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STAGE : Old Globe's Composer Is a Man for All Muses

July 22, 1988|NANCY CHURNIN

At noon on Tuesday, Conrad Susa had six hours left to finish the score for "Coriolanus," opening Thursday on the main stage of the Old Globe Theatre. After nearly 30 years of composing for the Old Globe, Susa, 53, wasn't showing the strain. His smile was easy, his Old Globe office neat, the script and sheet paper side by side on his music stand, blank music paper blocking the glare from dressing-room lights on his desk. Still the tension, Susa acknowledged with an easy laugh, was most definitely there.

"Sometimes the Muse is late, sometimes she is still in her curlers. After all, she doesn't sign the contract, you do. Anxiety and pressure--it's the hardest creative space to endure. But anxiety and pressure are very creative spurs."

They are also particularly appropriate emotions for "Coriolanus," one of Shakespeare's angriest tragedies, which is being set in 1988. The score that director John Hirsch has requested is a dissonant one. To get in the mood for it, Susa walks through the corridors lining the main stage and drinks in the yelling and the snarling of the actors in rehearsal. Susa, who carries himself with consummate gentility, winces as if in pain at the angry sounds, shakes his head, shakes his fist and says forcefully, "It's weird."

"This score will be very shocking, outrageous, violent," he says. "I can do that. It's not my natural inclination, but that's what the show calls for."

Quite a switch from "Love's Labour's Lost," Susa's dreamy, enchanting score now playing at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

Susa had done "Love's Labour's Lost" twice before, the first time in 1959, during his first summer working at the Globe. He went for what he called "a jolly sound" back then.

"Craig in particular loved that score," Susa said of Craig Noel, executive producer of the Old Globe. It twittered. He'd hum a particular melody to the tune of 'Don't Forget the Meatball.' "

But, as the years passed, Susa's scores changed. He calculates that he's done more than 90 Shakespeare productions.

Susa described the end of this year's "Love's Labour's Lost" as a "rueful" sound, but "a good one."

"Art is not only about nice things; it's a record of human experience. It doesn't say why, it says how. It shows you suffering and learning and growth. It's not always a pleasant story, but it's a good story. You need to feel these things, and what better place than in a nice seat in a beautiful theater?"

The summer scores at the Old Globe make up just a fraction of Susa's employment; he has also composed music for opera, choral groups, chamber groups and the PBS specials directed by Jack O'Brien: "The Skin of Our Teeth," "All My Sons," "Painting Churches" and the recently broadcast "I Never Sang for My Father."

But, for Susa, Shakespeare stands out as "a great employer" and certainly his steadiest.

"I get to bring on a king or two, I get to provide music for his coronation, send a lot of troops into battles, create the weather. I've sunk a few ships, I've helped precipitate some rebellions. If I wrote music just to express things in my own life, I wouldn't have that range.

"I think I've been around Shakespeare's plays for so long, I don't second-guess him, but I do feel free to guess at the inner rhythm. In the early years, I was very careful to be correct and proper. Now that I've done most of them two or three times--'Hamlet' and 'Twelfth Night' six and seven times--I have loosened up my approach, and I feel it's getting closer to the mark."

Oh yes, and Susa did finish that score.

The San Diego Repertory Theatre has leased itself some new rehearsal space on 13th and Island that it may eventually rent to other groups in town. Meanwhile, its monster hit, "Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want to Know" has weathered its move to the Sixth Avenue Playhouse with style.

It's hard not to miss the conviviality of the Lyceum Space, but its dynamite six-women ensemble just keeps getting better and better, so who cares? Even numbers that were weak on opening night nine months ago are now polished and flow smoothly. On third viewing, the play remains fresh and actually reveals deeper layers of poignancy and delight.

The 200-seat theater is selling out a week ahead, according to the box office. It should. It's the best show in town.

Speaking of Shakespeare, there's something funny going on at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre in Balboa Park. It's called "Stage Blood" and it is the Bard as seen through the unique fun-house mirrors of Charles Ludlam's eyes--all larger than life and twice as natural. You can walk in late and not have any trouble with the plot of this wildly irrepressible takeoff on a theater family doing Hamlet, in which the son of the actor manager, who is playing Hamlet, finds his father, who is playing the king, may have been murdered and that his mother, who is playing the queen, is getting ready to marry . . . oh well, you get the idea.

According to John-Bryan Davis, who did the deliciously seedy costumes, Steven Samuels, the managing director of the late playwright's The Ridiculous Theatrical Theatre Company, came in "and changed everything." Even so, Diversionary Theatre is to be congratulated for taking direction so well in the small, gay theater group's most accessible piece yet.

The pacing by Thomas Vegh is fast and sure; the performances are all on the mark--Jeff Okey has never been better as Carlton Stone Jr., the actor playing Hamlet. They may have left out the nude scene in which Okey is supposed to recite "To be or not to be" in the buff; but why be a stickler? Reciting the speech in tiger bikini briefs is risque enough for the Marie Hitchcock. Goodness knows what kind of score Conrad Susa might have wrought for this.

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