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Shakespearean Comedies at Basehart; 'To Find a Man' at Harman; 'Fortune and Men's Eyes' at the Zephyr

June 24, 1988|ROBERT KOEHLER

Since it may not be safe to go in the water anymore, summer's arrival means it's time to dip into Shakespeare again. This uni-seasonal glut has become, however, an irritating habit of theater producers (Shakespeare, if anything, is a master of the other three seasons). And mediocre though not incompetent stagings of familiar Shakespeare, like "A Midsummmer Night's Dream" at the Richard Basehart Playhouse, threaten to make this the summer of our discontent.

The problems with Tom Ashworth's staging appear early, and don't diminish. Take the play's all-crucial seesaw between the worlds of Athens and the forest. Neither Gallifrey's unimaginative set nor Dana Kilgore's unmagical lights (marred by several miscues last Sunday) establish contrast or cast a spell.

Then there's Ashworth's and costumer Gallifrey's curious choice of dressing the cast in quasi-contemporary garb, down to running shoes. This works best with Peter Quince's befuddled group of amateur, working-stiff thespians (led by Jerry Winsett's Quince in wide-screen dungarees). But the overall effect is a sense of confusion at the helm--hard to understand, since this is a revived staging of Ashworth's Nevada Shakespeare Festival production in Las Vegas last year. The kinks should be worked out by now.

Ashworth's actors don't let the deceptively intricate text down; nor do they lift it up and make it buoyant. The lines are memorized, the characters are in place (especially Kathleen McCarty's frustrated Helena and Jeffrey Bryan's Lysander), but with so many actors' roles in one play--and with a lot of doubling-up of roles--no one makes the most of the opportunity.

'Taming of the Shrew' Ashworth has transferred his "Taming of the Shrew" production from the Globe Playhouse to the Basehart, making for a Shakespeare repertory bill. Nearly the entire "Midsummer" cast is in "Shrew," but the attention is cast on one actor who can claim TV stardom: Alex Daniels (who moonlights in the title role of the series "Werewolf") as Petruchio.

This is a matinee idol Petruchio--flawless, clean, amazingly boring. To be sure, Shakespeare does not allow Petruchio to make a false step on his way to thoroughly domesticating the spiky Kate (Deborah Gates). But there's room for touches of vulnerability, especially in the early stages of his conquest. Daniels' approach is pure predator, with the prey waiting in plain sight. It only reaffirms the fact that "Shrew" is a direct, polemical celebration of patriarchy (Ashworth's program notes are an unconvincing rebuttal).

Gates exhibits Kate's fighting qualities, but has a poorly coached voice for Shakespeare as she moves in a polyglot zone between American and British. As with "Midsummer," Ashworth prods his actors into physical comedy without choreographing the physicality. You can't be sure in the end what these actors are really capable of; they might deliver under a director with a firmer sense of style.

Sadly, Gallifrey's set has simply imposed the Globe's physical confines--including a staircase to nowhere, a gimmicky trap door and central pillar--onto the Basehart stage. Why was no rethinking done for the new space? The last thing we need is Shakespeare, West Hollywood Globe-style, exported to the Valley.

Performances are at 21028-B Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills, "Midsummer" and "Shrew" alternating evenings, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., until July 24. Tickets: $8; (818) 704-1845.

'To Find a Man' Serious actors who have had to settle for mindless television work have it bad enough; serious black actors, playwright Jeff Stetson insists in his new work, "To Find a Man," have it even worse.

That isn't to say Stetson is insistent ; he generally knows when to turn message-making into a well-crafted human exchange. Indeed, so fluid and thoughtful are some dialogue passages--particularly between our bitter, alcoholic actor (Hal Williams) and a playwright (David Downing) trying to convince him to get back to the theater--that when Stetson's writing settles for bland naturalism or cliches, the effect is truly jarring.

Seldom has a character articulated the syntax of pain experienced by black artists as well as Williams' Jason--but the articulation comes and goes, rather like a drunken spell marked by moments of lucidity. All the suffering--a spiteful separation from his wife (Roxie Roker), racism on the soap-opera set--leads to an all-too-predictable happy end. On one hand, this gives the preceding suffering an unintended aroma of dramatic contrivance. On the other, Williams' performance under Whitney J. LeBlanc's direction becomes a thoroughly honest portrait of a man coming to terms with himself.

Performances are at the Harman Theatre , 522 N. La Brea Ave. on Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m., until July 17. Tickets: $16-$18; (213) 466-1767.

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