Trailblazing on the Tightrope

The Rubicon Theatre Company’s resident lovebirds, James O’Neil and Karyl Lynn Burns, are ready to cross the Rubicon — again

By Stacey Wiebe

Artist rendering of the Rubicon Theater. Painting by Ruth Ellen Hoag.


ou’d never guess it to look at them — relaxing comfortably on the plush leather furniture of a warm upstairs office at the Rubicon Theatre Company — but James O’Neil and Karyl Lynn Burns are not at all unlike Julius Caesar.

It’s true that neither is, has been or likely will ever be a famous Roman dictator, that neither has suffered an assassination plot and will probably never utter the words “Et tu, Brute?” with any seriousness (save for appearances in Julius Caesar), but the married couple and co-theater-owners could probably venture a pretty good guess as to what Caesar was thinking as he was about to cross the Rubicon River into Rome, something like, “It’s sink or swim time, buddy — so you’d better swim.”

It is said that, in 49 B.C., having made the decision to take the final plunge, Caesar walked into the waters of the Rubicon and said, “The die is cast” — there’s no turning back now. Since then, the phrase “Crossing the Rubicon” has come to signify making an irreversible choice and, as Burns and O’Neil say, “taking a risk, moving forward with tenacity and commitment.”

It makes sense, then, that risk-taking, tenacity and commitment is what the Rubicon Theatre Company is all about.

And, with Dale Wasserman’s Man of La Mancha — easily the theater’s biggest show to date — just days from opening, Burns and O’Neil have their hands more than full with that whole “crossing the Rubicon” thing. “It is the most astounding collection of actors,” O’Neil says of the La Mancha cast, which is headed up by Ted Neeley (Broadway and film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Rubicon’s Murder in the First) and Linda Purl (Getting and Spending and Tom Sawyer on Broadway, and Rubicon’s Streetcar Named Desire). “It will blow the roof off the theater.”

“Just the voices will blow the roof off the theater,” Burns adds with an infectious grin.

“It’s also just a massive show,” says O’Neil, who’s just as friendly, but a little more thoughtfully quiet, than his intelligently affable wife. With O’Neil, you can almost hear the wheels turning between his ears. While Burns starred last season as the disarming Shirley Valentine, O’Neil made a spooky appearance in The Turn of the Screw. With so much in common but gifted with unique talents, it’s easy to see why the dynamic duo make a winning team or, in the case of the Rubicon’s 2006-2007 season, a successful balancing act.

Appropriately titled, “Balancing Acts” is the theme for the upcoming seven-production season, which will offer three world premieres, one California premiere and three classics. The current season closes with La Mancha, and the new season opens Nov. 30 with the world premiere of Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday.

“We thought ‘Balancing Acts’ for several reasons,” Burns says. “When we select a season, we try to find a balance because we’re the only indigenous non profit, professional theater company here and we have a wide range of people to appeal to …

“At this time in the world, it’s important to find the time to focus on our souls — to set aside time every month to reflect and relax and, hopefully, think deeply about the state of the world and our lives … The theater is a place where people of different religious beliefs, ages and backgrounds sit together in the dark.”

Selecting a season that offers something to all people is a balancing act for the couple, a balancing act that has changed since the theater was founded in 1998. While Burns and O’Neil strive to design seasons that push the envelope and take major risks, that startle and make audiences think, they also strive to offer theater that’s accessible to families and audiences with a conservative bent. And as the pair continues to build trust in the community, they continue to take greater risks.

“We have been really conscious over the years about what we think we can do — and when,” O’Neil says. “If you have developed a certain trust, you feel like you can push it in one direction or another, but it’s not about one single show or one season. It’s about a collection of work over time, and it’s a given that some people aren’t going to like something.”

“You want people to feel safe,” Burns adds, “and you also want to astonish and delight and challenge them.”

Some of the couple’s choices have had much to do with current events. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, for instance, was presented shortly before war in Iraq broke out. Likewise, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy was produced at the time of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

In the coming season, Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday, a family-friendly musical review that will include everything from John Denver songs to Kermit the Frog, will be followed by the world premiere of the musical A Time for Love — just in time for Valentine’s Day. The musical tells the story of love over time, as the two characters come together, fall in love and grow apart as they strive to work and raise children in the modern world.

