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STAGE BEAT

Cast Has Line On Shakespeare's Mockery Of Love

August 28, 1987|ROBERT KOEHLER

Summer Shakespeare, American style, usually loses its way because the makers can't decide whether to play things straight (and risk losing the audience to the beach) or turn the enterprise into a cute confection (especially a problem with the comedies). The other way to go is just forget the giddiness of the season and do the play.

Director Robert Berlinger and producer Ben Donenberg have gone for a melding of all of these for "Two Gentlemen of Verona," outdoors at the Citicorp Plaza.

Lit by some powerful sunbeams, the show experiences some funstroke, the malady of tweaking the comedy and cutting up till it hurts. But Berlinger's cast, when it is not juggling, prancing and roller skating like mad, has a sure through line on Shakespeare's mature mockery of love. Proteus, Valentine, Julia and Sylvia are comic targets of the same arrows of Cupid's that struck Romeo and Juliet. You can have a circus and still make that point.

There's Vito D'Ambrosio's Thurio, for instance, who battles Valentine (Rob Knepper) for Sylvia's hand with all the grace of a woolly mammoth. He's so hapless that he employs Proteus (Charles Fee) to read Sylvia (Eva Wilder) love sonnets, unaware that Proteus himself has his eye on her. When Thurio wrestles with Valentine on a Twister pad ("left foot, red; right hand, green"), emotions and body become contorted past hope.

Using Twister is the kind of touch that makes this a "Two Gents" with bubbly, adolescent blood flowing through its veins. Donenberg, who gave us "Mayhem at Mayfield Mall" and "Starship Shakespeare," likes to put on theater parties where you are the guest. This comedy about two insanely lovesick young men is ideal for that--even more so than "Twelfth Night," which Donenberg put together last summer in Pershing Square.

The clowning sideshows, led by a lithe Harry Waters (Speed), sad sack Chuck La Font (Launce) and his scene-stealing mutt, Puck, often avoid crossing over into pure pandering (this is a show drawing from the well of the Goodman Theatre's "Comedy of Errors"--watch Michael Heatherton's and Ron Pearson's juggling). But the nonsense is modified by the beautifully spoken Wilder and the self-mocking Knepper. Fee is less potent as Proteus and Mary Crosby's Julia takes too long to tap into the passionate impulses of her peers.

Performances at 725 S. Figueroa St., Saturday and Sunday only at 3 p.m. Free admission, with recommended donation of canned goods for the homeless; (213) 625-0385.

'MARAT / SADE'

Young companies should take risky strides into dangerous theatrical territory, if for no other reason than to give older folks a kick in the pants. Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang regularly does this to its downtown elders. Sal Romeo's group, at Friends and Artists Theatre in Hollywood, might, if it gets its priorities straight.

Right now, Romeo's version of Peter Weiss' "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade" is a mess. To be sure, Weiss' often pedantic debate on the French Revolution between the voice of social anarchism (Marat) and egocentric pragmatism (Sade) will never meet anyone's standards for tidiness. But a clear view of the play is in order.

The inmates' re-enactment of the events swirling around Marat's bloody end at the hands of Charlotte Corday (Katy Boyer, replacing Darcy Marta)is most crucially Weiss' view of modern Europe, of revolution's inevitable chaos, and of the necessity of debate in politics and theater. Sade's theater (witnessed by a petit bourgeois family) is itself the play's setting. The characters stand for ideas. A successful "Marat/Sade" is the result of intensely examining the script.

Romeo's company, we're told, rehearsed this for four months. Time was obviously spent by the cast members getting their lines and blocking down, and by Robert Zentis preparing his extraordinary lights and set (essentially a giant shower stall, taken to remarkable lengths on a Waiver budget).

The lines, alas, are merely uttered, the singing is jarringly off-key and the action is contained and unstylish, because everyone is seen working (Maureen Samuels did the choreography and movement). You feel you are watching collegiates sweating it out on finals day and not quite comprehending what they have gotten themselves into.

Perhaps, like some exams, it's just unfair to put this young a group through such rigors. Not for a second do you believe Arthur Gerunda as Sade or Clay Wilcox as Marat (or, in Wilcox's case, as an inmate playing Marat). They are too inexperienced, so all they can do is pose (Gerunda) or emote (Wilcox). But the company is full of eager, very American actors. Romeo should give them a play where they have a fighting chance.

Performances at 1761 N. Vermont Ave. on Fridays and Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. through Sept. 26. Tickets: $12; (213) 466-1767.

'ONCE A CATHOLIC'

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