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South Coast Repertory Offers Hispanic Theater


While celebrating immigration and liberty is the thing this weekend (does America need 200 Elvis Presley impersonators to shimmy up a national ideal on Governor's Island?), it should be noted that, in a quiet and unassuming way, South Coast Repertory has been trying for several years at least to give a theatrical focus to the people who come here from foreign shores to make new lives.

"Second Lives," in fact, was the title of an SCR program that dealt with the influx of people from Southeast Asia. The Hispanic Theater Project, a three-day series of staged readings that gets under way Friday, is the result of a nationwide search for unproduced scripts by Latin-American writers--most of them new--in an attempt to put Hispanic plays and writers in what is, relatively speaking, an American mainstream theater.

Twenty-nine-year-old Jose Cruz Gonzalez, who has been an associate with the SCR, supervised the program. "We applied for a National Endowment of the Arts grant, and, since we already have a new play process, we decided to open up to Hispanic writers," he said. "We put out a call in January and received 83 scripts, only half of which came from the West Coast. Jerry Patch, John Glore, Dolores Prida and Melia Bensussen are the dramaturgs. I read all the plays too. We boiled the scripts down to the top 10 and submitted them to the artistic directors.

"The final three include Eduardo Machado's 'Once Removed,' which deals with a Cuban family uprooted from Cuba to Dallas; Lisa Loomer's 'Birds,' about a Mexican family, part of which lives in Mexico and the other part in the U.S., and Arthur Giron's 'Charlie Bacon and His Family,' which deals with a man who wants to become a dancer and has to deal with the machismo all around him.

"We've also brought in a number of the playwrights so that they can observe and discuss the process of getting a play up. The two themes that seem to emerge from all this work, and that are very related, concern the running of one culture into another, and family life. Our major concern here is the new and developing playwright. We want to give him or her a chance. A number of representatives from other theaters will be here, including the Old Globe in San Diego and the Denver Center. And I don't know what this means, if anything, but the plays we've chosen are all comedies."

Speaking of comedy, the gifted clown Bill Irwin ("The Regard of Flight") opens in a new work, partly of his devising, tonight at the La Jolla Playhouse. "The Three Cuckolds" is the name of the piece and Yale professor Leon Katz is the person who first put it together. That's not Hollywood PR parlance. Irwin explained:

"Katz is a scholar of the commedia dell'arte. He took a bunch of scripts of the 1500s and combined them into one scenario, which has been done around. I saw contemporary resonances and met with him in New York to discuss doing it. He said he didn't understand what I was talking about, but to go ahead anyway and he'd have a look when it was finished." (Irwin is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant," which means he can go ahead and do anything he wants whether people understand it or not. Somebody understands it, and that's sufficient.)

"Michael Greif and I re-adapted (Greif directs). Basically it's about three households, and the comings and goings from one to another. I play the Harlequino who threads them together. The three households are all affluent, but for one reason or another they envy each other, or husbands want other people's wives and vice versa. It's not quite 15th Century and it's not quite 20th either. It's surreal. Unfulfilled needs don't belong in one century more than another."

When he began work for the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival six years ago, Berkeley Repertory Theater resident director Richard E. T. White did "The Merry Wives of Windsor," in which he saw Falstaff as a man who allowed himself to be tweaked and twitted, and even did much to play the fool. But we also saw in Falstaff's sidelong glances and private unhappiness a man who knew he was playing up what in today's parlance would be called an image.

Falstaff and White meet up again starting Friday, when "Henry IV, Part One" opens at the Grove Shakespeare Festival.

"I'm still young enough to identify with Prince Hal," said White, who is 35. "His situation has enough parallels to make me care about him. He grew up in one kind of political climate and deliberately sought another while there was a war going on. During the period of the Vietnam War, I grew up in a conservative community, Spokane, Wash., and moved to Seattle, which was a hotbed of radicalism. Hal thinks that understanding a broader range of human experience will make him a better human being himself, and a better king. He has a rich relationship with his father. I think this is a play about making moral choices and creating who you are. And of course there's Falstaff, whom I put right up there with Hamlet and Othello."

Reunited again.

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