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'Orange Trees': An Unsettling History Lesson

January 20, 1987|LYNNE HEFFLEY

"Orange Trees," South Coast Repertory's 1987 Educational Touring Production, is a bouncy musical "history" lesson. Written in the mid-'70s, playwright Doris Baizley has revised it to celebrate Orange County's centennial in 1989.

Performed last week at South Coast Repertory for an invited audience, the 45-minute show skims breathlessly over 200 years of Orange County history.

On a bright set of painted orange trees and wooden orange crates, with a minimum of props, a professional cast of five young adults, directed by John-David Keller, portrays characters from different eras. They interact, representing Spain at the time of the founding of San Juan Capistrano Mission in 1776, Mexico's grand rancho era, early American pioneers, Indians, sailors and aviators.

Among those who briefly tell their stories are sailor Richard Henry Dana, who wrote "Two Years Before the Mast," aviator Glenn Martin, who set a 1912 record for the fastest cross-water flight, and Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California.

(For its elementary school tour, a study guide will be provided, containing a chronological rundown of facts. Children who see still-to-be-scheduled public performances, without benefit of the guide, may be thrown by the historical jumble.)

By its nature selectively anecdotal, "Orange Trees" infers that Orange County's history has been a benign, osmotic process. One of the characters, a Mexican landowner charged by the rest of the smiling cast with not liking change, is told that changes are "fun, thrilling and invigorating."

Hints of the bitter conflicts between Spain, Mexico and the U.S., the injustices to native Indians and the abuse of the Chinese immigrant railroad laborers are left unsaid.

An unlikely Indian, played by red-haired Nigel Lloyd Neale, does inform the audience that his people were there first. Neale's exit line, "The ranchos need slaves, I'm getting out of here," is almost meaningless among a hubbub of good-humored banter between two rancho owners.

Similarly unsettling is Neale's caricature of a Chinese railroad worker. In tunic and round hat, a black braid down his back, Neale bobs his head, hands clasped, taking tiny steps, singing happily about his contribution to history.

Diane King's music, with lyrics by Baizley, is upbeat and hummable. The opening number, in four-part harmony and pleasingly sung by strong young voices, is a lovely tribute to the first ringing of the mission bells. (Vivacious Elizabeth Faulkner is especially appealing as a young Spanish girl.)

The highlight of the show is its wry look at the downside of Orange County's incredible growth. "Gridlock," a wonderful lament to freeway traffic jams, brings Orange County up to date. Less superficiality would bring the well-made show up to SCR's Educational Touring Productions' usual high standards.

Diane Doyle did the playful choreography. Dwight Richard Odle designed the colorful sets and costumes.

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