It is the quintessential L.A. black box, with a Cahuenga Boulevard street-front leading through a small lobby to the theatre, where risers peer across a hard floor at a downstage wall with two entrance doors, one of which leads to the facility's sole bathroom. I have seen this narrow, unforgiving space transformed by novel seating arrangements, by innovative designers and directors, but above all by a bunch of actors, a rotating ensemble of wildly various types with a remarkably consistent theatrical orientation: toward contemporary text rendered with unfussy, often gritty clarity.
Indeed, among L.A.'s edgy theatre companies, Theatre of NOTE stands out not just for its wide, weird talent pool, which has swirled and swelled over the years to include hundreds of actors, but for the raw, rangy aesthetic they've developed. These actors do new plays (and the occasional old one) with a disarmingly earnest hunger and a vigorous, unwinking playfulness that's less about perfect theatrical craft than about creating true, unfettered theatrical moments. And while this is the ultimate mission of any true theatre artist, few L.A. actors' groups do it with the same bracing commitment, year in and year out.
And few do it with the same spare, immediate, no-muss style; at times it can hit you like a kind of anti-style, until you see enough of their work to know that they mean it. NOTE's specialty isn't kitchen-sink naturalism, mind you—when they try it, as in 1995's so-so production of Jim Lancaster's Road, it doesn't come off—but it isn't camp or commedia, either. That's partly why its 1998 co-production (with director Denise Gillman's Pilgrimage Company) of Brecht and Auden's never-before-mounted adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi was so satisfying, and placed NOTE's native strengths in flattering perspective: It reminded us that there's a way to do non-naturalist theatre that is matter-of-fact rather than larger-than-life, that is "epic" in its service to a meaty text, not in the size of its personalities.
Indeed, most NOTE actors don't have the outsized presence of members of the Actors' Gang or Zoo District; they're not the zany, uneven rabble of the Sacred Fools; they don't have the accessibility of Cornerstone, the glamour and polish of Pacific Resident Theatre, the tight-knit confidence of Buffalo Nights, the muscular élan of the Evidence Room.
The closest relatives of NOTE's questing spirit are Padua Playwrights Productions and Bottom's Dream—companies of extraordinary actors who regularly check preconceptions at the door to dive bravely into non-linear, language-based plays. Indeed, there's a fair amount of intermingling among artists in these companies (and other Padua-related offshoots like Headlight and Empire Red Lip). But NOTE is more ragged, more diverse, less deliberate—more punk, basically—than its circumspect peers. And while that means I've seen some stiff acting, scenery chewing, and backfired experiments at NOTE, I always felt these common actors' mistakes were honestly made, not endemic.
The first plays I saw there, in 1995, were a pair of one-acts: Hank Bunker's The Interview and Coleman Hough's The Only Way Out (for the record, NOTE stands for "New One-Act Theatre Ensemble). In retrospect, this double bill could serve as an index of NOTE's strengths and weaknesses: Bunker's play about an unctuous sports writer messing with the life and wife of a confused pro golfer, in which Bunker starred as the lockjawed, mendacious journalist, was a brilliant, troubling mind game that played like a lost Pinter sitcom pilot. The razor-sharp direction by Diane Robinson brought out performances, by Bunker and Janet Borrus and Darrett Sanders, that were utterly grounded in the play's brittle, seemingly banal surreality.
Hough's play, on the other hand, was a precious, cartoony Southern fantasy; I remember something about people in frog suits and something about a washboard. What was notable about this minor debacle is that the actors' refusal either to oversell or be embarrassed by the material (or the costumes) made it a bearable and forgivable mess, a mercy as rare as a decent paycheck in small L.A. theatre.
I found the theatre's next selection, Road, like most of Jim Lancaster's work, to have more contempt than compassion for its working-class anti-heroes. But it was here I first saw the great, grave Denise Poirier, the unhealthily passionate Richard Werner, the droog-like charm of Robert Stoccardo, and the buttoned-up pathos of David Bickford. This was a company to watch, and so I have, with varying faithfulness. Over the years, I've seen NOTE stage great plays and indifferent plays; plays that needed more work on the writer's part, plays that were beyond anyone's help, and plays that everybody in town should have seen.
What I take away from them all are indelible performances and powerhouse performers: the laser-focused, serpentine Poirier in an otherwise not-great Goth Macbeth; the strange, sickened intensity of Sanders, in the swamp fantasy Burrhead and the taut one-act Frieda and the Arsonist; the unnervingly girlish blur that is Miranda Viscoli, also in Burrhead; the hauntingly elastic horror of Thomas Prisco as a put-upon nuclear physicist in Hard Hat Area; the riveting, twilit mutual seduction of Tony Forkush and Katherine Gibson in Ransomed Soul; Dorie Barton's and Sarah Phemister's unwavering grip on the wayward bio-play Self-Portrait: The Love and Death of Egon Schiele; Armando Durán's proud, territorial precision in Dictator; Werner's psychotic energy as a retarded adult in Middle Savage, and Cathy Carlton's heartbreakingly cowed, crumbling response as his mother; Kiff Scholl's understated, all-too-reasonable villainy in Duchess of Malfi; Rebecca Gray's sharp-as-tacks platinum blonde in Monstrosity; Elaina McBroom's rampaging glee in Rosa Mundy; Danielle Bourgon's pained indecisiveness, which she made to seem almost a physical condition, in All Saints' Day.
The show up at NOTE right now (through June 30), Jacqueline Wright's Bing, is another reliable sampler of the company's house style. Wright is herself a NOTE member, and her profane, post-apocalyptic play, as directed by Matt Almos, can almost be seen as a full-cast embodiment of her own mercurial, punkish, mesmerizing, diabolically funny qualities as an actress. It has a pierced narrator, Rachel Kann, declaiming a lot of the show's narration with the signature butch thud of the poetry slam. And the cast, from the damaged idealism of Rosemary Boyce's wigged (in both senses) heroine to the macho tenderness of Richard Trapp's blunt, bleached dealer boyfriend, from Katherine Gibson's astringent, vulnerable suburban wife to Alina Phelan's needy third wheel, is an assembly of disparate types and talents I can't imagine coming together anywhere but in the transformative confines of that unprepossessing Cahuenga Boulevard space.
L.A. theatre has many great actors at its disposal, and too few indigenous treasures like Theatre of NOTE, where such actors can stretch and fail with grace—or stretch and land home with direct impact. BSW