Return of the Art Bar

The theater is dead; long live the theater! That's the theme running through the non-stop conversation of Nicholas ("Nick") Vastakis, one-time managing director of the West-Mon Repertory Theater, now manager, head bar-keep and presiding spirit of the Westheimer Art Bar & Theatre. This new performance space is rising from the ashes left by the West-Mon (on Westheimer in the Montrose), which closed last December following a run of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio.

An open house for the theater and the grand opening for the art bar are both scheduled for this Saturday night, March 26; two weeks later the season will begin with the opening of Michael Morrow's The Secret Tapes of Jesus, A Conscious Comedy.

Vastakis founded the West-Mon last year with artistic director Tom Vaughn, but the two split over funding and administrative differences. By the time Vaughn left town and the theater closed, Vastakis was no longer involved. His similarly brave venture into publishing, the Houston Theatre Monthly, had also folded, and when the owners of the bar that had housed the West-Mon asked Vastakis to return and run the space, he was reluctant -- "the hair stood up on my head every time I drove past the place."

But after a few corporate job interviews, Vastakis decided he wasn't quite ready to abandon the life of the theater. Based on his experience with West-Mon, he thought the theater space could survive with a combination of self-subsidized and rental productions. "I'm whoring for the bar to get the

theater," he laughs. "And the theater space rents for a flat fee." He and a local actor, Randy Ladner, formed Panacea Productions to produce their own shows; The Secret Tapes of Jesus will be the first. Of the company's name, Vastakis comments, "We needed a 'panacea' -- a remedy -- for what was troubling the theater business, which is that art and business never seem to mix."

Panacea is working with director Mary Hooper on The Secret Tapes, whose author, Michael Morrow, is best known for his creation of The Minister Mike Show for Houston's Access TV. An irreverent look at contemporary religion, the play features a '90s Christ commenting on current issues, among them gay rights, abortion and the AIDS epidemic. The Secret Tapes previews Friday, April 8, with a champagne opening April 9.

The second production, scheduled for May, will be Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, to be directed by Marty McGovern, followed in June by Joe Orton's Loot, directed by Vicki Weathersby.

Despite his checkered experience, Vastakis is an inveterate optimist about local theater, with a contagious enthusiasm for the future of his newest venture. He says he's determined to make a go of it at the Art Bar, and is convinced that he has the business and artistic experience necessary to bring it off. At any rate, he insists he isn't quite ready to abandon his theatrical ambitions for a more orthodox career. "I didn't think I'd had a good enough chance in the ring...


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