“Yes, but don't worry,” Davis reassured the caller. “You'll be fine. It will all make sense.”
The Parson's Nose specialty is abridged versions of plays by Moliere, Shakespeare and other authors of classic literature for the stage. The company has opened the door to such work for many an audience member, young and old, since its founding in 2000.
Coming up next: A Parson's Nose “Reader's Theatre” adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's “Pygmalion,” the basis for the iconic Lerner and Loewe musical, “My Fair Lady.” Two “Pay What You Will” performances will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. and next Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Lineage Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, the company's home since 2010.
“This is our first venture into Shaw,” said Davis, whose company is made up primarily of classically trained actors with extensive professional theater, film and television credits. “We try to do plays that people might have heard of, but may have never seen. Of course, people know ‘My Fair Lady,' so if we're going to do a Shaw, we thought this is a good one to start with.”
Among the “Pygmalion” cast are Parson's Nose company members Ivar Brogger as Professor Higgins (a role Brogger understudied on Broadway for Peter O'Toole), Marisa Henderson as Eliza Doolittle, and actor and former Screen Actors Guild president Barry Gordon as Alfred Doolittle. Davis will play Colonel Pickering.
Although it is “Reader's Theater,” don't expect “a sit-down, actors-mumbling-into-their-knees” version of the play, Davis said. “We carry a script, but we're on our feet and it's quite dynamic.”
Still, reducing “Pygmalion” to 75 minutes has been a challenge, he said. Davis, who does all Parson's Nose adaptations, including any necessary French translations, said that “Shakespeare is somewhat easier” to abridge than Shaw. “You're cutting into Shaw's arguments that are so lucid and so fun, and each person's point of view makes so much sense, you want to keep the essence of that.”
The production will honor Shaw's intent that Eliza and Henry Higgins go their separate ways, something the musical left open. Shaw fought that romantic suggestion “all through the history of the production of this piece,” said Davis, noting Shaw's direction that Eliza toss Higgins' hand off her arm “and let it be certain that she is walking out the door. I find it fascinating to explore that.”
Davis came out of the noted Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, as did veteran stage and screen actor Brogger — “we shared a dressing room there for three years,” Davis said. He is a character actor whose Broadway credits include Moss Hart's “Once in a Lifetime” at Circle in the Square in 1978 with John Lithgow, Treat Williams and Jayne Meadows; and the ambitious 1995 failure, “On the Waterfront,” which closed after six performances. (“We fought valiantly,” said Davis, who played the doomed Runty Nolan in the production.) Among the 20 or so TV series that Davis has appeared in are “Roseanne,” “Picket Fences,” “Coach,” “Night Court” and cult favorite “Twin Peaks.”
Davis' inspiration for Parson's Nose, co-founded with his wife, Mary Chalon, another stage and screen professional, came when Davis was teaching acting class at UC San Bernardino. “I realized that while my students had heard of ‘Twelfth Night,' and they knew it was a supposedly funny play, they had never seen it, or worse, they had read it, but had no idea why it would be funny.” They needed to see it “off the page,” and onstage to understand it, Davis said.
After presenting its often uproarious abridged versions of Shakespeare and Moliere for primarily adult audiences at its original home base at Interact Theatre Company in North Hollywood, Parson's Nose was tapped to tour even shorter versions of its shows to schools under the auspices of the Geffen Playhouse. It put on family matinees at the Geffen, the Pasadena Playhouse and other local venues; for a short time, the company created its own performance space under a tent in South Pasadena.
“Then the recession hit and even our tickets were too expensive,” Davis said. The company felt boxed in, too, by the perception that its “classics for all ages” were meant only for the youngest demographic.
“Because we had become branded as a children's theater, people were coming in with toddlers eating Cheerios in strollers,” Davis said. “And while children loved our productions, the plays are not really written for kids. We love to have young people from fourth grade up come to the shows,” although it varies from play to play, he said. “If we do ‘She Stoops to Conquer,' obviously that's not for kids.” That 18th century comedy of manners by Oliver Goldsmith, however, “is fine for high school and college students.”
Although entertainment, not education is the main intent, Davis is emphatic that Parson's Nose productions begin with respect for the material. “I don't do hip hop or rock ‘n' roll versions,” he said. “I want to stay true to the spirit of the writer. Key to what we're trying to do,” he said, is to encourage audiences to feel comfortable with the classics, not intimidated.
“We're there to present the language and the characters and the plot in an abbreviated version. The idea is to move the plot along and say what happens next, and then what happens next, and keep the plot intact. At the end of the hour,” Davis said, “you'll know the story of the play, you'll know who the main characters are and what their intentions are and you'll know what the playwright is saying with the language.
“Then you can go see a full production somewhere and say, ‘O.K., I know this play.”
Some purists do object, Davis acknowledged. One reviewer “was incensed that we didn't keep all of the words of ‘Twelfth Night' and that we cut it at all. But when you think about it, ‘Hamlet' is really a five-hour production, so you have to have a sense of what we're trying to accomplish here. We're not competing with full productions. The best responses we get are when people say afterward, ‘I want to go back and read that play,' or, ‘I want to see it again.'”
Parson's Nose will follow its Reader's Theatre presentation of “Pygmalion” with a reprise of its riotous fully staged production of Moliere's “The Miser” — or “The Mi$er,” as Davis entitles it, running Feb. 9 to 23 at Lineage.
“I try and stay true to the spirit of the early Moliere,” said Davis, who will return as obsessed skinflint Harpagon — one of his signature roles with the company. I keep it in the commedia dell'arte feel with all of its raucousness, one-liners and slapstick. It's a comedy full out.”
Where: Lineage Performing Arts Center, 89 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena
When: 7 p.m. Saturday,2 p.m. next SundayCost: Pay What You Will, from $5 to $25
More info: (626) 403-7667, www.parsonsnose.com
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.