The reason we have artists is because they perceive things most of us don't—from the poignancy of unheard melodies on a Grecian urn to the story of America retold in the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon, from the way a piano can be made to evoke running water to the otherworldly energy conveyed by anarchic webs of dripped paint.
Maybe actor/producer/force of nature Tamar Fortgang isn't L.A. theatre's answer to Keats or Welles, Ravel or Pollock. But Fortgang had the unique vision, while on a tour of Downtown L.A.'s historic theatre venues, to see the high-ceilinged lobby of a dilapidated movie house as—what else?—a street in Padua, Italy, and thus the perfect setting for an environmental staging of Shakespeare's problematic battle of the sexes, The Taming of the Shrew.
Now, nearly three years after Fortgang had her flash of insight, that historic theatre, the Orpheum, has undergone a sparkling $3 million renovation, and a cast of 22 is set to open a new production of Shrew there under director Alec Wild this weekend. As if that weren't ambitious enough, this Shrew won't be a traditional proscenium version. Instead, audiences of around 80 viewers will follow the action, staged variously in the basement, in the lobby, and on the stage of this opulent former movie/vaudeville house.
The small audience not only makes the roving part of the staging feasible, it also keeps the show within Equity's 99-Seat Theatre Plan.
Oh, and Fortgang is, natch, the titular shrew, Kate. It's a dream role, she said, and one that cuts close to home for her.
"Kate is hard because she's so close to me," admitted Fortgang, sitting in the back doorway of the theatre in a baseball cap and jeans. "As a strong woman, I have been called a force, which is meant to be positive, and in a negative sense I've been called abrasive."
An intense, alternately impish and tough woman with short, dark hair and an easy, ironic smile, Fortgang can't help but hurl her whole self into her work, and she knows that not everyone can take the body blow. But there's a disarming new tone of circumspection about her when she discusses Kate's controversial arc from willful defiance to abject submission to her lover Petruchio. Has Fortgang been tamed, too?
"No, but I do find that the more I mature and soften and learn to communicate with others, the more I don't lose my spirit, and things that I want get accomplished," she said. She recalled acting coach Larry Moss telling her, "You're going to get a lot pressure to soft-soap yourself. But every woman who's made it has an edge—Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, they have an edge, but it's in how they present it, the whole package, that wins people over."
So how did Fortgang win over the players for this ambitious Shrew? Steve Needleman, who inherited ownership of the Orpheum from his late parents, Jack and Annette Needleman, had been open to offers since his theatre hosted last year's Theatre LA Ovation Awards (it will host this year's, as well, on Nov. 23).
"Part of hosting that was hoping selfishly that someone would give me a phone call," Needleman said. "Having most of the members of the theatre business in the building, I thought someone would see the Orpheum as a place to do a show."
His phone stayed stubbornly quiet. He figured that the Orpheum's large seating capacity (2,058), which would necessitate a full Equity contract and extensive audience promotion, might have put off L.A.'s small theatre producers. Admittedly the theatre's location may still be considered a liability, despite concerted efforts by farsighted developers to revitalize Downtown's historic core with mixed-use housing, retail, and live/work spaces.
So, in the absence of any big-money offers, Needleman began looking for a creative use for the building. He recalled, "I ran into a very intense, strong young woman, Tamar Fortgang, who pitched her thoughts forward for The Taming of the Shrew. It wasn't what I would have originally thought of, but it was creative, and it would showcase the venue in a different way and in a way that was unique to L.A. theatre."
He is generously waiving rent but not all production costs. Fortgang estimated that the show's budget will come in at $30,000. It's a gamble for all concerned, but especially for landlord Needleman, who admitted that the "hard dollars" to lose have been turning away comers, including a Duran Duran concert, during the show's five-week run.
But, said Needleman, "Going into this, I was aware that I was doing it for the art itself, for something really creatively spectacular. Because I'm not on the regular theatre or concert circuit, it gives people a chance to come in and see the theatre. That's worth turning on the lights to my venue."
He also has a more personal agenda. Needleman recalled that the last live theatre run at his family's theatre, in the mid-1960s, was a tour of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. "I used to hear my father talk about how much he wanted to see live theatre return to his stage," said Needleman. "So this is partly a way of honoring my parents."
Honoring Shakespeare's original intent is the agenda of director Wild, a tall, young-looking professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who directs Shakespeare around the country. He was sold on the project—his first in L.A.—by Fortgang's "power of persuasion" and by the chance to work on the "readymade Shakespeare set" of the Orpheum. His approach to the Bard, he said, is rooted in his scholarship.
"One of the assumptions when I start a Shakespeare play is that this is a culture so far removed from our own," Wild said, sitting cross-legged near the lip of the Orpheum stage, looking out on its lush red theatre seats, box seats, and detailed ceiling work. "I try to read the play from a Renaissance perspective and figure out what's going on in Shakespeare's time. Then I start to make choices about how to communicate those insights to a contemporary audience, as opposed to finding gimmicks. I'm very much not a gimmick director."
So don't expect Shrew set in the Wild West or Little Italy—or one in which the famous "wooing" scene degenerates into a wrestling match à la Burton and Taylor.
"It's a great scene, and it's so profoundly a meeting of the minds," said Wild. "It's so steeped in Renaissance language that it's sometimes incoherent for a modern audiences, so directors get through that by staging it as a brawl. But in the stage directions, Petruchio never strikes; she strikes him and he restrains her."
Of course the toughest pill for contemporary audiences to swallow is the denouement, in which the firebrand Kate publicly submits to Petruchio's male authority. This scene is often played ironically, as if Kate is play-acting—or conversely, as if her spirit has been hideously shattered and the patriarchy has triumphed again. For Wild, neither interpretation is true to the text.
"Irony is an escape for contemporary productions of Shrew, as if Kate doesn't really mean it, and I think that's unfair. That's not what's going on in the play," said Wild. "I don't see Kate as someone who's beaten Petruchio at his own game. And a production that concentrates on the misogyny misses something; it's like saying Freud applies to Hamlet. The question is how to play that last scene. Is it possible in 2003 for Kate to make a real discovery in that scene that's valid? That these two come together at the end should be satisfying on some level, that she's finding her place in that society. If not, it's time to put the play on a shelf."
Clearly for Wild this remains an open question, even if the answer is uncomfortable.
"I think the play can provoke, and I don't shy away from that," he said. Indeed if Wild, Fortgang, and Needleman were the sort of people who shied from a challenge, the show would not go on. In that they typify L.A. theatre's most potent secret weapon: untamed creative spirit.