Taper Offers High-Octane Performances for 34th Season

If you can't get to New York in the near future, not to worry: The Mark Taper Forum is bringing a bit of Broadway to Los Angeles. Now in its 34th season, the Taper continues to deliver high-quality, thought-provoking works to audiences. Under the artistic direction of Gordon Davidson, this season's plays include two world premieres, two West Coast premieres and the latest works from two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson and 1999 Tony Award-winner Warren Leight.

Fresh on the heels of last year's success with "Jitney," Wilson's "King Hedley II," opens the season with a bang. Replete with potent language, richly textured characters and messianic prophecies, "King Hedley II" extends the scope of the award-winning playwright's amazing cycle of works chronicling the black American experience through each decade of the 20th century.

Set in 1985 in the backyards of two tenements in Pittsburgh's Hill District, "Hedley" traces the triumphs and trials of a community facing issues of family, unemployment and crime. The play's title character, an ex-con who is at war with both his past and his present, struggles with his life, as well as a multitude of relationships. Written in Wilson's inimitable style, Hedley's efforts come to life in this drama that is also shot through with humor.

Davidson says that Wilson has won seven out of seven New York Drama Critic Awards and that Wilson's work is being presented by a group of resident regional theaters in "some sequential fashion." Davidson is proud of the fact that the Taper has been helpful in the development of Wilson's works.

"I love his writing, because he writes on big themes with ordinary people. They're not queens and kings and presidents, they're just people trying to make a life. It's never sentimental."

From tenements in the Õ80s to sex and longing in the Õ90s, "Closer," Patrick Marber's corrosively funny play is the Taper's second production. Set in London over a five-year span of the last decade, two men and two women are thrown together by chance and proceed to connect, disconnect and reconnect. If this sounds familiar, Marber's brisk, urbane language, coupled with his edgy storytelling, sheds new light on this uniquely human condition.

Winning the 1998 Olivier Award for Best Play in London where it premiered, "Closer" was also nominated for the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway. Directed by Robert Egan, who also directed Marber's "Dealer's Choice" in the Taper's 1997-98 season, "Closer" is, according to Michael Kuchwara of Associated Press, "adult entertainment in the best sense of the word."

Egan, who has been producing director at the Taper for the last 15 years, and admits to having an affinity for playwright Marber, agrees: "I think Patrick's got an incredible sort of technical formal skill, and he's talking about things that are important in the world, so I think when you have someone that has an expertise with form and a substantial content, you've got the best of both worlds.

"I'm interested in the visceral nature of the play," continues Egan, whose education in the theater includes degrees from Boston College, Stanford and Oxford, where he studied aesthetics. "It's tough materialÑabout love, and therefore, there's a great deal of material that's about sex in the play. A lot of the life of Patrick's plays is what I call 'between the cracks in the pavement.'"

"He certainly gives you enough on the page to lead you to this latent world of human behavior," opines Egan. "He's got a very honest and accurate perception of the behavior in the late 20th century and beginning of the new millenniumÑhow people approach relationships. It's very much about a paucity of skills in our ability to get closer to finding intimacy in our lives, in this case, with members of the opposite sex."

A Glimmer on the Horizon

Also a West Coast premiere is "Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine," Warren Leight's foray into the heady world of jazz. Leight, whose "Side Man" won the Tony Award last year, again mines the jazz scene with the story of Martin and Danny Glimmer, twin brothers torn apart by the music and hard-living lifestyles that once united them.

Leight's familial journey is a series of intermingling, touching riffsÑindeed, scenes that have much in common with the stimulating, sometimes heartbreaking improvisations found in jazz. Director Evan Yionoulis brings it alive in the play that was first produced as "Glimmer Brothers" at Williamstown Theatre Festival in July 1999.

While "Tuva or Bust!" was bumped from last year's season, because, as Egan says, "It's a brand new play, and for a variety of reasonsÑscheduling and playwritingÑwe decided it would be better for the play to give it a little more gestation."

Peter Parnell's play does make it to the Taper stage as the fourth offering of the season.

Inspired by Ralph Leighton's book and the writings of Richard Feynman (with Alan Alda playing the Nobel Prize-winning physics professor), "Tuva," which refers to a small republic in the former Soviet Union, abounds with tales of safecracking, gambling tips and atomic physics.

No Taper season is complete without a world premiere, and this year it's John Belluso's "The Body of Bourne," based on the brief, brilliant life of one of America's most influential intellectuals. Essayist, orator, poet and playwright Randolph Bourne became the voice of youth, idealism and progressive ideas during the cultural renaissance of the early 1900s.

Though Bourne died in 1918 at the age of 32 (a victim of the flu pandemic), he had completed three books and more than 100 essays whose themes are still relevant today. Lisa Peterson, a Taper associate artist, directs the work that was developed in the Taper's New Work Festival in 1998 and 1999. Playwright Belluso is currently on staff at the Taper as co-director of The Other Voices Project, a program dedicated to the empowerment of the disability community in the American theater.

"John has a wonderful voice and the play happens to be on a subject that will move people and enlighten them," observes Davidson. "He's disabled and the leading figure in the story is disabled. Bourne was a hunchback who wrote for a number of distinguished publications, but the public didn't know about that. He decided to do something, and was one of the early pioneers about raising the consciousness of people."

Flying Solo

The Taper's finale also promises to be special: A pairing of two artists and their solo productions, "In Real Life," by Charlayne Woodard and "Another American: Asking and Telling," by Marc Wolf, these works will play on separate evenings and rotate performances.

Woodard, who had previously won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her "Pretty Fire," performs her latest autobiographical work. With her storytelling prowess, replete with a slew of characters and backstage intrigue, Woodard's past is illuminated in the work that was commissioned by the Taper and Seattle Repertory Theatre and is directed by Dan Sullivan.

Playwright/actor Wolf, who spent three years interviewing more than 150 current and former servicemen, military officials, attorneys, and politicians and academics, dramatizes 18 of these stories in his one-man show that portrays how, for some, the risks in the barracks can be greater than those on the battlefield.

"One of the reasons we're doing two one-person shows in repertory," explains Davidson, "is it relieves the burden of two actors doing eight performances a week, which is really hard. I think they're interesting, contrasting pieces."

And if that's not a season, the Cornerstone Theater Company presents the world premiere of "For Here or To Go?," a holiday piece that is testament to the power of cross-cultural understanding and communication. This comic musical tale of lost love, feuding families and fast food, is set against a backdrop of Channukah, Kwanzaa and Christmas.

Egan says he believes that the Taper, with Davidson at the helm, and with an "extraordinary staff," has a high level of discourse about art and the world we live in.

"The work that we are creating and will continue to create will become some of the best work in the country," insists the director. "We're very lucky to have this staff and that makes a great theater. It really reflects the diversityÑethnically, politically and aestheticallyÑthat is Los Angeles, and that's what people should want from a major theater."

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