The end of summer approaches. Have you seen any alfresco theater this year?
Fortunately, the 299-seat Theatricum Botanicum keeps its expansive stage busy from the first week of June through the first weekend of October, in Topanga Canyon. That's twice as long as the Old Globe's outdoor season in San Diego.
Theatricum, which (unlike the Old Globe) doesn't have an indoor stage, performs all five of its annual productions in repertory for most of the season, so it offers plenty of opportunities to see a relatively wide variety of attractions in the open air. The seats are permanent, with backs. The rows of seats are raked, so sight lines are excellent.
Then there is Independent Shakespeare Company, which attracts much bigger crowds, occasionally in the 2000-plus range -- thanks to a free-admission-but-please-donate policy and a more centralized location in Griffith Park. Its seating is primarily of the bring-your-own-blankets variety, and some of the locations are much better than others. ISC operates in the park from late June into early September, but it produces only two plays there, one at a time. So the opportunities to see each are more limited. In my last column I wrote about ISC's "Richard III," but it has now been replaced by "The Tempest."
I've seen both of the ISC shows this summer and all of the Theatricum's 2016 repertory except its perennial "Midsummer Night's Dream," which is part of the Topanga season every year. Both of these companies use Actors' Equity contracts and maintain consistent professional standards.
Of the six outdoor productions I've seen this summer, my favorite is "The Imaginary Invalid," at Theatricum Botanicum. Moliere's comedy about a raging hypochondriac opened in 1673; shortly after it opened, Moliere collapsed while performing the title role of the "imaginary" invalid and died a few hours later.
Director Mary Jo DuPrey is using Constance Congdon's free-wheeling adaptation, which still sounds contemporary nearly a decade after its premiere in 2007. It's the same adaptation that A Noise Within plans to use in the fall in Pasadena. Alan Blumenfeld, who's playing a supporting role in Topanga, will play the title role for A Noise Within.
Congdon's adaptation has been altered at the Theatricum in order to accommodate several gender swaps. The titular codger, usually male, has been cast with Ellen Geer, the Theatricum's artistic director. The invalid's younger new wife has become a younger new husband (Jonathan Blandino), still as avaricious as ever.
Geer's own daughter, Willow Geer, is playing the hypochondriac's daughter, who is being pushed into a marriage to an outlandish young poseur (Cameron Rose) solely because he's about to become a doctor who would presumably be at his would-be mother-in-law's beck and call. Naturally the daughter has other wedding plans, co-starring her dashing true love (Max Lawrence). And of course the mastermind who plans to foil the invalid's strategies is the wise but impertinent maid (Melora Marshall).
The laughs were loud on the night I saw "Invalid." The Congdon adaptation receives stellar support from a glittering little score by Marshall McDaniel. In the spirit of the original, which was dubbed a "comedie-ballet," this one is more or less a rudimentary musical. DuPrey, who staged an admirable "August: Osage County" at the Theatricum last summer, is as skilled with light family farce as she was with dark family drama a year ago.
If you still have a taste for dark family drama, the Theatricum is prepared. Ellen Geer directed a muscular rendition of "Titus Andronicus," Shakespeare's goriest horror show.
She adapted the text so that it sounds closer to "the near future," which is when she has set the action. In the opening lines we hear such words and phrases as "oligarchy," "imperial presidency," "democracy" and "corporate state" - none of which you will find in the corresponding lines of Shakespeare's text. Marcus Andronicus, the title character's brother, has become Marcia Andronicus (Marshall). Titus' son Lucius has become his daughter Lucia (Willow Geer).
Such changes help us draw closer to a tale that's potentially too relentless to sustain interest without a few extra fillips. The wide scale of the panoramic Theatricum stage, which expands to include some of the surrounding landscape, helps, as do vigorous performances from Sheridan Crist in the title role, Marie Francoise Theodore as the captured queen Tamora and Michael McFall as the proud villain Aaron. McDaniel's incidental music and designer Ian Flanders provide an eerie soundscape.
However, Geer's enterprising adaptations of antique material fall short in "Romeo and Juliet" and "Tom," the other two productions at the Theatricum this season.
"Tom," her adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," is too by-the-book. Of course the original is literally a book - a novel, with a narrative that splits into two different stories in different parts of the country. So it's inherently more unwieldy, for stage purposes, than "Imaginary Invalid" or even "Titus." Also, as many have noted through the decades, it comes with a big dose of sentiment that becomes a bit icky. Geer is too respectful of the original.
