H ey, check this out. Suddenly the Bard is bad.
Bad, as in cool: Picture Shakespeare with hair gel, in pastels and pushed-up sleeves. Last season, Cal State Fullerton updated "Romeo and Juliet" with punk and heavy metal trimmings; now Orange Coast College and Saddleback College are staging productions of Shakespeare that, while remaining faithful to his words, deliberately blur the time frame.
There is a message to this madness. It illustrates the relevance of Shakespeare to modern life. The sting in these stories is just as sharp as it was 300 years ago.
Ah, but does it work? The answer is a qualified yes. Sometimes the fit is brilliant; other times it strains at the seams of logic. But it is never dull.
"The Merchant of Venice" at OCC and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at Saddleback are unabashedly ambitious projects, and both casts demonstrate an evident feel for the material. Minor problems--some rushed lines and careless enunciation--pepper both productions. But the thorough preparation by the casts, and the careful thought given to this intriguing time travel are immediately obvious.
At Saddleback College, the updated version of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, works extraordinarily well, largely because comedy--especially visual comedy--transcends barriers of language and time.
The script still refers to Verona and Milan, but this production could be renamed "Two Cool Dudes from Malibu" (in fact, director Patrick J. Fennell has retitled the play "The California Promise").
The plot deals with themes of love and friendship betrayed; it's as old as the battle of the sexes. A guy finds himself attracted to his buddy's girlfriend, so he dumps his faithful steady and devises a scheme to get his pal out of the picture. True love wins out, of course, as Shakespeare handily (and without a vestige of logic) wraps up all of love's loose ends in the last five minutes.
There are some big performances here, befitting some of Shakespeare's broadest clowns: the ditsy dame, the oafish clod, the nosy sidekick, the ineffectual snob, the dense gofer. Malcolm Womack instigates the romantic tangle as the appealing if deceitful Proteus. He gives a nimble, expressive reading, nicely matched to the thin logic of the story line. His open, easy guile is winning, even when he's betraying his girlfriend and scheming against his best friend. All's fair in love and war. Right?
Not quite. Richard Damigella's sure performance as the banished Valentine reminds us that loyalty is indeed a noble virtue. Deanna Watkins makes it clear that the luscious Silvia knows her own mind, thank you very much, and that mind is bent on Valentine. In the opposite corner is hapless, betrayed Julia, played with high spirit by Karen Dalzell.
Fennell has scattered contemporary visual references aptly throughout the play. The cool threads, the high fives, the impatient reminder that surf's up are amusing and highly appropriate. The production certainly looks cool, thanks to the clean, angular lines of Wally Huntoon's set, a pastel village of staircases, doorways and windows with muted shadows that take on deeper dimensions under Kevin Cook's fine lighting design.
But the play's still the thing, and "The California Promise" is true to its roots, even if its tips are bleached blond.
'THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA'/ 'THE CALIFORNIA PROMISE' A Saddleback College division of fine arts and communications production of the play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Patrick J. Fennell. With Richard Damigella, Malcolm Womack, Buck Stevens, Karen Dalzell, Sue Fahami, Jim Thorpe, Greg Kreis, Deanna Watkins, Scott DeMersseman, Robin Perrine, Stanley Gold. Set design Wally Huntoon. Costume design Charles Castagno. Lighting design Kevin Cook. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee. Closes Nov. 15. Tickets $6-$7. McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo, (714) 582-4656.