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LOS ANGELES TIMES | MAY 7, 2006

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

L.A. sifts through pieces of Evidence

Its Bart-of-all-trades artistic director will soon leave what's become a go-to place for inventive drama. Will the vibe go with him?

By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times

ON quality and quantity, Los Angeles is unquestionably a theater town. But what even the best L.A. theater doesn't have often enough is a sense of event — a feeling that it's part of a larger cultural life that spills out the stage doors into lobbies, bars, plazas and streets. The buzz generated by even the most thrilling play tends to die at the valet parking kiosk.

Each decade has had its shining, Camelot-like exceptions — theaters that were destinations not only for the work onstage but for the scene that swelled around them. The 1980s saw the ill-fated social experiment of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, whose cavernous downtown lobby rang with cocktail chatter as crowds spilled in and out of four theaters. In the 1990s, L.A. theater had a more modest but still unmistakable epicenter along Hollywood's El Centro Avenue: Audiences for Justin Tanner's irresistible slacker comedies huddled before and after shows in the small, festive "beer garden" of the Cast Theatre, and up the street the two spaces of the Actors' Gang's old home on Santa Monica Boulevard created a free-ranging hipster hub, often till the wee hours.

No theater, though, has had a run like the Evidence Room, the former bra factory on an unprepossessing block of Beverly Boulevard near Alvarado, which since its definitive 2000 production of Charles L. Mee's "The Berlin Circle" has housed not only L.A.'s best, most daring theater company but, not coincidentally, has provided the city's most indispensable artists' hangout. On a show night, the Evidence Room's high-ceilinged lobby, festooned with paper lanterns, banquettes and bachelor-pad furniture, typically rages past midnight with spirited conversation, fueled as much by the provocative work onstage as by beer and wine from the low-lit bar. Though the theater seats just 99 people, the buzz around the Evidence Room somehow recalls the old LATC commotion, both in its expansiveness and in its sense of being the nerve center of a vibrant scene.

Standing merrily at the helm of both the Evidence Room's stimulating stage and its lively lobby has been Bart DeLorenzo, the company's artistic director, talent scout and gatekeeper. He has directed most of the shows there and painstakingly curated the rest, and through it all he has played the venue's genial host, planted in the lobby before and after a show, his tall, thickset frame draped in a rumpled suit. It made a kind of exaggerated sense when former Actors' Gangster Jack Black once half-jokingly dubbed the lordly DeLorenzo "The King of L.A. Theater." But after his production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," which opens May 27 and runs through July 2, the king will leave the building. With him will go the Evidence Room name, a group of loyal company members, and — it's impossible to imagine otherwise — the unique vibe, even the soul, of the place.

"It was the closest thing the L.A. theater scene had to a home base," said Stefan Novinski, who directed ER's deconstructionist take on Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth" in 2003. New York-based playwright Kelly Stuart, whose "Mayhem" and "Homewrecker" were produced there in 2003 and 2004, respectively, was more blunt: "It was one of the few places in Los Angeles that was alive. For me it felt like L.A. theater was becoming more and more of a dead end; now there's no reason to go back."

The bicoastal director David Schweizer, who helmed "The Berlin Circle" and has long been a mentor and sounding board for DeLorenzo, put the place's significance in context: "L.A. is so scattered and fractured that any time there is that kind of energy around a space, it has a great deal of influence. That space had a real style and real mischief to it."

The past tense is understandable, though the space, in fact, is not going anywhere. Despite DeLorenzo's inarguable prominence, the Evidence Room did not have a single author. And while the official story of his abrupt departure cites a lease dispute with unnamed "landlords," the building's owners are actually DeLorenzo's former artistic partners: Ames Ingham and the husband-and-wife team of Jason and Alicia Adams, who originally joined forces with DeLorenzo in the mid-1990s.

The founding legend has been told and retold many times, though some wrinkles have been overlooked. It's not an unfamiliar tale: A group of like-minded artists began mounting plays in Culver City, first as the resident company in a warehouse, then as a periodic tenant at the Ivy Substation (now the home of the Actors' Gang). When in 1999 Ingham found an old warehouse on Beverly Boulevard, she and the Adamses made a bold, fateful decision: They bought the building, then essentially rented it to themselves. It was a cozy, not to say incestuous arrangement, and it had one built-in catch: The Evidence Room's artistic board included these three owners alongside DeLorenzo, who was anointed the leader, though he was never an owner. This act depended, as so many idealistic enterprises do, on this fab four remaining the best of friends, in sickness and in health.

