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Open Fist, Closed Theatre

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The Donmar Warehouse in London is perhaps the ultimate success story of a small, local theater. Thirteen years ago, Donmar opened with the goal of reinterpreting known works and making them seem new and fresh. The man behind this was Sam Mendes, whose sleek stagings earned Donmar a worldwide reputation for excellence.

Mendes left Donmar two years ago to focus full time on movies, but his small theater remains one of the most important venues in the West End. Last week, I attended Donmar-s new production of David Greig-s 1999 play The Cosmonaut-s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.

One of the ways Mendes put Donmar on the map was by finding young actors with potential star power--Rachel Weisz and Alan Cumming are two of Donmar-s many famous discoveries. In this production of Cosmonaut, the commanding performance by Anna Madeley (in the main role of Nastasja) suggests that she may be the next big name to emerge from that small theater.

But while watching Cosmonaut in the crowded Donmar space, I couldn-t help but remember the production of Greig-s play I saw here in Los Angeles a few seasons back at the Open Fist Theater in Hollywood. I think there were only about 10 people in the audience the night I attended, but while modest, the production used its resources cleverly and was one of the more moving pieces I saw that season.

Donmar-s version of Cosmonaut is more polished, but the Open Fist production was equally effective in conveying the themes and mood of Greig-s haunting play about a Soviet astronaut who-s stuck in space after the fall of communism.

Like the Donmar, the Open Fist Theatre Company has specialized in dusting off existing works. If you look at both theaters over their tenures (Open Fist opened its doors in 1990), their repertoires are very similar: a combination of recent, previously performed American plays and translations of work by emerging European playwrights.

Because of this, the Open Fist has been one of L.A.-s most cosmopolitan theaters. After Italian playwright Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize in 1997, Open Fist was the first local house to respond by staging one of his political satires.

It must be said that that production of We Won-t Pay, We Won-t Pay was not one for the ages. The production was creaky and the Italian accents were straight out of a Chef Boyardee commercial. To be honest, Open Fist doesn-t always achieve stage magic; but what Open Fist presents always indicates their commitment to staging important works of contemporary theater.

So imagine my shock this week, after returning from London--with that old production of Cosmonaut still in my mind--when I learned that due to rising rents in Hollywood, Open Fist will likely be forced to close down its theater at 1625 North La Brea.

Open Fist is not alone in this struggle either. The gentrification of Hollywood is threatening some of the neighborhood-s other prominent showcase theaters as well.

It-s always sad when a theater closes, but one should not get sentimental and inflate it to the level of tragedy. A theater should reflect its community and if Hollywood is indeed changing, the theaters in Hollywood should not remain stuck in the past.

Obviously, this theatergoer hopes these that these troupes fight off the developers and keep their spaces; but he also trusts that a good company--even under the worst circumstances--will find a way to find an audience.

Interestingly, The Cosmonaut-s Last Message to the Woman he once loved in the Former Soviet Union is about the human trait of stubborn optimism in the face of despair. In the play, the character of Nastasja continues to look up into the night sky in the hopes of seeing her father, the cosmonaut, still orbiting the earth. Open Fist and these other small companies are no doubt contemplating their futures, but they should take heart in the fact that there are still many theater-loving Nastasjas here in Los Angeles who will continue to search the heavens--and even the Valleys--for passionate productions of challenging plays.

The Open Fist Theatre is holding a benefit to support the company this Saturday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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