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South Coast Rep to host a small guest production for first time

December 2, 2009 |  6:03 am

SouthCoastRep For the first time, at least since its long-ago scuffling days when it would sometimes take on boarders to help pay the rent at its old quarters in a converted discount store, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is opening its house to an outside production by another Orange County theater.

The Chance Theater, a small company in Anaheim Hills, will bring its staging of "Jesus Hates Me," an offbeat comedy-drama mix by Wayne Lemon, to SCR's 99-seat Nicholas Studio for six performances over two weekends, Feb. 26-28 and March 5-7, 2010. 

David Emmes, South Coast's producing artistic director, sees the run as a "pilot project" that could lead to further imports of shows mounted by the county's small theaters. 

It's "an alternative effort," aimed at helping the local small-theater scene and providing a venue for "works that fall outside the range of our normal presentations," Emmes said. "It's broadening opportunities for adventurous theatergoers to get a taste of something different."


The Chance produced the West Coast premiere of "Jesus Hates Me" early this year, winning plaudits from Times reviewer David C. Nichols. The show's seriocomic portrayal of a young man's search for independence and self-knowledge is set at the Blood of the Lamb Miniature Golf Course in south central Texas, where a crucified Jesus hangs above the 17th hole.

The "irreverent dramedy about the search for meaning may offend as often as it convulses, but it's certainly vivid," Nichols wrote, praising the "detailed direction" of Chance artistic director Oanh Nguyen, the "superbly evocative set," "an impressive design effort...and the wonderful cast" that enacted a story that "is both wildly inappropriate and keenly idiomatic." The overall effect, he wrote, was like "a putting match between Del Shores and Larry McMurtry refereed by Ricky Gervais."

The same cast, crew and director will re-stage the play at South Coast.

The Chance's path intersected with SCR's during the initial run of "Jesus Hates Me," when Nguyen took on another assignment: directing a staged reading of Julie Marie Myatt's "The Happy Ones" at South Coast. When SCR went on to produce the Myatt drama's recent premiere, Nguyen returned as assistant director to South Coast Repertory's artistic director, Martin Benson. Last month, Nguyen again directed at SCR, overseeing a staged reading of Adeline Yen Mah's "Falling Leaves."

Nguyen arrived in Orange County as a toddler in 1975 after his family, headed by an officer in the South Vietnamese navy, barely escaped during the fall of Saigon. He founded the Chance in 1999 with a group of friends. The theater's wide-ranging approach has encompassed Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, musicals both familiar and little-seen, and an assortment of contemporary plays, new works and classics.

For the remounting of "Jesus Hates Me," South Coast Repertory is providing the Nicholas Studio rent-free, Emmes said, and all box office proceeds will go to the Chance, except for what's expected to be a small amount to cover any costs South Coast incurs.

If the experiment turns into a series, Emmes said, South Coast will play the host but not become involved as a co-producer, because that would bring its contract with Actors' Equity into play, leading to much higher production costs. The 99-seat plan under which members of the stage actors' union are allowed to perform in small Los Angeles theaters for wages far below union scale -- on the supposition that exposure in the entertainment mecca can lead to well-paid gigs -- does not apply in Orange County. Consequently,  productions at such well-established small companies as the Chance and Fullerton's Hunger Artists Theatre Company, Stagestheatre and Maverick Theater are typically off-limits to Equity members.

In Los Angeles, Center Theatre Group has partnered on mainstage productions with smaller companies such as North Hollywood's Deaf West Theatre and the Robey Theatre Company, and the Pasadena Playhouse has provided a home for the Furious Theatre Company at its Carrie Hamilton Theatre. Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company has a Visiting Company Initiative that invites other Chicago theaters to use its performance spaces. Emmes said examples like those helped prompt SCR's experiment.

-- Mike Boehm


Review: 'Jesus Hates Me' at Chance Theater

Little space, big ideas

Photos: South Coast Repertory; Oanh Nguyen (yellow shirt) directs a rehearsal of a new musical, "The Girl, the Goat and the Grouch," at the Chance Theater. Credits: Los Angeles Times; Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times (Nguyen)