Thursday, May 01, 2008

Furious Feature in Pasadena Weekly

posted by Nick Cernoch at 11:49 AM

Mad talent
Six Years Young, Pasadena’s Furious Theater Co. is taking LA theater by storm

By April Caires 05/01/2008

No, they’re not angry. In fact, the six founding members of the Furious Theatre Co. seem to be having the time of their lives.

On the eve of a sixth anniversary revival of their inaugural production, Paul Slabolepsky’s “Saturday Night at the Palace,” the little theatre company with the ferocious name is all smiles. An acclaimed ensemble, a track record of consistently bold and often brilliant productions and an unchecked determination to do theatre their way — full of piss and fury — has made this no-longer-fledgling company a gem of the LA theater scene.

The choice to revive “Palace” is apt on many levels. In typical Furious fashion, even the date of the play’s opening was designed to make a splash — April 26, six years to the day from the 2002 premiere. The material itself also embodies much of what the company strives to be. Revolving around a midnight encounter between two white travelers and a black waiter in Apartheid South Africa, “Palace” is dark, funny, volatile, challenging — in a word, it’s Furious.

In execution, the revival is also a measure of just how far Furious Theatre Co. has come. Six years ago, the six cofounders were the cast, crew and marketing team. The play’s lead actors were building risers and hanging lights between rehearsals, while the director was up on a scaffolding painting the ceiling. The last seats were screwed in at their original performance space — a donated section of the Armory Northwest that used to be a plastics factory — minutes before doors opened on their first show.

This time around, the company comes to the material with 14 productions under its belt, a string of critical accolades and awards, a blooming ensemble of 15, a cozy home at Pasadena Playhouse’s 99-seat Carrie Hamilton Theatre, and a name that is increasingly equated with high-quality theater delivered with high-wire intensity.

Key to its burgeoning success are the longstanding relationships between the six core ensemble members, who describe themselves as “artistic soulmates” — Sarah Hennessy, Shawn Lee, Vonessa Martin, Eric Pargac, Brad Price, and Damaso Rodriguez, ages 31 to 34. The group includes two married couples — Rodriguez and Hennessy, Lee and Martin — and a pair of friends, Price and Lee, who have known each other since kindergarten. Some of them went to college together; all six hail from the Midwest or Texas, and all came to LA at about the same time. In their early days here, they worked day jobs and internships and went on weekend camping trips together, where they started talking about what it would be like to form their own company.

From the beginning, their vision was remarkably clear and unified. Pargac, who is reprising his role as Forsie, the gentler of the two white Afrikaners in “Palace’s” central confrontation, attributes this consistency to their longstanding relationships, shared backgrounds and their habit, established early on, of retreating together once a year to discuss artistic goals.

“Part of the reason we all sort of know our aesthetic is because when we first started, we all took a retreat to Palm Springs. We had all these big Post-It pads on the wall and we wrote down everything we wanted to accomplish as a theater company and what we thought made a good theater company, things like what we want the audience to experience and all that kind of stuff. We collectively came up with what we thought was Furious.”

Some of what went on the Post-It pads wasn’t remotely flashy. The company’s first goals were to incorporate as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, to secure a performance space and to announce a full season of plays — three things they’d seen successful companies do to establish themselves.
They also dreamed big. On the pads they scrawled heady, long-term ambitions: to be one of the leading theater companies in the nation, a destination company for young talent, along the lines of their artistic idol, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Co., which was co-founded by Gary Sinese and includes members like John Malkovich and Joan Allen.

They also brainstormed about what, exactly, it means to be Furious.

Like their plays, the name is an attention-grabber, but it doesn’t mean what you might think. Although the company has never shied away from tackling hot-button issues with eviscerating irreverence and daring, the name has nothing to do with anger — political, religious or otherwise.
“It was never about being angry,” says Lee, who is returning to his role as Vince, a racist white Afrikaner, in “Palace.”

“But there’s a lot of strength in that word, and I think that the company is built on strength in numbers, the whole belief in ensemble.”

The name Furious captures that core strength of the group, as well as the raw energy they throw into their work. It’s also about the potency of the experience they try to give the audience. Those who have seen a few of their plays know that you know a Furious play when you see one — the productions are characterized by provocative topics, gripping plots, dark humor and a certain know-it-when-you-feel-it intensity.

More than anything, that is the mark of a Furious production. Although the material is often thought-provoking, a Furious play is not an intellectual experience. It’s a gut check.

