In describing the nature of community theater, any thought of including the adjectives adventurous or experimental may lead straight to an oxymoron.
These small playhouses, often funded with the help of the cities they represent and eager to reach a middle-of-the-road audience, usually pass over Shepard in favor of Simon. The relationship forged with their patrons is based on tame trust rather than charged challenge.
Still, community theatergoers can be the most devoted of any in drama, a group happy to have dedicated, albeit usually non-professional, performers provide them with sincere entertainment at a puny cost. The art may be arguable, but the ticket price is right. And live theater, even here, can provide a spontaneity and surprise not found elsewhere.
With these credits and debits laid out, here is a listing of some of Orange County's better community theaters--those that tend to hold their own in stage's low-rent district.
Garden Grove Community Theater: This playhouse operating out of a nondescript, low-ceilinged recreational building in the city's Eastgate Park has gathered a reputation in recent years for pushing the limits a bit. Its uncensored, volatile production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" a few months ago was a highlight. Like its counterparts, Garden Grove goes for plays that have been around, but its honest, fairly undiluted approach helps it have an edge.
Newport Theatre Arts Center: The theater is situated on a pretty bluff overlooking Coast Highway and the Newport Beach coast. Although that view-on-high has at times been more compelling than the action on-stage, this playhouse has had its strong moments. Newport's handling of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" a couple of years ago rumbled with lunacy and love.
Laguna Playhouse: The "big daddy" of OC community theaters, the Laguna in Laguna Beach is known for its relatively lavish and professional productions. The look and attention to detail is always there, but the playhouse, especially considering its place on the local scene, should take more chances. Even a revival of a classic can prod and tickle if it has a revolutionary spin.
Regional Repertory: Primarily operating out of the Forum Theater in Yorba Linda, the repertory is very big on musicals. It goes for the tried and true--you're going to find "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady" instead of something wilder--and generally plays them straight. Production values, when compared to other community theater projects, tend to be exceptional.
La Habra Community Theatre: La Habra's reputation used to be rag-tag, but it has climbed this year with a few energetic shows, including a restrained but funny "You Can't Take it With You" and a ribald and affectionate treatment of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." The playhouse still has a ways to go, but it seems to know the direction.
Muckenthaler Center: The outdoor shows, usually produced by the Resident Theatre Company in Fullerton, have taken on a quality sheen in the past year. An unpretentious treatment of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and the wicked "Corpse!" were strong outings for the Fullerton center.
Cabrillo Playhouse: This San Clemente theater has, in the past, gone for the typical in its playbill. However, a recent production of Shepard's bouquet to sibling rivalry, "True West," was a welcome surprise, even a shock. Sure, it was an uneven offering staged by a couple of guys who aren't even Cabrillo regulars, but this use of the theater may signal a more ambitious approach.
Alternative Repertory Theatre: The oh-so-serious organizers of this tiny Santa Ana playhouse will wince when they find themselves in this list, but including ART helps underline what small, local theaters can accomplish. On a midget budget but bolstered by a commitment to produce vital, seldom-seen-in-the-county works, ART has mounted Sartre's "No Exit" and Pinter's "Betrayal," among others, in its inaugural season. Pretty grim stuff (people are wondering if ART has a sense of humor), but never compromising or conservative.