LIFE - Sunday, November 10, 2002
Pentacle director thrives on perfection, obsession

Statesman Journal
November 10, 2002 Bowser

Randy Bowser is wiry and energetic, genial when he needs to be and rude when he wants to be, his intensity suggested by a nervous habit of smoking.

"The good news about Randy is he's obsessive," said Larry Roach, who is Bowser's assistant director on "Metropolis," opening Friday at Pentacle Theatre. "The bad news is, he's obsessive."

Bowser's legendary ability to fixate on something and pursue it to fulfillment has been built over the nine years he has directed nine productions at Pentacle and acted in five.

That happened most notably in 2000 with "Hair," a musical in which he collaborated with the original producer and a co-author, and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" in 1997, in which he convinced composer Rupert Holmes to let him do an electronic score.

Of the "obsessive" description, Bowser's light designer, Terry Rohse, said, "Absolutely, that describes him. He is one of the most dedicated directors I've ever worked with."

"That's really true," said Lee Ann Reed, Pentacle general manager. "He was just as obsessive about 'Hair' as he was about 'Metropolis.' "

The people who work with him have to buy into that obsession, said Don Williamson, who worked for Bowser on "Hair," in which Williamson played Berger, and the 1999 production of "The Pirates of Penzance" (Bowser is a Gilbert & Sullivan fanatic).

"He's developed a reputation for putting on a great show visually, as well as on all the other fronts," Williamson said.

"They tend to be tedious because you have to put in a lot of work. "There's a lot of time commitments. The payoff turns out to be worth the time spent."

Some people use stronger language, off the record, to describe the experience of working with Bowser, but most agree the results can be worth the ordeal.

Bowser can spend years on a show, preparing, researching, working on the music and even, when possible, contacting the creators.

He comes to the show with almost everything thought out.

Rohse said Bowser had all the light cues precisely set for "Metropolis" when Rohse came on board. Rohse slyly proceeded to use his own ideas.

"He's a jack of all trades," Williamson said of Bowser. "It's tough for him to trust someone else.

"He's an amazing musician, a great director and a great actor."

Joseph Brooks, the composer and co-author of "Metropolis," agreed that Bowser is unusual when he visited Salem in June after being "hunted" by Bowser.

"Obviously, he's somebody who's quite out of the ordinary," Brooks said.

Bowser admits he can be determined.

Two weeks before opening "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," the first musical he directed at Pentacle, the New York publisher of the play contacted Bowser and told him he couldn't use his electronically recorded score.

"I was devastated," Bowser recalled.

"I made the statement to the cast if I could talk to Rupert Holmes, he would know what I was doing."

And Bowser managed to get Holmes on the phone, talked for two hours and got his approval.

When he directed "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" last year, Bowser tried to get in touch with composer Stephen Sondheim, getting approval from his management instead to do a different musical treatment.

With "Hair," he collaborated with the producer Michael Butler and surviving co-author James Rado, inserting material from a new version in the works. Both Butler and Rado attended the opening.

"Directing a musical is a little like directing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus", said Bowser, who admits he loves the circus atmosphere, loves the theatricality.

"I do love the art form," Bowser said. "I think you can get more poetic. You can directly appeal to people's emotions.

"That's what people want stirred, not their heads. I hate passive theater; entertainment is supposed to involve you."

Bowser also has become adept at working the media, finding ways to build excitement about his projects among the press.

"He is the person who generates the most publicity," Reed said. "He knows how to work the system."

Born in Oklahoma, Bowser lived in various Oregon cities with his family before attending South Eugene High School and meeting legendary Eugene director Ed Ragozzino, his teacher for three years.

"I consider him my mentor," Bowser said.

Like Bowser, Ragozzino is known as an obsessive, demanding director, fine tuning every detail of his shows.

Right out of high school, Bowser was hired for the summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in 1966, where founder Angus Bowmer had decided to hire a couple of teen-agers as an experiment.

Dan Hays, a Salem freelance writer who reviews books for the Statesman Journal and directs and acts, was acting at the festival in 1966 and remembers Bowser well.

"At the festival, he was anxious to work, worked quite hard," Hays said. "I was very impressed with him."

Hays also knew him when Bowser was a student at the University of Oregon, where Bowser played the lead in the rock opera "Tommy," among other shows, showing a penchant for rock opera.

"A fellow student and I wrote a rock opera, 'Inferno,' based on Dante's 'Inferno,' " Bowser said.

Hays remembers seeing Bowser's character getting crucified on stage in "Inferno."

At 25, Bowser took his act to Los Angeles, staying 14 years to do theater, including his own musical version of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Things didn't break his way, and Bowser even turned down an offer to work for Joseph Papp, the legendary director of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Bowser came to Salem 10 years ago to be with his family, having lived away from home since age 17.

His mother passed away from Alzheimer's in June, and Bowser came to support himself as an eBay merchant. He started a career at Pentacle, also directing at the now-defunct Salem Theatre of Performing Arts, also known as STOPA.

Hays' path crossed with Bowser again when Hays played the Rev. Chausible in the comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Pentacle in 1998.

"That's when I rediscovered how excessive he can be when he directs a play," Hays said.

Bowser requires total devotion and a long rehearsal period but can be open to an actor's inventiveness.

"If you come up with inventive things and they work, he's open to them," Hays said.

"He's over the top; he's a perfectionist," sums up Hays.

"He has always been prone to the unusual."

But in the unusual, the obscure, such as "Metropolis," Bowser has the gift of connecting with an audience, Hays said.

Now, Bowser may take his gift for the unusual to another town and abandon plans to direct Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" at Pentacle next season.

Brooks has asked Bowser to direct "Metropolis" Off-Broadway.

"That's pretty amazing," Bowser said. "It's no secret he has enjoyed collaborating with me.

"It's very possible this is my last show here; I have to be realistic about that.

"It's been fun, and now I just need to move on. Pentacle let me push the envelope on what can be done in community theater, and it hasn't always been without travail to keep raising the ladder rung, but we've done that, and it's been a rewarding experience."

Ron Cowan can be reached at (503) 399-6728.

Copyright 2002 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon