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written by George M. Cohan
directed by Tony Giordano

Allan Arbus and George Murdock as "Governor"
Talia Balsam and Marsha Dietlein as "Sally"
Julia Campbell and Anna Gunn as "Virginia"
Lindsay Crouse and Penny Fuller as "Violet"
Kurt Deutsch and John Walcutt as "Zach"
David Dukes and Lawrence Pressman as "Stevens"
Robin Gammell and Cotter Smith as "Vagabond"
Charles Hallahan and James Handy as "Sheriff"
Jim Haynie and Mitchell Ryan as "Freeman"
Jay Karnes and Daniel McDonald as "Tom Allen"
Audra Lindley and Marian Mercer as "Mrs. Lamson"
Robert Machray and Michael Milhoan as "Willum"
with Joe Basile, Richard Burns, Cliff Foerster and Frank Sharp as "Sheriff's Man"

- WINNER, 1993 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award:
Best Production
Direction (Tony Giordano)
Lead Performance (Cotter Smith)

Far Back Center, L-R:
Kurt Deutsch, Marsha Dietlein & John Walcutt

Back Row, L-R: Joe Basile, Cliff Forester, Frank Sharp, Daniel McDonald, Jay Karnes, Lawrence Pressman, David Dukes,
Mitchell Ryan, Jim Haney, George Murdock, Allan Arbus, Charles Hallahan, James Handy, Michael Milhoan & Robert Machray

Front Row, L-R: Richard Burns, Julia Campbell, Anna Gunn, Robin Gammell,
Lindsay Crouse, Penny Fuller, Cotter Smith, Marian Mercer & Audra Lindley

Click on the picture to see a larger version


Variety, December 28, 1993
by Christopher Meeks

Producer Joseph Stern is back, and with a fabulous production of a little-known gem, George M. Cohan's "TheTavern."

Directed flawlessly by Tony Giordano, and using a veteran cast and high production values, the play builds in humor, becoming a wonderful, wacky kind of "Noises Off." Robert Benchley wrote in Life magazine in 1920 that "one cannot help having a good time" at the play. The same remains true today.

On a rainy, thunder-filled night at the turn of this century, a number of people stop at a tavern on the road to Albany, seeking lodging. The first is a vagabond (Robin Gammell) who does not remember his name but does know that the tavern keeper (Jim Haynie) just shot at a woman hiding in the woodshed.

The tavern keeper finds the woman, Violet (Lindsay Grouse), who's weak from walking and desperately trying to get to the governor to tell her tale of an earlier abuse. After she's given a bed, who should appear but the governor (George Murdock), his wife (Marian Mercer), his daughter (Anna Gunn) and her upper-crust fiance (Jay Karnes), having been accosted and robbed on the road.

The tale takes off when Violet accuses the fiancé of wrongdoing, and the vagabond, fond of drama, stirs up the situation. Add to this a sheriff (Charles Hallahan) and his men, and mayhem ensues.

Stern, who has been in New York for three years producing "Law and Order," has managed to woo a mostly veteran group of actors by double casting, allowing members room to manage their other professional responsibilities. "There's more talent in this town than in New York or London," said Stern after the play opening night, "and we've just needed a way to get them in theater."

The actors, who all rehearsed together, will be mixed and matched on a nightly basis. In this way, Stern has brought in the likes of Crouse, Hallahan, Talia Balsam and David Dukes.

The fact is, the approach seems to work well and seamlessly, with much credit to director Giordano. Even Gammell, who at first seems miscast as the vagabond — often referred to as "young man" and admired perhaps romantically by the governor's young daughter, but who appears too old — wins the audience by his energy and odd charm. (Cotter Smith alternates in the role.)

Grouse creates a highly convincing Violet, a woman scorned — and wary. (Penny Fuller is the other Violet.) Hallahan and Dukes bring a delightful presence as, respectively, the sheriff and doctor, although they're small, character roles. (James Handy and Lawrence Pressman play those parts, respectively, on other nights.)

The set design by Neil Peter Jampolis, utterly impressive for a 99-seat theater, so convincingly evokes rain that one is surprised at intermission to find it's dry outside. Alan Armstrong's costume design is lavish, with just one misstep: the modern-looking rubber boots worn by the confused tavern assistant, hilariously played by Michael Milhoan on opening night.

Lights by Jane Reisman and sound by Matthew Beville add well to the whole.

The play runs through Feb. 13 — enough time for auds to catch different nights for different interpretations.

Los Angeles Times

Double-Cast Gamble Pays Off in Cohan's 'Tavern' at Matrix
by Sylvie Drake
Times Theatre Critic Emeritus

All you have to do is make your way to the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Avenue to know that producer Joe Stern is back in town. With bells on.

Who else would dream of putting on George M. Cohan's hilarious farce, "The Tavern," with two entirely different casts? Who else would guarantee that no two performances are alike by seeing that the mix of cast members changes from show to show? And who else would commandeer a group of players zany enough to submit to such a cockamamie experiment?

The ones commandeered by Stern and his director, Tony Giordano (at least as zany as his performers), are not only distinguished but in many cases well-known. What possessed these fearless actors to give talent and time to this delectable madness at a fraction of their usual fee?

It can only be the irresistible challenge of it all and the strong-arming of Stern (sorely missed in L.A. theater when he spent the last few years executive producing "Law & Order" in New York).

After all, this mixing and matching is a form of Russian roulette: Tonight the chemistry works, tomorrow it doesn't, on Friday it's so-so, on Sunday it's great. That's the gamble. And to have sat through two evenings of this very funny show—each with almost entirely different casts—only confirms the enormity of the risk.

Separate is not equal, no, but under Giordano's relentlessly buoyant direction, this "Tavern" is an education in the importance of alchemy in performance and the transformation that a production will undergo whenever you change the slightest component in it.

It is also, however, proof that when you put quality in, you get quality out. While there were major differences in the two performances seen, it was never a matter of Good versus Bad, but of something much more subtle: pressure point changes of shading and relationship, temperament and character-altogether fascinating to observe.

Most pivotal to the coloring of this farce is the character of the Vagabond. He is key to a set of mysterious goings-on at this turn-of-the-century tavern on the road to Albany. Found taking shelter in the woodshed on a dark and stormy night, this Vagabond becomes the orchestrator of events in an impromptu Bedlam: from the strange divagations of a woman named Violet, also found in the woodshed, to the unscheduled arrival of the State Governor and his family, held up by highwaymen. Before the night is out, this Vagabond has ephemerally realigned relationships as fragile as candlelight.

Cotter Smith and Robin Gam-mell play this role, the former with romantic dash, the latter with a melancholy wisdom of the ages. There starts a major difference. But there are others. Penny Fuller is a collapsible shrinking Violet, while Lindsay Crouse is robust. George Murdock is an apoplectic Governor, Allan Arbus a cool, aristocratic one. And the Governor's daughter, Virginia, is all curves and softness as played by Julia Campbell, in contrast to Anna Gunn's more angular responses.

This is theater as superb gamesmanship. Who knows, once Campbell plays the role with Smith, or Fuller with Gammell, what unanticipated dimensions may bubble to the surface? This is all pure, vaudevillian fun and a darn good tale at that, to say nothing of the sheer thrill of discovery provided by the changing of the actors. Cohan's broadsides hark back to Moliere's, with the same soft spot for underdogs and the same dedication to pulverizing cant.

The technical values surrounding the production are top-notch and they, of course, don't change. Neil Peter Jampolis has designed a primitive, rained-on tavern of dark wood. The deafening thunder claps that assail it are by sound designer Matthew Seville, the interior shadows and blinding flashes of lightning by Jane Reisman and the motley costumes—rags to riches— by costumer Alan Armstrong.

All of this augurs splendidly for this new company. Aside from delivering one of the year's most entertaining evenings of theater in Los Angeles, "The Tavern" offers the dedicated theatergoer a tantalizing possibility: To see the show in several permutations.

A peek at the cast list that follows should soon tell you that you can't go too far wrong. It's a gamble, sure, but cheaper than Las Vegas—and, oh, so much more fun.

Los Angeles Reader

This Tavern Is Worthy of Toasting
New Company Breaks New Ground in Collaboration
by Michael Frym

Yes! Bravo to Joe Stern and the visionaries breaking profound new ground at the Matrix while perpetual doomsayers continue to bemoan Los Angeles as a theatrical wasteland. Au contraire, mon ami; as long as there are artists willing to take risks as they ply their craft, there will be that particularly invigorating brand of theater apparent in The Tavern.

