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The Elephant is diagnosed with Parasite Drag

August 26, 2010

Naturally it’s disappointing to be a long time member of an ensemble theatre, count the director among your friends, audition for a 4-person show, and be told the role you coveted went to someone else. After all, the ensemble has a reading committee that helps to shape each season. 

David Fofi

“It’s kind of an evolving thing and you think you’re going to reach a point where people take the news with aplomb, and sometimes they do,” says David Fofi, founding artistic director of the Elephant Space and currently directing Parasite Drag. “It doesn’t seem to get easier. Sometimes, when it’s someone you’ve known a long time and think they would take it as it goes, sometimes say say, ‘This was mine – I’ve known you for 12 years. I’m shocked.’” 

Must be worse for the guys, given the end of Act One, when one actor dawns a pair of reading glasses before slipping his face between a woman’s legs, acquiescing to quench her parched loins. 

While Parasite Drag has its laughs – many, in fact – it has its moments of anguish, too. The script walks a fine line between character development and foreshadowing. My girlfriend picks up on something a character says that foreshadows a later action, she tells me on the drive home. I’d missed it entirely. I share this with Fofi. “I thought I’d hear that more often. When I see the play, I wonder if that line’s too on the nose. It’s a terrific little moment itself and we talked about not hitting that over the head and not presenting it too much.” 

The character is just in the moment, Fofi explains, talking about something he felt was the right thing to do when he was much younger that cost him his relationship with his brother. “Hopefully your girlfriend’s just really, really smart,” he adds. 

Don Cesario

Fofi opened the Elephant Stages in 1999 with co-founder Don Cesario. “When I’m directing the kind of work I like to do, it’s impressionistic, more like the paint on the canvas like Jackson Pollock – surrealism or impressionism so that you’re feeling something. I know some people like theatre to be all for the brain, but I like it when it’s raw and can shift at any moment.”

He reflects on the occasional criticism he receives. “I tend to be criticized, maybe, because a lot of what I do doesn’t look for the pure American dramaturgical masterpiece.” Instead, he says, he looks for “something that excites me or makes me laugh or can bring a charge or electricity to the room.”

He remains an actor’s director. Mim Drew, who plays the long-suffering wife, Joellen, opposite Robert Foster, says, “Fofi’s always been great at casting plays with bigger casts or he’ll double cast and we’ll switch on and off. But he made an exception for this piece I think because it’s such an intense piece and the four of us have to be so connected. He focused in on those four characters.” 

Everyone suffers in this play. There are secrets learned, doubts raised, fears realized. There is loss. I ask Fofi which character he finds the most sympathetic – if he can even form an opinion after reading the script 50 times and delving into it so intimately over four months. “The most sympathy… you know, it’s tough. I grew up with three older brothers in Pennsylvania and some other states. I sympathize with Joellen a lot, but between the brothers, at the end of the day, I think I sympathize most with Gene, the younger brother who got left behind as a kid. I just don’t think he ever lived a life.”

Robert Foster

Gene has become a born-again Christian and entered the ministry. It’s an inauspicious start when Gene appears nursing a black eye, courtesy of Joellen. “I think the arc, and the work that Mark Roberts did was incredible to show what this guy appears to be is not what’s in his heart, tragically at the end, and you see the pain he’s gone through. It’s not a knock toward religion that he dove into it; it’s a knock on someone putting all their hopes in some dogma or doctrine and missing the whole point of being spiritual and not really living this life.”

For Drew, the character who earns the most sympathy is her sister-in-law, Susie, played by Agatha Nowicki and comes into the family completely in the dark. “Her husband, Ronnie (Boyd Kestner, The Outsiders, Knots Landing), doesn’t tell her about his past, which I end up revealing to her. She’s like ‘Wait a second, what’s happening here?’ I’ve been around long enough to know the really dark past and, even though I want out, I’m still in it.”

Mim Drew

The couple has no children. “The ‘no kids’ thing was difficult for me. Then I realized as a woman of later years like I am who has a 2 year old that it’s not always easy to conceive, so maybe she stayed in it to try. There’s inertia that happens in everyday life. You just settle. It’s the path of least resistance she took until finally that everything that she does to cope wasn’t working any more.

Drew believes Joellen puts blinders on “as people do in real life when we just want something to work. She really did love her husband at one point and we turn a blind eye to make a marriage work, a life work, and I think she clung to that for years and years. Finally she looked around and said that she has to get out of here.”

Getting out, albeit for the short-term, is something Fofi dreams of doing. “What I really want is … I have the 99 seat space, the 72 seat space, the studios where I hold classes, so I’d just like to be a little more comfortable budget-wise and funding-wise so that I might have the liberty to take some Elephant theatre company shows out of LA to Chicago, New York, places like that. I’d also like to be able to go off and do my own directing, knowing the theatre’s taken care of.”  

Is money never an issue? “It’s mostly volunteers and part-timers, so I really can’t leave to direct a play in New York for a summer, for example. I do have the people in the theatre company to manage that end, but it’s challenging right now.”

If you’ve ever flown, you’re familiar with parasite drag. The faster the play goes with a wing angle that’s just right, it lifts and gains speed. Anything to interfere with that, slows it down and, sometimes, brings it to a dead stop.

Parasite Drag runs through September 18. (323) 960-4410; Elephant Space 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038.

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