In the current climate of “NO!” within the 99-seat theater community, Wendy MacLeod’s “The House of Yes” is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a revival at the Zephyr Theatre. Directed by the Zephyr’s Producing Artistic Director Lee Sankowich, this black comedy marks a return in more ways than just the play itself, but also for Sankowich, whose gusty career has been much like what the word zephyr means—a gentle wind.
As the 99-seat war wages, Sankowich’s Zephyr Theatre is like an oasis in the eye of the storm. It has endured from its earliest origin as the Horseshow Stage in 1956, renamed the Zephyr, a moniker Sankowich kept after he purchased the building in the mid-80s. For the dauntless director, it was simply a practical decision in a time where intimate stages were few and too far between. The Zephyr Theatre served as a constant breeze, keeping Sankowich aloft.
Unlike other theater homes with branded company names, the Zephyr Theatre over time became associated as primarily a rental space. During the theater’s formative period, Sankowich’s career had already skyrocketed with his professional directing debut of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which ran for 5 ½ years in San Francisco and 2 ½ in New York. His success garnered the attention of Kirk Douglas who eagerly wanted to sign the movie rights to Sankowich who passed on the deal in order to concentrate his efforts in theater.
Chatting with Sankowich after sitting in on the first read-through of “The House of Yes,” reveals the director’s keen focus on theater in lieu, perhaps, of the lucrative film/TV industry. On this note, he doesn’t cry over the euphemistic spilled milk but eagerly exudes about the New York “One Flew Over…” run. “The production was in the Mercer Hansbury theater [Greenwich Village/Mercer Arts Center]. It was an old converted ballroom. The building collapsed. It was the only reason we closed.” The center’s structural collapse ended the 1000 performance run of “One Flew Over…” but Sankowich kept the show going in Boston and later Israel.
His west coast career took a sharp turn when Mel Shapiro, the Head of Carnegie Mellon University, invited Sankowich to the prestigious institution where he was an Associate Professor of Drama, teaching graduate directing and acting classes. Although he enjoyed teaching and the stability academia provided for his family, Sankowich yearned for risk-taking projects and the west coast environs. His return to Los Angeles and the Zephyr Theatre in 2007 after running the Marin Theatre Company as the Artistic Director for 16 years began with his directing of “The Last Schwartz” and in 2011, the world premiere of “Moses Supposes” and last year’s world premiere of “Low Hanging Fruit” about women on L.A.’s skid row. Caring for an ailing daughter checkered Sankowich’s return as a director in Los Angeles, but his dedication never wavered.
Sankowich’s back though was never fully turned away from the Zephyr Theatre, even while he directed in regional theaters across the country and internationally. In Los Angeles, the Zephyr Theatre maintained a solid reputation both for its intimate but versatile space and Westside location. It was a theater which struck a familiar chord with audiences and critics alike. But the Zephyr as an artistic entity, a theater with a singular vision or purpose lacked, ironically, the direction only Sankowich’s undivided focus could provide. He is now reenergized and flying high with the dark comedy “House of Yes” popularized by the indie film starring Parker Posey and Tori Spelling.
Subtitled “A Suburban Jacobean Play,” MacLeod’s absurdist treatment of a family haunted by the memory of JFK’s assassination takes on a multilayered dimension that includes incest, psychological disorders, and secrets simmering underneath a subterfuge of normalcy. Set in the Pascal home near the Kennedy estate in Virginia during a hurricane on Thanksgiving, a holiday visit opens up a lurid power struggle between three siblings and their mother. Fans of the popular book and TV series, Game of Thrones, will feel right at home what with the incest among twins, the manipulations and ultimate price paid for unholy allegiances to family. On another level, MacLeod’s play is a social commentary on how a singular day in national or personal history can define a people and their relation to the world around them.
Sankowich was at home channel surfing on TV when he accidently came across the film. Familiar with the play but having never seen it onstage, he watched the cult classic, mesmerized. He shelved his original plan to mount “Spring Storm,” a play written by Tennessee Williams while the then, unknown playwright was in college. MacLeod’s “The House of Yes” resonated with Sankowich, who admits his own home life was very normal.
The disturbing but engaging characters and tension between them satisfied Sankowich’s innate curiosity and desire to produce the show. “Every character in this play has a secret. They are complex.”
He follows with the play itself being introduced to a generation possibly unaware of its stage inception. “It’s timeless. The Kennedy assassination, 9/11, these events resonate. The play could be set today in 2015. They’re extraordinary circumstances but it’s also believable. I want to reflect a certain abstraction but everything that happens needs to be real to the audience by the end.”
The man behind the Zephyr Theatre is back, although in truth, he never really left. It’s difficult to predict the outcome for 99-seat theaters in Los Angeles but the Zephyr Theatre will continue being a gentle wind for the community and for Sankowich himself with “The House of Yes” opening on May 9, confirming his indelible reputation as a director and an artist who continues to soar.