Storefront Theaters Strike Back

Chance Theater and Monkey Wrench Collective Take Different Paths to New Spaces

You couldn’t find two local theater entities as different in philosophy and aesthetics than the Chance Theater and the Monkey Wrench Collective. But as divergent as the companies’ respective histories and tastes may be, each takes monumental steps this weekend.

The Chance opens Jesus Hates Me, a comedy produced twice at its Anaheim Hills-based theater, at a space owned by South Coast Repertory, the first time since its earliest days that the esteemed SCR has collaborated on a show with a local theater.

Meanwhile, Monkey Wrench, a theatrical collective spawned from the corpse of the Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co., debuts its new space in the alcohol-saturated heart of downtown Fullerton, with pool (no water), a work by one of Great Britain’s most explosively talented playwrights, Mark Ravenhill.

Jesus Hates Me: The edgy side of the spectrum
Doug Catiller
Jesus Hates Me: The edgy side of the spectrum

The award-winning and critically championed Chance has positioned itself as the county’s most successful storefront since SCR by staging consistently polished work. From acclaimed productions of Hair and Stephen Sondheim musicals to excellent productions of serious dramatists such as Anton Chekhov and David Lindsay-Abaire, the Chance’s theatrical tastes tend toward the tried and tested.

There is little polite or polished about the Monkey Wrench, which artistic director Dave Barton (a longtime contributor to OC Weekly) calls a distillation of his former Rude Guerrilla. The Santa Ana troupe was definitely the black sheep of Orange County theater, reveling in edgy, experimental drama and rarely performed classics and cultivating strong relationships with noted writers such as Ravenhill and horror master Clive Barker—until its demise in March 2009.

And their respective personalities also manifest in their respective venues. The Chance is rubbing shoulders with theatrical royalty, performing in a 99-seat professional theater a play that might have an offensive-sounding title (to some)—with its share of naughtiness and graphic language—but is actually a mostly well-heeled situational comedy.

Meanwhile, Monkey Wrench opens in a tiny storefront with the U.S. premiere of a provocative new drama by Ravenhill, whose past plays include the sex-and-violence-infused Some Explicit Polaroids and Shopping and Fucking.

Choosing a Ravenhill play as the first offering at the Monkey Wrench (the blood-drenched Jacobean drama The Revenger’s Tragedy opens soon after) makes sense for Barton and the four other members of the collective. Though the Monkey Wrench isn’t Rude Guerrilla part two, the new company will certainly follow the former entity’s radical stance onstage.

“This is a more distilled version of Rude Guerrilla,” Barton says of Monkey Wrench. “Our focus here, honestly, isn’t to make money, but to make art for art’s sake. As long as we can make the rent, aren’t shelling too much of our money into it, and can pay the actors and technicians a little bit, that’s all we care about. We’re going to be edgy, avant-garde and political. We’re not going to do fucking musicals or fucking Neil Simon.”

Of course, Barton realizes his new theater will meet the same fate as the old one if it doesn’t make any money. But even if Monkey Wrench finds its non-mainstream fare doesn’t click in the new space, at least it will expire doing its own thing.

You won’t hear anyone at the Chance saying musicals and more mainstream fare are verboten on their stage. In fact, at the Chance’s space, the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along is currently playing and another yet-to-be determined Broadway musical comes this summer, followed by a December mounting of The Secret Garden: The Musical. (The Chance definitely stretches with its other two shows this season: the Southern California premiere of Julie Marie Myatt’s life-in-wartime drama Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter and the OC premiere of Edward Albee’s strangely titled The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?)

But while the Chance’s offerings aren’t exactly radical, its more balanced, measured approach to choosing material is why it has done so well: awards, superior production values, an annual operating budget of $380,000, a subscriber base that accounts for nearly one-fourth of its audience, and the ability to pay its performers and support personnel nearly as much as most equity-waiver theaters in Los Angeles, according to artistic director Oanh Nguyen.

“We’re an ensemble, and our shows are picked by what our company members want to do,” Nguyen says. “We have some wonderful musical-theater actors, as well as actors who are more interested in [less-commercial] fare. So, while we don’t necessarily think of our seasons as having to have balance, that’s what comes out from the ensemble.”

For the theater to continue to grow, expand and pay its people, Nguyen says, that balance must continue in order for it to become self-sufficient.

SCR associate artistic director John Glore says his theater has been “talking for a couple of years about the possibility of partnering with small performing-arts companies in the area”; the Chance is the first theater selected. It will benefit from the resources of SCR, including access to that theater’s enormous subscription base.

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