It wasn't too long ago that the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove--Orange County's second-largest professional theater troupe and, at the time, its sole classical company--teetered on the brink of collapse, a victim of highly publicized cash shortages but also of hidden managerial feuding.
Now, as the summer theater season is about to get underway, it seems clear that those bitterly divisive troubles had an unexpected silver lining.
Playgoers will be able to choose from two professional classical companies instead of one--Shakespeare Orange County, newly created by defectors from the old Grove, and a newly invigorated Grove revved up by a surprise, lifesaving foundation grant, not to mention the appointment of a marketing-minded artistic director.
With a total of five productions to be staged between the two companies, even devout fans of the Bard may not feel the need to go beyond county lines to sate their Elizabethan appetites.
"The Tempest," "Macbeth" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" will be offered at the Grove's 550-seat, outdoor Festival Amphitheatre. "The Winter's Tale" and "Hamlet" will be staged at Shakespeare O.C.'s 256-seat, indoor Waltmar Theatre on the Chapman University campus in Orange.
Both companies will operate under Actors' Equity contracts. Still, there will probably be considerable differences in their presentations--if not in the quality of the players, at least in the physical scale of the productions--due to significantly different resources and ambitions.
The Grove, which has budgeted its three outdoor shows at about $85,000 each, intends to pull out all the stops in terms of production values, according to its new artistic director, W. Stuart McDowell.
All three shows will be designed by John Iacovelli, who won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award earlier this season for "Heartbreak House" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and who will be making his amphitheater debut. Iacovelli will use a revolving stage--a first for the venue--and the sets will be built in Los Angeles by a commercial scene shop rather than in-house.
Meanwhile, most of the costumes for "The Tempest" and "Macbeth" are being imported from England's Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition, the Grove has imported costumer Sandria Reese, who has worked with the RSC for years, and lighting designer Michael Reese, another RSC associate.
"As they say in the film business," McDowell notes, "the money will be out front."
The Grove design team hopes to make each of the three shows look different from each other. For instance, "The Tempest" will use the revolving stage, but "Macbeth" will have it locked in place. And "Merry Wives" won't have it at all.
"We're forwarding ('Wives') from the Elizabethan period into the late Restoration Georgian period," McDowell says, "so we'll have a flat, raked stage with footlights for that one, (to suggest) an 18th-Century music hall."
At Shakespeare O.C., each of the productions will cost about $50,000, according to producing artistic director Thomas F. Bradac, whose tenure at the Grove ended last June after a dozen years. Consequently, "The Winter's Tale" and "Hamlet" will have what he describes as "a simple feel." This is not to say they will lack style. But the focus of attention "definitely will be on the actors," Bradac says, with production enhancements kept to a minimum.
"We're not about conceptualizing the plays to turn them into something they're not. It's not our goal to do something idiosyncratic, like putting 'Hamlet' in a '54 Buick. . . . We hope to bring the plays alive by embracing them as literature and making them as entertaining and artistically satisfying as possible."
Shakespeare O.C.'s design team will include Lyndall Otto, who did the costumes for all three Grove shows last summer in the amphitheater; David Palmer, formerly the Grove's resident lighting designer; composer Chuck Estes, also of the Grove, who will write original music for both companies this season; set designer Scott Schaffer, who designed "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" for the Grove, and Craig Brown, a newcomer from Chapman, who will design the sound.
John-Frederick Jones, a veteran actor, director and Grove dramaturge who will stage "The Winter's Tale," compares the two theater companies to "Robinson's and the Broadway at either end of the mall. As Dogberry said, 'comparisons are odorous.' But healthy competition isn't so terrible. Everybody saw when they built the malls, you couldn't survive with one department store. Put in two, and you improve sales in both."
Indeed, subscriptions to both companies are reported to be selling well.
Bradac says Shakespeare O.C. already has 800 season ticket-holders for its 11-week maiden season, and he expects that number to top 850 by the time "The Winter's Tale" previews on July 9.
McDowell says the Grove's former season ticket-holders are signing up at an 80% renewal rate and he projects that by the time "The Tempest" previews June 24, the Grove will have 2,000 subscribers.