What followed was a stunningly steady stream of theatrical events: Mee's "Circle," Edward Bond's gritty "Saved," a new translation of Schiller's "Don Carlos," David Edgar's sprawling "Pentecost," the aforementioned "Skin of Our Teeth" and "Mayhem," Ken Roht's annual "99 Cents" show holiday franchise. Even when the company has mounted uncharacteristically conservative work — a straight-faced adaptation of Dickens' "Hard Times" that could have moved directly to A Noise Within, or an off-night staging of Richard Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain" that had about 10 times the impact of Broadway's current star-studded revival — the Evidence Room has sustained an unmatched track record of vaulting ambition, impeccable production value and, more often than not, artistic success.

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A changing landscape

BUT behind the sparkling facade, the company had begun to fracture. Both Ingham and the Adamses stepped back to raise children and start outside businesses, and some original company stalwarts missed their relatively carefree beginnings. "It was much more of a bohemian, gypsy vibe at the start," said Christian Leffler, the magnetic star of "Don Carlos" and "Saved," who began with the troupe in Culver City and receded in recent years. "Then when the building came up there became this sort of professional management, which we never had before; we suddenly needed this regimen to keep the thing alive."

Ann Closs-Farley, the company's resident costume designer, compared this situation to that of another company she was part of, the Actors' Gang, which followed a similar trajectory from itinerant to resident company. "When we were renting, it was definitely a more free-spirited company," she said. "Then, when we got that space on Santa Monica Boulevard, I felt like that was a really big burden."

DeLorenzo didn't mind the burden and indeed seemed to relish filling the space — and filling the leadership void. As others pulled back, he stepped up. "Whenever we got into an emergency situation, I used what George W. Bush would call executive privilege," he recently joked. More important, he wholeheartedly embraced the often grinding effort of maintaining not just a theater but a gathering place.

In the best clue we have to his yet-unannounced plans, DeLorenzo scoffed at the notion of returning to the Evidence Room's former part-time model.
"I can understand how artists might feel that way: You do a show, then take a break," he said. "Artistically it was much easier to do. But my visionary aspect, my cultural contributor aspect, thinks, 'So what?' L.A. doesn't need more pieces of art. L.A. needs cultural homes. One of the things I was most proud of, looking at a list of past productions, is how little gap there is between show dates. We always had something playing. I think that is a greater contribution than making an individual piece of art."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his artistic partners were less ecstatic about the way DeLorenzo entrenched himself as both the brains of the company and the public face of the venue. To their mind, he was leveraging the sweat equity of running the space, day in, day out, against their equity as owners. So when DeLorenzo announced a year ago that he was planning to step down as artistic director, the Adamses moved to replace him. One plan would have seen Luis Alfaro and Anthony Byrnes, then recent casualties of the shake-up at the Mark Taper Forum's literary department, take over the company.

But the transition got increasingly acrimonious, with the Adamses insisting on a departure date and DeLorenzo insisting on more input in the succession. In the end, the lease arrangement gave the Adamses a trump card and handed DeLorenzo his deal-breaker.

Corbett Barklie, an arts consultant who was brought in to facilitate discussions between the warring parties, has witnessed similar breakdowns, including the infamous Actors' Gang coup of 2001. "Nonprofit organizations work more like families than like businesses," said Barklie, "and theaters even more so." Along those lines, Alicia Adams, who plans to assume artistic leadership over the Beverly Boulevard space in July, compares the break with DeLorenzo to a divorce: "It was an exciting period, and Bart is an exciting artist. We just couldn't live with him another day."

DeLorenzo, as Schweizer said, is likely "to find other theaters to run," though several people who know him well recommend a vacation. Said Stuart: "He should go to Italy for two years and sit in the sun." To hear DeLorenzo talk, there's little chance he'll sit still for two weeks, let alone in Italy.

And what about the other half of this divorced couple? Will the room on Beverly Boulevard still hum, minus the Evidence? Jason Adams, a resourceful set designer who originally built and engineered the space, said he plans a thorough overhaul of the acoustics and the beloved lobby (though he promised that the lobby bar, named for the late, great actress Pamela Gordon, will continue to bear her portrait and her name). And Alicia Adams talks about hosting companies in a rotating schedule, including such previous tenants as Padua Playwrights Productions. Roht said he may do his "99 Cents" show there again.

No one who cares about the fragile health of L.A. theater can wish either side ill. As Barklie put it: "There's so much instability in this 99-seat theater world that change is always viewed as something negative. Let's wait and see."
Still, the departure of DeLorenzo — a courtly, tireless enthusiast for edgy theater and convivial colloquy — from the space he turned into the city's most welcoming artistic clubhouse is nevertheless an occasion for some mourning. You won't see him wearing black.

"I have a lot that I still want to do in Los Angeles," he said. "What will be the location and the name, as Hamlet would say, that is the question — as he would also say."

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Kendt is the former editor of Backstage West. He provided accompanying music for "The Strip" at Evidence Room in 2002 and 2003. Contact him at calendar.letters@latimes.com.

©2006 Los Angeles Times