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Bringing serious theater to the home of glitz

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The creative team at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles - one of America's top regional theaters - prides itself on taking the time to plumb the deeper fault lines of our day. If it is accurate in its choices for the theater's coming 32nd season, the role of women in this post-feminist era is weighing heavily on today's collective cultural consciousness.

Beginning with a new version of the Stephen Sondheim musical review "Putting It Together," headlined by Carol Burnett, and concluding with a world premire, "The First Picture Show," the plays celebrate the contributions of women as both artist and muse. The season finale is a commissioned work, which artistic director Gordon Davidson says reflects a key interest of his own.

The piece touches on the early days of the film industry, the era of silent movies. Mr. Davidson points out that many of film's early pioneers were women who helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of a new art form. "When sound came in, these women all disappeared," he says. "Many people don't know this because the memory has been erased."

Significant common themes have emerged in this season's works. In Paula Vogel's 1997 Pulitzer prize-winning "How I Learned to Drive" the heroine must face an incestuous relationship as she comes of age.

And an all-women showcase, Ellen McLaughlin's "Tongue of the Bird," is anchored by a tough search-and-rescue pilot. But director Davidson says that assembling a season begins with searching out the best works - not pre-identifying a theme. If one emerges, says Davidson, "it must be touching something in the culture."

Commissioning new works that investigate deeper cultural themes has been the modus operandi of the Taper during its three-decades-plus under Davidson.

"It embraces the whole multicultural experience that is L.A.," observes Tom Bradac, chairman of the theater department at Chapman University in Orange County. "When the Taper started, it had no reputation. If you look at the variety and amount of work done ... it now rivals New York.

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