Next up is the California premiere of By the Waters of Babylon, a sweet, poetic show that follows the friendship blossoming between Arturo, a gardener in exile from his native Cuba, and Catherine, the widow of a Texas college professor who is being ostracized by her community. As Arturo tends Catherine’s neglected garden, their relationships grows in unexpected ways.

Babylon will be followed by the great Shakespearean tragedy, very possibly the tragedy to end all tragedies: Hamlet. The brooding prince of Denmark will be portrayed by Joseph Fuqua, who has made several appearances at the Rubicon (most recently in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Tuesdays with Morrie).

“Joseph has done so many things for us that have been fantastic and we really think of him as our first company member,” says O’Neil of his close friend and colleague, explaining why Hamlet — the role to end all roles, considered a rite of passage by actors from all over the world — will be played, for the first time, by Fuqua. “It was Joseph, really. We had the opportunity to make that happen for him, and we did it.”

O’Neil will take on the role of Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the man who marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, after his father’s untimely death. As anyone familiar with the play —arguably the best ever written — knows, Hamlet is tasked with killing Claudius by the ghost of his father. And so the real drama begins …

To hear O’Neil and Burns describe the upcoming season and the remarkable thought they invested into making it one with something for everyone is to see clearly that they were meant to found their own theater company. It stands to reason that the passion the pair has for theater and for acting will be easily parlayed into O’Neil’s turn as the questionable Claudius.

“I don’t know how I feel about playing Claudius yet because I haven’t really examined the role from the inside,” O’Neil says, with characteristic thoughtfulness, “but I am very excited we’re doing that play.”

The production of Hamlet will be the second Shakespearean production (the first was Romeo and Juliet) at the Rubicon since the theater opened. Few productions with large casts are performed frequently, Burns and O’Neil explain, because it is simply too expensive — and Shakespeare always wove together a gaggle of characters.

Hamlet will be followed by the classic Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of a Lesser God, the story of James Leeds — a professor at a college for the deaf — and the beautiful, willful student with whom he falls in love. Though he encourages her to learn to lip read, Sarah is determined to live life on her own terms.

After that is the world premiere Bad Apples, a wacky comedy wholly unlike the intense drama of Children of a Lesser God. Developed in the Rubicon’s “Plays in Progress” program (through which new plays are seen by audiences who provide feedback) and written by Mark Stein — author of the brilliant Mating Dance of the Werewolf — Apples is the story of two seemingly innocuous bridge-playing women who are in cahoots to help a “cry baby ex-con” break his girl out of prison.

The season will wrap with the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance, an electrifying and thought-provoking drama about boundaries and responsibility, to be directed by O’Neil. “It really pushes the limits of what we think are proper attitudes about family and friends,” says O’Neil, who adds that he was speechless after he saw the play some years ago.

A Delicate Balance is the story of a Connecticut couple dealing with the return of their divorced daughter and an alcoholic sister who are surprised when their neighbors, another couple, show up and ask if they can stay — forever. The only explanation that the couple provides is that they are inexplicably “afraid.” “It’s really about the bounds of friendship,” Burns says, “It asks the question, ‘What do we really owe each other?’ ”

With another season nearly underway, O’Neil and Burns — who’ve been married 20 years and were engaged three months after they met while performing in a Santa Barbara production of Man of La Mancha — are ready to continue plumbing the depths of the human heart.

They had no way of knowing, when they crossed the Rubicon for the first time by moving to Ventura, that the likes of Jack Lemmon, John Ritter — who both made their final stage appearances at the Rubicon — Joel Grey, David Birney, Ed Asner, Harold Gould, Stacy Keach, Jeff Kober, Bonnie Franklin, Jayne Meadows, Stephanie and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Michael Learned, Jenny Sullivan and so many others would grace their stage. Or that 200,000 people would be there to see their 53 productions to date.

“I’ve always known I wanted to do this,” Burns says. “I was always the little kid who did shows in the basement...”


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