Ideally, theater functions as a cooperative art form — performers, designers, and technicians filtering their creativity through the director's concept of the playwright's script. It's this concerted effort — coupled with the spontaneity of live performance — that makes the art form so vital. What takes place when the lights go up is written in sand, and can never be replicated because the moments onstage will never be precisely the same. Furthermore, each audience brings a different perspective to the theater, impacting the performance they view.

Joe Stern and his Matrix Theatre Company take these precepts to new heights with The Tavern. Besides employing the usual company of artists necessary for production, each role is played by two actors. While the practice of double-casting in itself isn't new, how the two casts are utilized is. The pairs work as a team, exploring new dimensions of cooperative creativity as they rehearse and mold their characters. Watching each other work, sharing stage time during rehearsals, and probing new realizations about their characters help to sharpen each actor's observation and listening skills. This teamwork is evident in the tight ensemble work shown on stage. By the end of the run, the group will have played with every possible combination of scene partners. Only on the first weekend were audiences able to see two different set casts; thus, this review is based on two consecutive and very different performances. There's not much possibility of this show getting staid or losing its luster.

In The Tavern, playwright George M. Cohan expertly ties together elements of burlesque, farce, and melodrama with romance and lyricism that belie his Irish ancestry. The year is 1900; the location, about fifty miles outside of Albany. Lights up on a tavern's common room, reverberating from the thunder and lightning of a violent storm. In rushes Zach John Walcutt, Kurt Deutsch), the son of the inn's proprietor, shaking with fear. He tells his father (Mitchell Ryan, Jim Haynie) and a serving wench (Marsha Deitlein) that someone is hiding in the wood shed. Two fugitives from the storm eventually surface: an enigmatic Vagabond (Cotter Smith, Robin Gammell) and a mysterious, manic fainting woman (Penny Fuller, Lindsay Grouse). Efforts to glean any information from the strangers is confounded by the arrival of an aristocratic entourage: Governor Lamson (Allan Arbus, George Murdock), his helpful wife (Audra Lindley, Marian Mercer), his charming daughter Virginia (Julia Campbell, Anna Gunn), and her stalwart fiance (Daniel McDonald, Jay Karnes). Add to this colorful crew a sheriff (James Handy, Charles Hallahan) and his men, as well as a mysterious stranger at the play's end (Lawrence Pressman, David Dukes), and you have a brilliantly layered insanity that captures your heart and your funny-bone.

All the actors' performances show meticulous attention to the details of the characters and should continue to grow, given the unique environment in which they are creating. Particularly noticeable in its effect on the play's rhythm are the stylistic and interpretive dissimilarities of Smith and Gammell as the verbose Vagabond. While the younger, more romantic Smith is captivated and titillated by the poetry of the circumstances around him, it is the dramatics that obsess Gammell. The dynamics of these differences are astounding, especially in the Vagabond's relationship with Virginia. The possibility of a romance appears with Smith; moreover, the audience hopes to see the spark ignite. Gammell's heavy stylism offers great complexities as it touches a fascination rooted deeply in Virginia's, and subsequently, her mother's, soul. Both approaches are valid and work wonderfully. Audiences that experience both of these actors will receive a rich, rare theatrical treat.

Tony Giordano's inspired direction guides each actor to a solid characterization. His understanding of Cohan's intent sports enormous acumen. The top-notch design team (sets, Neil Peter Jampolis; lights, Jane Reisman; costumes, Alan Armstrong; and sound, Matthew Beville) complements the cast with the quality of their artistry.

"Must see" is an understatement; must experience would be more appropriate. And to truly appreciate the complete uniqueness of the project, experience The Tavern twice — once with each Vagabond.

Read The Matrix Experiment, an L.A. Daily News article about the double-casting of "The Tavern."

Double Casting Coups, a TheaterWeek article about the
double-casting of "The Tavern," "The Seagull" and "Endgame"

Set Design: Neil Peter Jampolis
Lighting Design: Jane Reisman
Costume Design: Alan Armstrong
Sound Design: Matthew Beville
Stage Manager: Elaine Burn-Pyres

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