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Opening This Week Poetry in Motion

The Carpetbagger's Children

When one attends a musical in the L.A. vicinity these days, it's not surprising to find Cate Caplin's name in the playbill, usually as choreographer. She pops up everywhere: the intimate West Coast Ensemble, the multiple venues where the Musical Theatre Guild performs, the ubiquitous Civic Light operas. This versatile artist, a Virginia native who began her career as a classical dancer, currently faces an interesting challenge as she melds her long-standing expertise in fashioning lyrical stage movement with her past experience as a director of non-musical drama. Her new project is the brooding, tuneless Horton Foote piece The Carpetbagger's Children.

In recent years, the local community has tended to pigeonhole Caplin as a choreographer-dancer, but her résumé tells a different story. It's peppered with extensive, wide-ranging credits as play director, musical director–choreographer, producer, creative writer, journalist, and teacher. She loves working on musicals, though she admits they are "very hard" and that it is sometimes difficult for her to wear just the choreographer's hat, as she always has a strong vision for the show's overall concept. She had wanted to take on a directing project at WCE for some time, and artistic director Les Hanson had been trying to match her up with the appropriate vehicle. She choreographed the theatre's currently running musical, Floyd Collins, and, while she was bringing several cast replacements for that show up to speed, she was busily at work preparing the Foote play for its March 15 debut.

When Hanson suggested this play, Cate thought it was a good idea. Her brother, film and theatre producer Lee Caplin, had presented the Off-Broadway premiere of the Foote play Roads to Home, of which she had fond memories. But, when she delved into the material, she began to wonder if she was the right director for the project. Her theatrical vernacular has always been movement and physicality: poetry in motion, as such. Structured as three separate 25-page monologues delivered by a trio of sisters, Foote's drama examines how the daughters of a Texas carpetbagger carry forth tradition by preserving the land on which they were raised: a 20,000-acre plantation. Their lives and dreams are intertwined in their homeland, and the text tells how they undergo dramatic changes there over the passage of years.

"This is the total opposite of the type of show I usually do," says Caplin. "But I realized it was coming to me for a reason. My challenge was to find new ways to bring it to life. I started doing a lot of homework online, reading about the play. Some critics said it's too static because the characters don't interact. So I decided to take the piece and cut it up and weave the three stories together. It will demand work on the part of audiences, because the story is in puzzle pieces, which need to be put together. I've staged it almost like a dance. We're working on the Floyd Collins set, so we have all types of nooks and crannies and levels. For what I'm doing, this is very cool, because it provides a lot of suggested areas. You can walk out and you're on the plantation—or emerge from behind the bend and you're in the home. You can create different kinds of imaginary spaces. It's sort of a progressive take on the play, but it really comes to life. At one point I went back to re-read the text, as I had made some bold choices. I reaffirmed that it does work like this. There's a visual story being painted. Mood and emotion are combined with movement. There's no real story in this piece, but a portrait of these people is created."

When one hears her describe her first experience directing a nonmusical play after she arrived in L.A in the mid-1980s, Carpetbaggers sounds like a full-circle karmic occurrence for Caplin. "Three women approached me to direct a play for them. They gave me a horrible script, saying they had a hard time finding good plays for women. I told them to instead write monologues concerning things they are passionate about. I wove their pieces together, and we staged the production in a hair salon. We called it Choice Cuts, and it revolved around different conversations among the women. We staged the piece using the dryers, workstations, and everything in the shop. It formed a collage, a tapestry."

Last week, Caplin was honored with a Back Stage West Garland award for her splendid choreographic work in the Colony Theatre's revival of Grand Hotel, in which she also performed a showstopping adagio sequence with her professional dance partner, Gary Franco, with whom she performs specialty gigs. From the rural American milieu of Horton Foote's 1919 Texas to the ominous 1930s Nazi-era Berlin of Grand Hotel, Caplin is lending her talents to diverse projects. She says she wants to spread her wings in many different creative directions, and directing projects such as Carpetbagger could be her ticket to adding illustrious new chapters to her already remarkable career journey.

—Les Spindle

"The Carpetbagger's Children" at West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Tue.-Thu. 8 p.m., Mar. 22-Apr. 7. $13-15. (323) 525-0022.

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