Ion Theatre's Marat-Sade, 2005
Never mind that Hillcrest's Compass Theatre looks a lot like an auto-body shop from the outside, or that its thimble of a space is next door to that of an equally nondescript business. Performance is where you find it—ask anybody (like me) who's spent time cruising Hollywood's Theatre Row, where some great work used to flank the smell of fresh pee and the sight of crack-heads copping bogus highs from the fumes of passing buses and cars amid the roily Los Angeles night. Amusing, but not exactly agreeable.
Dale Morris, Compass' founder and executive director, can rest easy, as it's a cinch his theater won't fall prey to those elements. Hillcrest is too activist a turf—and besides, Morris is shutting down Compass effective Feb. 15 after nine years. Ion Theatre Company, which knows all about opening and closing venues, will assume control of the space at that time and taker over the lease payments for an undisclosed monthly amount.
Morris did not respond to CityBeat's request for a comment. “After discussing the economic conditions with my board,” he wrote in a Dec. 17 e-mail to friends and subscribers, “and facing the fact that it is impossible for us to generate the funds needed to survive in this little -seat space and to do quality theater at the same time, the decision has sadly been made to shut down Compass Theatre,” known until 2008 as 6th@Penn Theatre.
Meanwhile, according to his e-mail, Morris plans to seek acting work while the Compass board scouts for a bigger and better venue. “I'm not sure if this will happen or not,” Morris wrote of the search for new digs, “but it's exciting to think about and to hope for.”
The move represents a homecoming of sorts for Ion, which debuted in 2004 at the old 6th@Penn with its typically dark-sided fare. Since then, it's been in and out of more theaters than Bernie Madoff had unsuspecting clients. In early 2009, it left Mission Valley's Academy of Performing Arts in a protest revolving around Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California; before that, its life at Downtown's New World Stage was cut well short amid a series of municipal-code flaps. Sushi Performance & Visual Art; Diversionary Theatre; the Lyceum; the basement of Downtown's 6th Avenue Bistro: You name the house, Ion's played it.
“I'm so glad Dale called us,” said Claudio Raygoza, Ion's executive artistic director. “For once, I feel like we have a place we can call a home base. And [Compass] is perfect for the neighborhood. Just about everybody's seen something there. There's a real urban vibe to it.”
Raygoza said an interior makeover and a name change are planned, with the latter perhaps involving community input. Most important, he added, Ion is eagerly looking at concurrent productions in other spaces. “Cross-pollination of audiences,” he explained, “is a very theatrical way of keeping the live feel to [the art].”
I enjoyed several shows at the old 6th@Penn (Boy Gets Girl and Hecuba come to mind)—but its play choices were a confusing catch-all; the theater mounted everything from Greek translations to cutting-edge social commentary in its almost frantic effort to stay afloat. Ion's material may be ponderous and darkish, but it lives and dies by this consistency, the same way Diversionary's strictly assumed the LGBT mantle for nearly a quarter-century. That translates into reliable fare from a battle-tested company and, perhaps, a notable citywide cultural staple for many seasons to come.
The House of Yes, a sitcom in which Marty's engagement is a threat to his family, will be staged Jan. 14 to Feb. 14 as Compass' final play. The venue is located at 3704 Sixth Ave. More information is available at www.sdtheatrescene.com, Morris' theater website.
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