Like “Palace,” the company’s four most recent productions are a testament to this sensibility. Craig Wright’s “Grace” begins with an explosion of gunfire and two dead bodies in the home of a born-again Christian couple. Matt Pelfrey’s “An Impending Rupture of the Belly” revolves around a young would-be father whose determination to protect his family devolves into militant paranoia about nuclear terrorists, avian bird flu, killer earthquakes, and other imagined threats of the post-Sept. 11 world. In Yusef El Guindi’s “Back of the Throat,” an Arab-American writer’s tiny apartment is made claustrophobic by the questioning of two unannounced guests, government agents whose friendly inquiry turns into relentless interrogation.

As for the company’s latest production, Alex Jones’ “Canned Peaches in Syrup,” it’s an outlandish comedy about an environmental apocalypse that leaves the planet populated by — I’ll give you a thousand guesses — nomadic, foul-mouthed cannibals.

All of which gives an audience quite a bit to think about. Pargac says the company’s hope is that they’ll save the thinking for the drive home. “We just want people emotionally involved in the experience, in what the characters are going through. Then we want them to talk about it when they leave,” he says, adding, “We strive to keep the audience engaged.”

Rodriguez, who has directed 12 of the company’s 14 productions, including both the premiere and the revival of “Palace,” says the company’s unique aesthetic was born partly out of necessity. Starting a theater company in LA? Get in line. Finding a way to stand out in the saturated regional theater scene was as much a practical consideration as an artistic challenge. Even in Pasadena, where competition is not so intense, Boston Court does new and provocative work all the time.
As a first step in distinguishing themselves, company members decided to focus on material that, in Rodriguez’s words, “had a reason to be done” — premieres, in other words. All but one of their productions thus far has been either a world, national or regional premiere.

Beyond that, the Furious team says they set out to create something wholly different, an intense, visceral theatergoing experience — theater that grabs you by the gut, throat, or other sensitive parts and doesn’t let go long enough for you to breathe, let alone intellectualize anything.

“Every piece that we have taken on, we challenge ourselves and we challenge the audience,” says Lee. “I think that excites our audience, whether they love it or hate it. No one ever walks out — I don’t think — going, ‘Eh, I don’t really feel anything.’ Everyone walks out feeling something.”

Indeed. Apartheid, post-9/11 terranoia, highly marginalized dietary choices — the company is drawn to material where the stakes and emotions are high and, in the case of “Canned Peaches,” one wonders whether the writer might have been too. Rodriguez says that underlying their desire to provide a gripping ride for the audience is a broader goal: revitalizing the theatergoing experience for new generations.

Theater has its work cut out for it to compete with DVDs, HBO and the many other entertainment options out there, he says. “It’s got to be this powerful, memorable experience, I think, to really start to engage a new audience. People talk about that all the time, but I don’t think it’s just getting them into the theater to see a play; I think it’s getting them into the theater to see a play they won’t forget.”

He adds that in the commercial world, this is being done with “big, musical, spectacle productions,” while smaller theaters are often sticking to a well-worn path of material that’s mainly directed at the existing theatergoer.

“We want the mainstream theatergoer to come see it and like it, obviously, but we are going after people like us who didn’t grow up going to see plays,” says Rodriguez, who, like all six of the core ensemble members, came from a working-class family and is a first-generation artist. “They find themselves in the theater and they have this experience and they want to try and have another one at some point.”

On the whole, Furious productions are reliably sharp, sophisticated and always superbly performed. But the material they choose is occasionally criticized as dancing the fine line between boldness and gimmickry. Their decision to focus on edgier material and exclusively on premieres makes every Furious production inherently risky; the results don’t always sit well with audiences.

“Our audiences are sometimes upset by our work,” says Rodriguez. “We have walkouts; we have people perhaps complain that the work is too vulgar or whatever.” As for the fury Furious productions can sometimes trigger, he adds, “We tried to do a good job, starting with our name, to not set any expectation other than this is going to be an intense, kind of challenging experience.”
The company hopes the revival of “Saturday Night at the Palace” will be just such an experience for an audience that might have missed it the first time around. Written in 1982, eight years before the official demise of apartheid, the play is a contemporary classic in South Africa but, amazingly, had never been performed professionally in the US until Furious brought it to Pasadena.

An American premiere full of provocative, emotionally charged material — Rodriguez says that choosing “Palace” as the company’s first production was a no-brainer.

“I remember it was like it absolutely defined everything that we wanted to be in terms of what a theatrical experience could be like,” he says. “If ever there was a play that was Furious Theater, it’s this play.”

“Saturday Night at the Palace” shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays through May 31 at the Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $25 or $10 for students. Call (800) 595-4849 or visit


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