A classic LA summer - from Shakespeare to Queen

Summertime -
And the Shakespeare is outside.
Swords are jumpin'
And the concepts are high.
Oh, the language is rich
And the trees are good-lookin'.
So hush, LA audiences,
Don't you cry.

-- apologies to DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Midsummer in LA brings with it a remarkable profusion of professional Shakespeare productions in the great outdoors: Shakespeare Center at the VA's Japanese Garden, Independent Shakespeare Company in Griffith Park, the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. Farther out, you can find Shakespeare Orange County in Garden Grove and the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks.

Taken together (which hardly anyone ever does, because of the distances between the venues), these companies constitute one of America's largest Shakespearean hotspots. All of them qualify for the "professional" distinction by using by using at least some Actors' Equity members on contracts.

The breaking news this summer in this arena is, well, the arena itself that Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles is using for its "Romeo and Juliet" at the VA's Japanese Garden in Brentwood. In all my summers watching alfresco Shakespeare in LA, I can't recall seeing another in-the-round production.

Jack Mikesell (Romeo) and Christina Elmore (Juliet) at the VA. Photo: Michael Lamont

With the audience distributed in properly raked seating on all four sides of a square, everyone feels close to the action. This is the great benefit of in-the-round configurations. And director Kenn Sabberton magnifies that effect in his "R & J" by sending the actors into just about every section of the space at some point during the play - occasionally using audience members as silent props. This production is continually on the move - in stark contrast to the excessively languorous pacing of Sabberton's staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" last year.

Set and lighting designer Trevor Norton has furnished a balcony for the play's most famous scene in one corner of the square, overlooking the main audience entrance. Seated on an aisle, I was able to turn completely to the right in order to watch the scenes that took place there, but I noticed that the man across the aisle hardly ever turned to look at the balcony. Maybe he preferred just to listen.

So be prepared to be somewhat flexible if you truly want to see the entire play. Or almost all of it, that is -- the disadvantage of arena staging is that occasionally nearly every spectator experiences at least one blocked sight line. I noticed one such moment, when the Friar's back blocked my view of Romeo's face, but of course these moments vary depending on where you're sitting.

The advantages of this configuration outweigh these brief frustrations. The immersive quality provides a new perspective - or many new perspectives - on well-worn material. Also, the intimacy enhances our ability to parse Shakespeare's more ornate passages, especially when the lines are as well-spoken as they are by most of this cast.

This is that rare "R & J" in which Romeo seems a bit younger than Juliet - thanks to the puppy-dog scampering of Jack Mikesell's Romeo and the more mature command of Christina Elmore's Juliet -- who is supposedly 13, according to the text. Yet here we can read in the program that Elmore has already received an MFA degree. I wonder - couldn't most productions cut the reference to Juliet's age? It's difficult to find an actress who can handle the intricate language while also appearing to be just 13.

Early on, this is one of the funniest "R & J"s that I've ever seen - especially that balcony scene. But the ending is even grimmer than most - we don't see the usual final image of the two families finding commonality in their sorrow over the bodies of the lovers.

Most of the actors are just about ideal, and they're dressed in eye-catching 1920s finery designed by Holly Poe Durbin. Susan Goldberg's choreography draws on flapper-era steps, and Brian Joseph's score uses wailing, jazzy riffs in the haunting aural climaxes of each act.

The production was promoted as transforming Mr. Montague (Gregg Daniel) and Mr. Capulet (Elijah Alexander) into competing publishing magnates in '20s LA. Facsimiles of '20s Los Angeles newspapers are used as props, and the rowdy street gangs apparently are employed by rival rags. But there is no explicit mention of the families' holdings - the text is almost entirely the Bard's.

This production plays only through Saturday, and it should be high on the list of any summer Shakespeare aficionado.

Independent Shakespeare's and Kingsmen Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night"s also ventured into the early years of the 20th century in their concepts. There is still time to catch ISC's version. Staged by Melissa Chalsma, it's briefly vacating the Old Zoo stage in Griffith Park in favor of "The Taming of the Shrew," but it will return for six performances in August, and it's a lively renewal of this oft-revived comedy.

Danny Campbell, Andre Martin, David Melville and Julia Aks in Twelfth Night at Griffith Park. Photo: Grettel Cortes.

Its most unorthodox feature is that it casts Julia Aks as Fabian, a role that is usually cast with a man. In most productions, Fabian is a distant runner-up in the play's comedy sweepstakes, at least when compared to his fellow conspirators Toby, Maria and Feste. But here the gender change, Fabian's maid uniform, and her role not only as a music-hall partner for David Melville's Feste but also as his lover gives this Fabian extra dimensions. Speaking of the comic characters, Luis Galindo -- the actor who riveted audiences last year in the Scottish play and will open soon as Petruchio in "Shrew" -- does a 180-degree turn to play the distinctly less dashing Malvolio almost as memorably as he played Macbeth.

Those who have never experienced ISC should be aware that because of its free admission (but please donate) policy as well as its quality, it attracts crowds that can be much larger than those at any of LA's other classical companies - on weekends, as large as those at the Ahmanson or the Pantages. If you want a reasonably close spot on the lawn, Thursdays are probably your best bet.

