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A 'Much Ado' Set in 1930s Cuba

January 24, 1988|JANICE ARKATOV

Why set "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1930s Cuba?

Why not, asks Gerald Gutierrez, whose staging of it for John Houseman's the Acting Company opens Wednesday at the Doolittle. (It follows the touring company's production of Karen Sunde's "Kabuki Macbeth," closing tonight.)

"First of all, 'Much Ado' is one of Shakespeare's plays that time-travels best," noted the New York-based director. "It's a crowd-pleaser, it's his best romantic comedy and it's the one that's most often (re-interpreted). It's my favorite Shakespeare. I love the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick. Who doesn't?"

Gutierrez, an associate artistic director with the company, also noted that it was the only Shakespearean play that ended with a dance. "I thought, 'It's exotic, Mediterranean, Latin.' I wanted to set it in a romantic place. And it had to be Catholic. . . . Eventually, it led me to Cuba. In the '30s, Cuba was like a little Vegas. The men in white dinner jackets and black ties look great. And there are sambas, rumbas, a lot of very hot dances."

The director (whose work was last seen here in 1984 in his staging of Wendy Wasserstein's "Isn't It Romantic") says that the premise turned out even better than he'd imagined. "Originally, I had this notion of setting it in a jungle. But this makes sense. It could've happened this way. We just cut the word Messina-- and it works. Music is a very important part of this production; I use stuff I remember hearing my grandmother sing. So it's also very personal."

The mix of old and new, convention and invention has clearly been warming. "I spend so much of my time doing new plays that going back to the classic uses a new set of muscles," Gutierrez said happily. "This feeds you in a whole different way. There are good new plays today, but they're not classics. This is all about the words; we've just got to go in and get 'em. It's very hard to kill 'Much Ado.' The writing of this play is just so great."

"Win/Lose/Draw" is the title of a trio of two-character one-acts by Ara Watson and Mary Gallagher. Starring Diane Civita and Priscilla Barnes, it opens this weekend at the Skylight.

"The first piece, 'Little Miss Fresno,' we wrote together," Gallagher explained. " 'Chocolate Cake' is mine and 'Final Placement' is Ara's. There is a thematic through-line. It has to do with two women who are strangers, come from different worlds. They're different people--but in communicating, they achieve a kind of understanding they didn't have before. It's about what things are possible, not possible, sensibilities. . . ."

Originally written as separate one-acts for the Actors' Theatre of Louisville, "Cake" and "Placement" were later placed on a double-bill and performed at the 1981 Humana Festival in Kentucky. "A group of women decided to unite them and asked us to write another piece together. So we did," recalled Gallagher (who, with Watson, has since co-authored the award-winning Marlo Thomas CBS TV-movie "Nobody's Child").

"Win/Lose/Draw" played Off-Broadway in 1983, "then all over the country--except in L.A., because we wanted to be involved (in it here). There's been a lot of interest, but it was never the right time. So when Diane Civita approached us and read for us, we said, 'OK, but stay in touch.' And when (director) Dorothy Lyman came on, we both felt safe. We knew she wouldn't hit audiences over the head with it. In our experience, some directors will take the material and run with it comedically, so that the characters are caricatures--not people. We write very complicated people."

CRITICAL CROSS FIRE: Clifton Campbell's "The Figure and Other Short Works" ("Fer de Lance" and "The Hour Business") recently opened at the Cast-at-the-Circle.

In The Times, Ray Loynd applauded "a coherence seldom found in an evening of short plays. The production is marked by a clean vocal line that quietly unites all three plays in terms of tone and converging themes."

Jan Breslauer in the Herald-Exmainer said of "The Figure": "The amazing accomplishment of this tantalizing detective noir is that director Gina Wendkos and her uniformly astute cast transport us to these murky depths without the usual amenities of production."

Lee Melville, in Drama-Logue, had high praise for Wendkos, actors John M. Jackson, Yeardley Smith, Dana Gladstone and Noah Blake--and especially for author Campbell: "These plays display an offbeat style that offers a distinct voice with something to say."

Said Tom Provenzano in the L.A. Weekly: "Campbell's work is extraordinarily compelling, demonstrating a remarkable ear for natural dialogue, which he presents in an eerie, unnatural way."

And from Amy Dawes in Daily Variety: "Campbell tosses his characters big chunks of literate, beautifully written description to deliver. Sometimes it works wonderfully, sometimes just barely, sometimes not at all. But it adds to the off-kilter tension of these three provocative pieces."

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