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STAGE REVIEWS : Jacobean England Comes to Southland With a Vengeance

June 21, 1989|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

As the bodies pile up, don't ask which brother is beheaded, whose head is in the bag, what the succession is or why all the violence.

Welcome to Jacobean England.

It's not often that two plays from that period receive separate but simultaneous productions--in this case semi-well done. Both the Strike Theatre's "The Revenger's Tragedy" at the Callboard and Marlowe's "Edward II" at the Shakespeare Society of America have certain strengths--and both suffer from certain weaknesses, though widely different ones in each case.

Whatever you do, don't read the synopsis of "The Revenger's Tragedy" in the Strike's program at the Callboard Theatre.

Whoever wrote it has added muddle to confusion. Cyril Tourneur's melodrama (tragedy's a misnomer), dripping in Jacobean gore, is hard enough to follow without this kind of help.

On the other hand, the Strike, which launches a summer repertory season in West Hollywood with this seldom-staged play, demonstrates freshness and cohesion, even if this outing is not entirely distinguished. Its actors go at "Revenger's" with a vengeance.

And well they might. It is a daunting piece, tied in several knots and rife with scheming, deception, lasciviousness, rape and bloodletting by men with such lip-smacking names as Supervacuo, Lussurioso, Spurio and Sordido. (The women here escape with less descriptive names.) Vengeance, in the end, is everybody's, and nearly everybody dies.

In the process, the Strike Theatre Inc. has a vigorous time of it. This company is new, young, driven, inventive and well-spoken, and the pace set by Stuart Wood's direction is unflagging.

The production, all in blacks and whites, is the fruit of active imaginations. Kevin Ian Ackerman has designed faintly Dickensian costumes, but the show is placed in some unspecific time and mounted on a shallow, bare, steeply raked stage (designed by Kevin Adams).

Under Ken Scarborough's shadowy lights, this is a region more of the mind than the world: a smoky, dim place, somewhat akin to the Paris sewers in "Les Miserables." The effect is valuable for a time, but enervating in the long run. No audience should be subjected to this much shadow-boxing--especially not when the events themselves are so confusing.

Performers Joshua D. Rosenzweig (Vindice), Grant Heslov (Hippolito), John-Frederick Jones (the Duke) and Gregg Washington (Lussurioso) make a strong impression. Though the two-hour evening is swift and engaging enough to keep us interested (note the suggestive ways the overflowing white satin cape on Lussurioso's shoulders is used), the play's intricate convolutions, and even the company's fervor, pall after a while when it remains so difficult simply to see who's saying what--and doing what--to whom.

But the Strike Theatre has the right idea and it intends to stick around. It's done a dandy job of sprucing up the old Callboard, added some welcome air conditioning and, on June 30, will open an evening of one-acts by Harry Kondoleon, Marguerite MacIntyre and Nancy Beverly to run in rep with "The Revenger's Tragedy." These are people with ambition and a program. Not a bad combination.

At 8451 Melrose Place in West Hollywood, Thursdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., until Aug. 5. Tickets: $15; (213) 466-1767.

Would as much could be said of the Shakespeare Society of America's "Edward II" at the Globe Playhouse, which is plagued with old problems that get in the way of at least one fine performance.

Sloppy production values, uneven casting and, in this case, mediocre direction mar this play, which is closest in tone to Shakespeare's histories if not quite up to their eloquence.

Paul Norwood in the title role brings to bear all the character connections of this weak monarch to Shakespeare's Richard II--another king felled by personal flaws. He plays this king as an irresolute man in the thrall of indolent passions who is deposed and killed as much by his own rejection of reality as by his angered and mutinous lords. The portrayal is clear, believable and moving.

Less so are the performances of his acolytes. Tom Spackman makes an acceptable Mortimer, David Arrow a compassionate Edmond and Susan Hagarty an understandable if shallow Isabella. But the rest of the company is poorly chosen, with Nick Cavarra and Michael Walsh far too American and contemporary as Spencer and Baldock, respectively, and Adam Englund at sea in a variety of roles.

With the exception of Edward's gruesome assassination, director Michael Benedict's staging is resoundingly careless, from such elementary matters as groupings to the more refined questions of timing and character.

The abiding problem at the Globe is this EarlyProvidential nature of the event, from casting to costumes (apparently assembled by cast members at random and attempting a period look only from the waist up). This is not a budgetary but an artistic concern. It's not about money. It's about care, vision and coordination. There should be a way around the problem at this attractive playhouse, but why does it always feels as if someone here is perpetually out to lunch?

At 1107 N. Kings Road in West Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends July 15. Tickets: $12.50-$17.50; (213) 654-5623.

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