I couldn't help but recall "I Ain't Yo Uncle," the San Francisco Mime Troupe's and Robert Alexander's bracing update of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book. Like Geer's adaptation, Alexander's also featured Stowe as a character alongside characters from her novel, but Alexander had a much more irreverent attitude and directly connected the material to contemporary events (it played in San Diego in 1991 and in Hollywood in 1993, during the Rodney King era). Back then, "I Ain't Yo Uncle" seemed a satirical masterpiece. It would be great if an enterprising company could revive it with a free hand in this era of Barack Obama and Ezell Ford.
As for "Romeo and Juliet," the problem isn't in Geer's willingness to adapt the original but in the way it has been adapted. Geer re-set it in "present day" east Jerusalem. The Capulets are Jewish Israelis and the Montagues are Muslim Palestinians. The thorniest decisions were in how to create characters who would correspond to the play's two neutral, peacemaking figures - Friar Laurence and Prince Escalus.
In the original, both of the feuding families recognize the priest's authority - they're all Catholics - and that of the sovereign prince of Verona. But in east Jerusalem, a similarly mutual nod to secular and sacred authorities isn't likely. Geer places a mufti in the friar's role - but how many muftis would volunteer to preside over a secret wedding between a Jew and a Muslim? The princely role is assigned to "the Prime Minister" - as if Netanyahu would personally intervene in street riots between two families. The awkwardness of these sections of the script undermine its overall credibility.
Speaking of "Romeo and Juliet," one of the best recent versions I've seen was outdoors, two years ago, in the Shakespeare Center's last production at the VA's Japanese Garden in Brentwood. Directed by Kenn Sabberton, it was lightly set in '20s LA. After skipping a year last summer, Shakespeare Center returned this year with its next summer production, a "Twelfth Night" also directed by Sabberton and set in '40s LA. But this one wasn't outdoors. It was in a midsize venue on the campus of Santa Monica College, a handsome venue that nonetheless lacked that summery vibe that the company cultivated for years. It featured some strong performances, but the LA concept didn't seem nearly as well-developed as it was in "Romeo."
Regarding the ISC's current "Tempest," in Griffith Park, it's enjoyable now and then, with particularly lively work from the clowns who sometimes seem tiresome in other Tempests. But director Matthew Earnest should have cut the text more rigorously to fit the atmosphere of a large outdoor venue, with its potential for unwelcome distractions - which peaked on opening night when a helicopter hovered over most of the last 15 minutes. Actors responded with a few clever ad libs, but the ominous noise and lighting intrusions undermined the sense of healing and reconciliation that's supposed to prevail at the end of "The Tempest."
Lorenzo González, Sean Pritchett and David Melville in "The Tempest" at the Old Zoo in Griffith Park. Photo: Grettel Cortes.
In my last column I reported on two productions that started me thinking about Donald Trump, including the ISC's "Richard III," which inserted a few lines that were intended to trigger such thoughts.
Since then I've seen Second City's "In Trump We Trust," a satirical sketch show that apparently will play in Hollywood on Saturday evenings during the rest of the election season. At least on the night I saw it, it initially attempted to stoke mild pity for Trump, as a poor little heir who lacks true friends, while heaping scorn on Hillary Clinton for being the secret chef behind Trump's rise.
Later, as part of the curtain call, the writer/director/Trump impersonator Dave Colan more or less contradicted his previous message, exhorting us to disregard those earlier moments, because Trump is a "monster" and we should please vote for Hillary. Perhaps Colan wanted to do something different from what we see on TV -- from comics as well as from the candidate himself - but the real Trump and the TV comics are funnier.
If you're more seriously interested in the election process, as opposed to Trump and Clinton in particular, I recommend Aurin Squire's "Obama-ology," at Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. It's not about Obama. It's about a young, black Ivy League-educated campaign worker (Nicholas Anthony Reid) in 2008, campaigning for Obama in some of the poorer precincts of Cleveland. It's a fascinating glimpse of the pragmatism that's required in a campaign -- even a campaign that's built on a sense of idealism. Reid is terrific, as are the other three actors, particularly Brie Eley playing four contrasting characters, under the savvy direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera.
"Obama-ology" is playing at the Skylight in conjunction with Jason Odell Williams' "Church & State," about a US Senate campaign in North Carolina that has been interrupted by a mass shooting. Elina de Santos directs a wonderful cast, but one of several surprising turns in the narrative isn't especially plausible.
Brie Eley and Nicholas Anthony Reid in "Obama-Ology." Photo: Ed Krieger.