Bringing serious theater to the home of glitz

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The creative team at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles - one of America's top regional theaters - prides itself on taking the time to plumb the deeper fault lines of our day. If it is accurate in its choices for the theater's coming 32nd season, the role of women in this post-feminist era is weighing heavily on today's collective cultural consciousness.

Beginning with a new version of the Stephen Sondheim musical review "Putting It Together," headlined by Carol Burnett, and concluding with a world premire, "The First Picture Show," the plays celebrate the contributions of women as both artist and muse. The season finale is a commissioned work, which artistic director Gordon Davidson says reflects a key interest of his own.

The piece touches on the early days of the film industry, the era of silent movies. Mr. Davidson points out that many of film's early pioneers were women who helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of a new art form. "When sound came in, these women all disappeared," he says. "Many people don't know this because the memory has been erased."

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Significant common themes have emerged in this season's works. In Paula Vogel's 1997 Pulitzer prize-winning "How I Learned to Drive" the heroine must face an incestuous relationship as she comes of age.

And an all-women showcase, Ellen McLaughlin's "Tongue of the Bird," is anchored by a tough search-and-rescue pilot. But director Davidson says that assembling a season begins with searching out the best works - not pre-identifying a theme. If one emerges, says Davidson, "it must be touching something in the culture."

Commissioning new works that investigate deeper cultural themes has been the modus operandi of the Taper during its three-decades-plus under Davidson.

"It embraces the whole multicultural experience that is L.A.," observes Tom Bradac, chairman of the theater department at Chapman University in Orange County. "When the Taper started, it had no reputation. If you look at the variety and amount of work done ... it now rivals New York.

"The Taper is one of the most important regional theaters in the country," agrees Ms. McLaughlin, the playwright, who also teaches at Yale University's School of Drama in New Haven, Conn. The theater has had an especially tough challenge coming out from the shadow of the film and TV industry here, she says. But "there's a deep hunger for something other than what gets all the attention."

Indeed, observes playwright Ifa Bayeza, co-founder of the African Grove Institute for the Arts, the entertainment capital of the world is an ideal place in which to incubate new work. "L.A. is in a unique situation of having so many artists and talents to call upon who can shift gears ... to get back to their first love" of theater, she says. "And then these people can go back and feed the health of TV and film."

While many who call theater their first love undertake film and TV work to survive, Davidson says, he "would like to change that stepchild thinking. I'm an 'and' person, not an 'either or.' "

Over the years, the Taper has collaborated with many filmmakers and TV studios and has just struck a deal to develop scripts with the cable channel Showtime. Says Davidson, "I'm only sorry there aren't more theaters."

The Taper has had a hand in developing a long list of productions that have gone on to success elsewhere, including "Angels in America," "The Kentucky Cycle," "Jelly's Last Jam," "Children of a Lesser God," "Terra Nova," "The Shadow Box," "Zoot Suit," "Burn This," and "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine."

* The Taper season, which runs through Sept. 1999, features "Putting It Together" (through Nov. 29), "Tongue of a Bird" (Jan. 14-Feb. 7), "How I Learned to Drive" (Feb. 25-April 4), "House Arrest" (May 2-June 13), "The Captain's Tiger" (June 27-July 25), and "The First Picture Show," (Aug. 12-Sept. 19). For ticket information call (213) 628-2772.

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