The Theatricum and other summer hotspots

Coriolanus_0165.jpgCounterclockwise from center: Max Lawrence, Dane Oliver, Bedjou Jean, Fabian Cook Jr., Harley Douvier, Sawyer Fuller, Daniel Ramirez in "Coriolanus." Photo by Ian Flanders.

As the climate changes, will hotter summers affect LA's bountiful outdoor-theater season? In five years, might the alfresco scene extend from April through October - but with no matinees?

Actually, most of the professional theater companies that specialize in the great outdoors have long avoided matinees. The major exception is Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, in its enchanting glen in Topanga Canyon. Late-afternoon matinees still occur there, in addition to evening performances.

In recent years the Theatricum installed an overhead canopy that shades much of its seating area during matinees. Also, the starting time for the Theatricum matinees changed from 3:30 to 4 pm this year. This isn't a first for the Theatricum, so that change probably isn't attributable to climate change in particular. Still, on many days, that extra half-hour delay is likely to make conditions slightly more tolerable for audiences - and perhaps for the actors as well.

The Theatricum's repertory season already lasts from the beginning of June through the end of September. It's so long that even those who spend several weeks out of town on summer vacations should still be able to find the time for day trips to Topanga.

The 2018 Theatricum season offers at least three productions that are worth the effort.

In "Coriolanus," Shakespeare's too-seldom-seen tragedy about a brilliant Roman general who can't hide his disdain for the plebeians, the title character (David De Santos) bestrides the sprawling Theatricum stage like a colossus, to paraphrase a somewhat better-known Roman play by the same author. In act one, Coriolanus almost single-handedly defeats the neighboring Volsci. But after he has issues adjusting to civilian life, he switches sides, joining the Volsci to fight the Romans, sparing his former comrades only after last-minute appeals by his mother and wife.

This is a saga that's worth a big stage - or maybe I should say a big landscape, because that's what the Theatricum offers, in the almost 360-degree staging by Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall. I appreciated A Noise Within's two productions of "Coriolanus" in its former Glendale venue, but it was like a cubbyhole compared to the Theatricum. The fight choreography by Dane Oliver and Aaron Hendry is worthy of the vast terrain.

On to "Haiti." This is the least familiar play in the Theatricum's season. The company's researchers believe that their revival of the 1938 historical melodrama is only its second production. It was first produced by the Negro Theatre Unit of the Depression-era WPA (Works Progress Administration) and its Federal Theatre Project. The playwright was William DuBois (not to be confused with the African-American writer and political activist William "W.E.B." Du Bois or with Laurent Dubois, the author of a 2004 history of the Haitian revolution).

Haiti_0232.jpgBecause it's mostly set in one room, "Haiti" doesn't need the Theatricum's sprawl as much as "Coriolanus" does, but "Haiti" is certainly rife with big emotions. Some of these emotions are expressed by two of Haiti's founding fathers, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Henri Christophe. But I didn't hear any mention of the "emperor" Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who followed L'Ouverture and preceded Christophe in power. He certainly isn't embodied on the stage.

Above: Tiffany Coty and Jeff Wiesen in "Haiti." Photo by Ian Flanders.

In other words, while the play might arouse interest in Haitian history, don't rely on it for the facts. But you can rely on the sentiment of its story of a revolutionary ex-slave (Earnestine Phillips) who stays behind the French lines as a spy while posing as a servant - so that she can finally see her own half-French daughter, who was spirited away to France by her father at a very early age. All of this melodrama is rousingly staged by Geer, again with exceptional fight choreography by Dane Oliver.

The third play I'm recommending from the Theatricum season is much more familiar - Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," always a natural fit for a company that began in part as a retreat for blacklisted Hollywood artists of the McCarthy era's "witch hunts." I reviewed another Theatricum "Crucible" 20 years ago, noting then (in the LA Times) that the venue's Topanga location "effectively suggests a community on the verge of wilderness, as Salem was in 1692."

That's still true. But connotations of the phrase "witch hunt" have changed considerably in the last year. So has our willingness to give accusers the benefit of doubt in certain situations. Even our awareness of the dangers of theocratic leanings in our government might be a little more intense now than it was in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

So while Geer's staging is a sturdy revival of "The Crucible" without any obvious updating, the current state of our culture could create some reactions that you might not have experienced in earlier productions. Of course this ability to provoke different feelings as society changes might just be the sign of a classic. So I'm grateful that it's back, with full-bodied performances by Christopher W. Jones and Willow Geer as the accused and embattled Proctors.

The other Theatricum production I've seen this summer is a revival of "The Chalk Garden." Although Enid Bagnold's play, set in a Sussex village, opened only two years after "The Crucible" in the '50s, it hasn't reached classic stature and doesn't appear to deserve it.

I haven't seen the Theatricum's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" this year, but it's a Topanga perennial, and the Theatricum is surely among the world's best venues for "Midsummer."

That doesn't mean I missed "Midsummer" during this midsummer. I saw Independent Shakespeare Company's rendition of it at its venue in the Old Zoo area of Griffith Park, as well as ISC's "Titus Andronicus" - both still playing in rep. It's quite a feat to keep the attention of ISC's large and diverse audiences for about three hours, but director Melissa Chalsma pulls it off in "Midsummer," with a variety of lively performances, rowdy breaks of the fourth wall, and an eclectic bare-bones design that incorporates modern electronic devices.

"Titus" isn't as successful. It sags shortly after intermission, until its "Sweeney Todd"-like feast near the end. It's hard to know how to strike the right tone with the almost ridiculously violent "Titus," especially in a no-admission-charge venue where parents often bring children. The play might have worked a little better if parts of the post-intermission material were chopped off more completely - to borrow a metaphor from the "Titus" characters themselves.

I can't let summer end without a thankful nod to Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, which produced a delightful "Henry IV" at the VA's Japanese Garden in West LA during June. If Tom Hanks had been able to continue playing Falstaff all summer long, this one might still be running, if not at the VA then somewhere else in LA. Daniel Sullivan's staging combined both of the "Henry IV" plays into a coherent and captivating highlights package. While it's good to hear that the Shakespeare Center might receive a new home at Santa Monica College, the garden at the VA is a gem that deserves to continue as an alfresco performance space.

And inside air-conditioned theaters...

CRY-2.jpgMegan Ketch and Jackie Chung in "Cry It Out." Photo by Darrett Sanders.

A couple of indoor productions this summer also deserve more attention in their final weeks. Both of them focus on young women who are either awaiting or discussing the issues raised by the birth of a first child.

In "Cry It Out," a funny yet poignant play by Molly Smith Metzler, two first-time mothers and neighbors are sharing their concerns and becoming friends in one of their back yards, despite their different economic classes, when a first-time father from a wealthier neighborhood up the hill asks if his wife can join them. Metzler's script, Lindsay Allbaugh's direction and all four actors are superb in this Echo Theater Company production in Atwater.

Then there is "Waitress," the current musical at the Pantages, based on Adrienne Shelly's 2007 movie. In contrast to the hyper-realistic "Cry It Out," "Waitress" is embellished and enhanced by singing and dancing, using an impressive musical score by Sarah Bareilles and nimble choreography by Lorin Latarro within an imaginative staging by Diane Paulus. But the story is still about a pie-making waitress who's stuck in a bad marriage as she awaits motherhood, as well as the subsidiary antics of her two best friends and colleagues. It's a bit formulaic, yes, but still stirring.

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