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One Act, Two Actors: Kurt Gravenhorst and Diane Tasca star in Pear Avenue's 'We Had a Very Good Time.'

The Pear That Roared

Small size, big ideas--Pear Avenue Theatre takes the risky road

By Marianne Messina

IN ITS LAST production, Show and Tell, a powerful drama about the aftermath of a fatal explosion in a school classroom, Mountain View's Pear Avenue Theatre used its small size to large advantage. The young troupe performs in a space that holds a little more than two score seats.

The sense of enforced intimacy accelerated the emotional stresses tearing at the parents of the victims and the investigators assigned to sort out the tragedy. It drew audiences closely, thickly into the crucible of human condition created by playwright Anthony Clarvoe.

Starting a fledgling theater company poses significant challenges in the best of economic climates. Sustaining such a project when even more established arts groups are floundering can be a daunting task. According to the Pear Avenue Theatre's Diane Tasca, the company's opening was about artistic freedom.

"I wanted to be putting my money where my mouth was and get serious about this," says Tasca, "and I wanted to ... get on the map." So Tasca, an award-winning actor and producer/director, gathered up her funds and a group of talented, like-minded theater professionals and searched out the unusual space they would convert into the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View.

For the actors, writers, directors and other crew members who have made the Pear happen, this theater is an artistic venture, not a commercial one. "The way I feel about theater," Tasca says, "is that it's the best thing that I do. It's really where I may be extraordinary."

And since they're driven mainly by an interest in discovering expressive vehicles, the Pear Avenue Theatre trustees do not play it safe when putting together their season. They don't take shelter in the arms of the familiar comedy, a staple of too many community theaters. They choose plays that may be unfamiliar, even when written by familiar playwrights. They're committed to doing at least one play per season that is "challenging to the audience," as Tasca puts it.

Their upcoming run situates two one-act plays (Leslie Ayvazian's High Dive and David Auburn's We Had a Very Good Time) on either side of an intermission with a unifying theme that is uncannily autobiographical: the rewards and consequences of risk.

"Since I'm working in a very small theater--the rent is not huge, and it's a 40-seat audience--I felt like I could afford to take chances," she explains. The Pear is indeed small, most likely the smallest theater on the peninsula.

Safety regulations for a space this minute dictate that as the cast size grows, the audience size shrinks. The Pear folk joke about someday having a cast so large that regulations will only allow one member in the audience. "Five hundred dollars for the seat," Tasca quips.

Still, members of Pear Avenue's core group seem to relish the small-space challenges. "Mainly, the space kind of defines us," Tasca says. She explains how, as an actor, the intimate atmosphere allows her to speak almost at a conversational level and to convey moods with facial expressions too subtle to be visible in the back seats from a proscenium stage.

Patricia Tyler, an actor with film, TV, improv club and stage credits, recalls how much time her character spent just sitting onstage during the production of Show and Tell. "You can see the first row really well. You don't, as an actor, focus. You've kind of got to 'fuzz,'" she explains about her technique. "And then, if you think you know somebody in the audience, you try not to look at them, because you know you'll be seen as breaking that fourth wall."

In a small theater, the actors backstage have to be extremely careful because the theater is noise-sensitive. One of the problem props for Show and Tell was a six-pack of beer in a paper bag. "There's no way to keep quiet with a six-pack," Tyler admits.

Tyler, who will be playing the Leslie Ayvazian character in High Dive (originally a one-woman play starring the playwright), grows animated as she discusses the possibilities of her upcoming role. The entire action takes place on or near a diving board as a woman tries to convince herself to jump.

"She's afraid of heights," Tyler says. "I don't know how we're going to stage it--one thought is she gets to a certain height and comes down and talks to the audience and then comes down a little more until she gets her nerve up to climb back up again."

We Had a Very Good Time, the other one-act on the bill, is David Auburn's comedy about an American couple vacationing in Europe. Most theatergoers know Auburn for Proof, his play about higher mathematics and family dynamics, which won both a Tony and a Pulitzer (and gets an area production in June at TheatreWorks).

For the final show of this season, the Pear mounts a play recently completed by in-house playwright Elyce Melmon. Refined at the Pear's weekly playwriting workshop under the guidance of equity actor and playwright Neva Hutchinson, Vehicle is a hopeful drama about Alzheimer's disease.

Then, for upcoming seasons, there's talk of doing an all-female Waiting for Godot, even if it means butting heads with the Samuel Beckett estate, which cries copyright like a rabid Disney Corp. to prevent female-acted Godots. They are also discussing the idea of a theatrically dense, visually minimal version of A Midsummer's Night's Dream, a play that usually invites elaborate costumes, set design and staging.

In times that send some arts venues scuttling toward the safety zone, Pear Avenue exhibits a surprising--and refreshing--taste for the ambitious.

We Had a Very Good Time and High Dive play May 23-June 8 , at the Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sundays: May 25, 2pm; June 1, 7pm.; June 8, 2pm. Admission is $15/$10. (650.254.1148)

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From the May 22-28, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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