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Thursday, September 12, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Love' An Intimate Look At Gay Life

Seattle Times Theater Critic

----------------------------------------------------------------- Theater preview

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" by Terrence McNally opens Wednesday at Intiman Theatre, and plays through Sept. 13. 269-1900. -----------------------------------------------------------------

The three actors from the all-male cast of "Love, Valour, Compassion!" looked a tad pooped as they convened in the sunny Intiman Playhouse courtyard earlier this week.

Small wonder. The Bay Area-based performer James Carpenter and his Seattle and New York colleagues, Mark Schwotzer and Jeffrey Hayenga, were racing from costume fittings to hair-cutting sessions, to rehearsals, to classical ballet lessons . . . Classical ballet?

Mais oui. In Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning 1995 drama, a close-knit circle of gay friends don't just do the usual vacation stuff together at a country house in upstate New York. They also don tutus to perform a dance from "Swan Lake" for an AIDS benefit.

In Warner Shook's Northwest premiere production at the Intiman, the dance is choreographed by Pacific Northwest Ballet director Kent Stowell. And it is done, you should pardon the expression, straight.

"So we're doing an hour of dance training every morning," confides Carpenter, who fills the preppy role of Arthur, "and it is really hard. We're trying to do the Dance of the Swans as it was meant to be done. But some of us are so spastic they've had to modify it."

Going up on toe is not the only challenges the actors face, in McNally's extended, affectionate chronicle of love, lust, friendship, aging and illness among six men who holiday regularly together.

Schwotzer is preparing to play a young blind man, Bobby. As the script specifies, the roles of English twin brothers - one lovable, the other a menace - will be filled by a single busy actor, Seattle's versatile Laurence Ballard. (Kevin Donovan and Patrick Kerr round out the cast as, respectively, Arthur's longtime lover Perry, and their outrageously showstruck pal, Buzz).

The actors also have had to grapple with the shifting sense of time and space McNally employs in this hit Broadway piece. Says Hayenga, who plays Gregory, a choreographer in midlife crisis, "The action takes place over a number of years, so you're constantly jumping between past, present and future. It's a crazy mixed-up kind of thing, very intense and involved."

And then there's nudity. The character of a young modern dancer, Ramon (Bruno Irizarry), lolls in the buff in one scene. And most of the others peel off their clothing to take a dip in an imaginary lake.

Even a fleeting moment of nakedness can make a performer (and audience) nervous. And somehow male nudity tends to provoke more anxiety than its female counterpart.

But Hayenga takes it in stride. "This really isn't gratuitous," he insists. "Basically the play is about a group of guys, old friends, on vacation at this secluded spot, so it's totally natural."

Schwotzer, a recent graduate of the University of Washington's Professional Actor Training Program, concurs. "It's meant to be a giddy sort of thing, very lighthearted and life-affirming."

Hayenga says the play serves to "humanize an area of society that has long been demonized. Gay men as a group are unnecessarily frightening to some people." Adds Carpenter, "It shows that gay relationships are just as valid and meaningful as straight relationships, and that's important."

The show's bicoastal cast of gay and straight actors has had only a short rehearsal period to fuse into the tight ensemble "Love! Valour! Compassion!" requires. Reflects Carpenter, "It's an intimate play. You have to dance with people, sing with them, kiss and get naked with them. We've had to bond quickly."

Sustaining that bond is crucial, because the production runs in two cities through early January. Intiman is co-producing it with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where Carpenter is a resident artist. After the Seattle engagement ends in October, the actors get a 10-day break and then plunge back into rehearsals (and dance workouts)for a Berkeley run.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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