a time when people really do need to laugh.”
And indeed both men laugh quite a bit. Longtime friends and collaborators on three previous Gang productions since 1994, Robbins and Schweizer chuckle and occasionally roll their eyes over memories, “can you believe this” kinds of circumstances and shared reflections. Both men have roots in New York and model their theatrical aesthetics on the traditions of European performance. Both agree that Los Angeles has long enjoyed an unfair reputation as a lightweight theater town, even as innovators started developing new works here. Schweizer, though still based in New York, keeps a Venice beach pad and says he loves it whenever a gig brings him west. Robbins, of course, has kept has theatrical company here for 30 years and not simply because of the proximity to the film industry.
They’re a somewhat mutt and jeff-ish pair: the silver-haired Schweizer in a black shirt and skinny tie over hot neon green pants, Robbins also graying but still baby-faced at 53. Following this interview, he will attend his board meeting in shorts and a casual button-down shirt.
A hotshot Yale Drama School graduate and protégé of Robert Brustein, Schweizer inaugurated the Public Theater’s Lincoln Center space with a radically re-imagined production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida for Joseph Papp. While still in his 20s, he became the go-to director of world premieres by the likes of Sam Shepard, Michael Weller and Albert Innaurato. He arrived in LA in the late 1970s, directed Len Jenkin’s Kid Twist for the Mark Taper Forum’s Playworks festival in 1979 (at Hollywood’s Las Palmas Theatre) and ran the Taper Lab in 1979-80.
Schweizer eventually stumbled upon the work being produced by Robbins, who founded the Actors’ Gang in 1981 while still a student. Even in its infancy, Schweizer recalls, the Gang’s work was bold. He saw the Gang’s inaugural production in 1982 of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King, performed at midnight at the Pilot Theatre — an appropriately titled venue, as the other production sharing the space consisted of three one-acts that were unproduced sitcom episodes. Two years later, he saw the Gang’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the downtown Night House, then operated by Schweizer’s friend Tony Abatemarco and LA Theatre Works.Â Robbins directed both productions. For Dream, Robbins also played Theseus and Oberon and designed the set.
“I saw their work and saw what they were doing, and the big kind of open receptivity to work like this that happened to some extent through the whole event of the 1984 Olympics [Arts Festival],” says Schweizer. “It was kind of like it woke the community up with this kind of theater work. Later on in the late 1980s, when I actually started to do things with the company, I already knew that at least for me it would be a really great match, and it turned out to be reciprocal.”
“There is nothing worse than going to see theater that is shy,” adds Robbins. “The actors are shy, the director is shy.Â It’s OK to reach for this kind for epic theatricality with pieces like this. What I love about David’s work is that there’s such a great theatricality to it, but there”˜s also a great courage in trusting that theatricality.”
Theatricality was certainly on the menu in 1994 when Schweizer and co-directors Brian Kulick and Oskar Eustis christened the Gang’s new space on Santa Monica Boulevard (now the Open Fist Theatre) with The Oresteia. Schweizer helmed part three of the trilogy, Orestes, a Charles Mee adaptation that featured Alan Mandell, Shannon Holt, an unknown Jack Black and a filmed appearance by Robbins as Apollo, the resident deus ex machina.
“I was fabulous,” deadpans Robbins.
“I like to say “˜batting cleanup,’” agrees Schweizer.
A year later, Schweizer returned to stage his own adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a five-actor production that had originated at the Warsaw Studio TheatreÂ and was originally performed in Polish. Through a Taper commission, Schweizer produced the first English-language version, staged at the Actors’ Gang in 1995 with Black, Ned Bellamy, Molly Bryant, Jason Reed and Clare Wren. Every bit a theatrical free-for-all complete with disco dancers and crazed trolls, Peer Gynt had Black, Bellamy and Reed tossing the title role back and froth “like a baton in a relay” according to then LA Times theater critic Laurie Winer, who added that the production will not so much “beg your indulgence” as “just steal it and run off with it, possibly on a ceramic pig.” Schweizer has remounted the production multiple times at theaters around the country.
With Oscar Wilde’s Salome in 1998, Schweizer reassembled previous company members Patti Tippo, VJ Foster and Jason Reed in a production that Robbins says he can still visualize becauseÂ “it was so outrageous and so beautifully acted.” Deliberately over-the-top with Schweizer’s unique take on Wildean decadence (Two Talmudic Jews sharing a single gown? Dog-collar wearing slaves, anyone?), this grand-guignol Salome went from “from utter silliness and camp to total terror, which is a great thing to try to accomplish in one evening,” says the director.
“One foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel,” agrees Robbins.
No such promises on The Rivals, a production which celebrates a 30th anniversary season that will include the return of many Gang alumni. Among the 11-person cast of the comedy which opens this weekend are core company members such as Foster, Steven M. Porter, Brian T. Finney and Tippo as the word-mangling dowager Mrs. Malaprop. Sheridan’s comedy finds a group of gentlemen, ladies, servants and soldiers getting into all sorts of financial and romantic entanglements in the town of Bath. Will Captain Jack Absolute win the heart of Lydia Languish who is somehow hung up on the lowly ensign Beverley (who happens to be Jack in disguise)? Can Faulkland get over his insecurities and accept that Julia really loves him? Will Mrs. Malaprop win the heart of Sir Lucius O’Trigger or is she forever to live under the impression that “men are such Bavarians”?
By the time he wrote The School for Scandal two years later, Sheridan was a considerably more polished playwright who knew the technique better. And the British stage was past the Restoration and well on the way toward the types of comedies of manners that would define Oscar Wilde. The Rivals, while staged less often than Scandal, nonetheless remains a popular play, says Schweizer, and one with still contemporary resonance.
“The play has a wonderful kind of rabid quality,” says the director, who staged a version at Baltimore’s Center Stage exactly a year ago.Â “The writer was a huckster. He was making his life up as it went along and he needed money, he needed to get out of some scrapes. He kind of threw that into his idea of doing a play. The energy of the play is very late-18th-century in terms of making it up as it goes along. “˜Am I gonna marry this chick for her money? Am I gonna hold out? Am I gonna get the next one? Oh but I sort of like her.’ There’s an oddly contemporary feeling in some of these dealings between the sexes in some of these transactions that go on.”
“The power that men have and the power that women have, this whole thing about money vs. romance, in a culture that features reality shows like The Bachelor,” says Schweizer. “There’s this entertainment in putting people together for mutual advantage that has somehow captured the attention of the viewing public who relax watching them. This is like a version of that but with much more consequence and much trickier.”
Schweizer’s production for Center Stage had the full complement of big gowns and perukes which likely will not fly at the Gang, particularly as Robbins hopes the production will ultimately join the company’s touring repertoire. The Gang production will, Schweizer says, be set in “the dream 1775, a loose sort of eclectic dreamy vision of this period.” Costumes and music will take similarly “huge eclectic liberties.”
“I think my statement of the time of the piece in the program is “˜now if now was 1775′,” says Schweizer.
And, once again, he laughs.
The Rivals, Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Opens Saturday.Â Thu-Sat 8 pm. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. Closes Nov. 17. Tickets: $25. www.theactorsgang.com. 310-838-4264.Print