Theatricum Botanicum has the longest season of any of these companies, from early June through early October, so getting good seats usually isn't a problem in rural Topanga. Currently running are four plays in repertory: "Lear," "Much Ado About Nothing," "All's Well That Ends Well" and yet another variation on Theatricum's annual "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Note that this "Lear" is not "King Lear," because this monarch is a queen, played by Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer. Her three offspring are sons, not daughters, and Gloucester's scions are daughters, not sons. Geer co-directs with Melora Marshall, who plays the Fool. Geer's queen not only rages with the requisite fire, but she creates quite a spectacle as she nimbly climbs over not just one roof but two - the roof of the primary building on the open mainstage and another on the little structure at the back of the Theatricum. No other venue in LA is as capable as the Theatricum at suggesting the vast reaches of the wilderness through which Lear wanders.

All of these companies should be encouraged to program occasional doses of the lesser-known Shakespearean plays, so I salute Geer's decision to stage the seldom-seen "All's Well" (with co-director Christopher W. Jones). But this vigorous production doesn't quite manage to make us believe that all is well about the play itself.

However, "Much Ado," with co-direction by Geer and her daughter Willow Geer (who also plays Helena in "All's Well" and Gloucester's good daughter in "Lear") lives up to its own catch-phrase, thanks to vital performances by Susan Angelo's Beatrice and Robertson Dean's Benedick. It's great to see Dean joining his A Noise Within colleagues Alan Blumenfeld, Abby Craden and William Dennis Hunt in the Theatricum company.

Meanwhile, Theatricum veteran Angelo - who is also a resident artist at A Noise Within -- began her summer by staging "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Shakespeare Orange County. Under the group's new artistic director John Walcutt, the OC company is making an effort to reflect its neighborhood's changing demographics by incorporating Hitia O Te Ra, an extremely animated Polynesian dance troupe based in Garden Grove, into a bracingly distinctive "Midsummer" that's set in the 1700s in the South Seas. Two performances remain, on July 31 and August 1.

Speaking of Shakespeare Orange County, fans of the Troubadour Theater Company - usually based at Burbank's Falcon Theatre - should note that the Troubies are venturing to Garden Grove under SOC auspices this weekend (Thursday-Saturday) for a rendition of their ever-popular "A Midsummer's Saturday Night Fever Dream," a mashup of the Bard and disco. Then the Troubies will trek to La Mirada Theatre the following weekend (August 1-3) for another round of "Abbamemnon," their hilarious but occasionally sobering blend of Abba and "Agamemnon," which closed in Burbank on July 13.

Both of these venues are much larger than the Falcon, and some of the comic intensity might not extend to the back rows. But considering how hard it can be to snag Troubies tickets in Burbank, those who failed to do so should consider making a trip (or trips) to Greater LA's southeastern precincts.

SUMMER FARE AT THE BIG INDOOR HOUSES: Center Theatre Group is going in the opposite direction from the classics this summer, diving into the shallow end of the pool. At the Ahmanson is the Queen spectacle "We Will Rock You" -- a decade after its US premiere in Las Vegas. At the Taper is the comIc monologue "Buyer & Cellar."

I enjoyed occasional moments in the first act of "We Will Rock You," which uses high technology to poke fun at a future society's obsession with high technology, before it degenerates in the second act into a more basic form of Queen idolatry.

Jonathan Tolins' "Buyer & Cellar" has a few good (albeit snide) laughs in its fictional account of a struggling LA actor (Michael Urie) who's hired by Barbra Streisand to operate a "shopping mall" in her Malibu home's basement. But it's truly depressing to think that this is CTG's current idea of what passes for an LA-set play - just as "I'll Eat You Last", the Geffen's solo show with Bette Midler as Sue Mengers last fall, was Geffen Playhouse's rare nod toward local content.

By the way, the fictional actor in "Buyer & Cellar" was fired from a job at Disneyland, but he consoles himself with the thought he'll have more time "to do LA theater - which is exactly as tragic as it sounds. I dreamed of working at the Taper or the Geffen, but that's like a totally closed whatever."

I'm not sure what Tolins meant by "as tragic as it sounds" - it could be interpreted as a cheap and uninformed gag about the quality and quantity of LA theater or as a more pointed remark about the financial compensation received by most LA theater actors. But if that follow-up line meant that the Taper and the Geffen don't take nearly enough advantage of the vast LA talent pool and LA subject matter, then that's one of the boldest, truest lines spoken at the Taper in years.

By the way, while the Ahmanson is presenting the flashy "We Will Rock You," the very un-flashy but Tony-winning musical "Once" is making its debut at the Pantages - and after seeing it from Row U, I can hardly think of a less appropriate venue for it.

"Once" is a small-scale musical that belongs in a much more intimate theater. I couldn't see facial features, and sometimes I couldn't tell who was speaking. Throughout most of its unnecessarily prolonged length, the entire top half of the view of the Pantages stage is occupied by a brick wall, which is inhabited by people only, well, once -- and even then the two actors who briefly move into that part of our visual field barely move a muscle. The lethargy of this experience made me yearn for a dose of the technological overkill on display in "We Will Rock You" or the Pantages' recent "Ghost."

"Once" is not enough, but seeing it at the Pantages made me hope to eventually see it in one of LA theater's fine midsize or small venues. The tragedy of winning a Tony and consequently having to adapt to inappropriately large houses, in an attempt to maximize profits, strikes again.

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