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Shorter 'Wars' to Bow on a Smaller Stage : 'God Say Amen,' the last line of the English Shakespeare Company's 'Roses' marathon, will be its West Coast premiere

October 06, 1991|RICHARD STAYTON | Stayton writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Director Bogdanov founded the English Shakespeare Company in 1988 with actor Pennington. Stars of Britain's two most famous English theatrical institutions--Pennington came from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Bogdanov from the National Theater of Great Britain--both dreamed of a less elitist touring ensemble that would take the Bard's language out of the province of academia and into working-class environments.

"The English Shakespeare Company," Pennington announced when the troupe was formed, "is based on an utter commitment to the assumption that the plays of Shakespeare are a common coin, that they belong to everybody."

"Our work is about getting rid of attitudes," Bogdanov said. "We want to get rid of the in-built tradition that as long as you do the meter of the poetry then the meaning will take care of itself. But the poetry is not essential. The ideas are the essential part."

Shakespeare wrote for the common man, according to Bogdanov. The Bard's dynasties begat our "Dynasty," the show biz Shakespeare distorted history just as ruthlessly as today's Hollywood.

This radical approach to classic repertory appealed to DeCarlo. He and Evelyn Rudie had been expanding the playhouse's community role since becoming co-artistic directors in 1973.

Its Mobile Touring Project travels to schools, offering educational theater. Workshops are conducted for internists in the Young Professionals Company and for experienced actors. Comedy writer Jerry Mayer is about to debut his third playhouse world premiere, "A Love Affair." A new family theater musical, "Mary-Mary, Quite Contrary" opens today. And its permanent ensemble, the Actor's Repertory Theatre, will conduct workshops in Japan later this fall.

"A turning point for us," said DeCarlo, "was creating the play 'Dear Gabby.' "

The 1988 production concerned teen-age problems in contemporary society. The playhouse enlisted adolescents to confront issues such as addiction, suicide, peer pressure, sex and rejection. The multicultural "Dear Gabby" began the playhouse's international touring program, traveling to Montreal, Japan, New York and England.

" 'Dear Gabby' meant taking on a conscience in the community, realizing the significance and power of theater as a working tool to deal with insoluble issues," DeCarlo said. "That play was very on the nose, very direct, very upfront, very honest, and it came from the heart and soul of the performers who created it."

This July, the English Shakespeare Company sponsored the playhouse's workshop tour of England, as well as the playhouse's musical on ecology, "1994--a telling of tomorrow."

That second international tour proved invaluable to the playhouse. "We wanted to bring American actors into an environment that wasn't elitist but was very down-to-earth and practical," DeCarlo said. "There's a perception among American actors that British actors are superior. It's amazing to hear how much they look up to us."

After exploring the English company's workshop process, DeCarlo was determined to find a way to bring it to Southern California. "Immediately, it was, 'Let's get to the nuts and bolts and do the work.' All down-to-earth and very open and very accessible. They were there working with you rather than sitting up on a pedestal pontificating."

At that time, the Shakespeare company was scheduled to end its American educational tour in Chicago. "They weren't planning to come to the West Coast at all," DeCarlo said. "They didn't know if they had the resources to manage it."

DeCarlo proposed that Los Angeles be included in the company's 1991 educational tour of the United States. His playhouse would take care of the scheduling, he said.

His style was DeCarlo and Rudie's kind of theater.

Describing the English company's workshops, DeCarlo said: "First, you play.

"All the classes seem to be structured around play. You either play with juggling balls, or bags, or names, or words, doing physical contact things. Any feelings of embarrassment or discomfort vanish quickly. You're all in this boat, and you're just playing."

Will this cultural coup give the playhouse more clout and prestige in the theater community? After all, no other company has managed to lure such a celebrated institution to Los Angeles.

DeCarlo rejects any suggestion of the playhouse turning elitist.

"The public's general perception of theater is that it's elitist, up there with opera and ballet--not accessible, not available to everybody," he said. But that's not true. The public has to be educated. The biggest culprit in not solving this perceptual problem is the theater community. We aren't taking a major role in sensitizing and nourishing an appreciation and awareness of what this process is about. It has to be infused in our education."

That's certainly the populist ethic being championed by the English visitors during their educational tour of the United States. Now the only question remaining is how many Southern Californians will experience their work and later boast, "I survived the Wars of the Roses."

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