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A Gross-out Play From The Jacobean Theater


Anyone who likes theatrical gross-out but considers it a purely contemporary phenomenon (aside from Oedipus piercing his eyes out and Medea slaughtering her own young sons) and who thinks that violence in the classical theater is restricted to extemporaneous swordplay amid earnest perfumed soliloquizing should get a bang out "The Revenger's Tragedy," an early paragon of the snap, crackle and pop of the Jacobean theater.

The play is rarely done (and its playwright, Cyril Tourneur, even more rarely mentioned), but it gets an outing this summer when it opens Friday at the GEM Theater in Garden Grove as part of the Grove Shakespeare Festival's current season. Jerry McGonigle, an alumnus of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco who teaches at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana (which is connected to the Grove in a co-producing capacity), explains:

"When I first started studying it, I thought it came after 'Hamlet,' but in fact it came out around the same time. Tourneur--pronounced 'Turner'--was an obscure writer who wrote another work, 'The Atheist's Tragedy,' that was so dissimilar to this one that people said he was either a genius or a charlatan. 'The Revenger's Tragedy' is comparable to the violence in the works of Seneca, where people are known to eat their own children. Only Seneca's violence was recalled. This is demonstrated. Who could be the most hideous on stage, cutting off fingers, performing decapitations, was a feature of Jacobean (early 17th-Century) theater."

"The Revenger's Tragedy," with its cast of 15--somewhat attenuated by curtain--shows us in its early going a young man named Vindici talking to the skull of his dead fiancee. She had refused to give in to the amorous embraces of a local duke. He killed her. Vindici and family on all sides became involved and, after a while, the homicide alarums began sounding like the 911 number in West Texas on a late summer night.

"I relate to this play in a similar way I relate to 'Dynasty' or 'Dallas' on TV," McGonigle said. "You know these people don't exist, but watching them and what they do gives you a sense of freedom. It's been compared to the works of Dashiell Hammett, incidentally."

"The Revenger's Tragedy" is this summer's freebie for Grove subscribers, meaning it's a non-Equity production. But McGonigle likens his conservatory-theater program to that of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. "The Revenger's Tragedy" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" conclude this summer's repertory of the Grove Shakespeare Festival.

A more contemporary and readily understandable form of Jacobeanism--to anyone who reads or watches the news--is on hand in Tony Barsha's "Amos and Ann: A Lesson in Love," another love-passion-jealousy-hate saga, this time set in Southern California, opening Friday at the Wallenboyd.

Barsha, 45, is a Californian who was on the scene in New York when Theatre Genesis and La Mama were at their zenith (he's teaching now at New York University), a distance that has afforded him a greater view of what tensions lock inside the balmy veneer of beach life.

" 'Amos and Ann' is a comedy-drama loosely based on a real case that happened in 1958," Barsha said. "It's about a lower-class working girl with a bad family background who hoped marriage would take her out of her situation. She's fixated on love and romance. She meets a guy who came out of the Navy after the war and built up his business so that now he's wealthy.

"But he's shallow-rich. In one respect, it's about what happened to Southern California and the country after the war, when life opened and shifted to the suburbs. In another, it's about terrifying, beautiful passion, women who want to put men in a grid, while the men want freedom. 'Amos and Ann' is about how murder can be linked to love."

The Gay and Lesbian Theatre Alliance will hold an open meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Monday to discuss its role in the Los Angeles Theatre Festival, which will be held in September of 1987. The alliance's project is titled "Purple Stages: A Celebration of Gay and Lesbian Theatre." The site of the meeting is Plummer Park's Fiesta Hall, and all interested parties are invited. For information, call Bill Kaiser at (213) 650-5596.

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