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STAGE / NANCY CHURNIN : Globe Eyes Latest by Lanford Wilson

July 09, 1992|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — The Old Globe Theatre is discussing the possibility of staging the California premiere of Lanford Wilson's new play, "Redwood Curtain," from Jan. 15-Feb. 28.

The play had its world premiere at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in January before heading to the Philadelphia Drama Guild in March. Plans now call for the show to go to Broadway next March.

"Redwood Curtain" tells the story of a 17-year-old Amerasian named Geri, the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American GI, who is searching for her father.

Co-producers Robert Cole and Benjamin Mordecai were hired by the Circle Repertory Theatre in New York to give Wilson a chance to work out the kinks in Seattle and Philadelphia. The Circle Rep subsequently decided not to bring the show to Broadway, so Cole and Mordecai are trying to acquire the rights to do it themselves.

The Circle Rep was co-founded by Wilson and his longtime collaborator, Marshall W. Mason, who has directed the premieres of all of Wilson's plays since 1972. Though Mordecai is also the managing director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Yale Rep is not involved.

Jack O'Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe, said: "It's certainly under strong consideration. I read it and just adored it. It's a great play. We want very much to make it happen. But we've got a three-car garage and a fleet of Rolls-Royces trying to get in."

Wilson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for "Talley's Folly," has long been associated with plays exploring the American psyche.

"Redwood Curtain" gets its name from a redwood forest in Northern California where, as the play tells it, anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 Vietnam veterans are hiding, trying to shake off their memories.

Geri, a musical prodigy who was adopted as a baby by a wealthy California couple, goes into that forest when she visits her aunt.

The Seattle Times described the play as a "folk/fairy mystery tale," but one that needed work. The Philadelphia Inquirer raved about it, calling it "magical" and "tantalizing." Both reviewers marveled over the set, which evidently shifts quickly from a dense redwood forest to a posh living room and back again.

At least three distinct stage versions exist of the Tim Rice musical, "Chess," a story about a chess match between a Soviet and an American. The work was first produced as a record in 1984, back in the days when there was a Soviet Union.

The British stage version, often described as a surreal pop opera, came first with a rolling, tilting stage and 128 video screens that transformed the floor into a giant chessboard. It opened in 1986, and, despite leaving many London critics cold, became a smash hit that ran for three years.

Then there's the 1988 Broadway version, more of an old-fashioned book musical with new dialogue written by Richard Nelson. That got mixed to negative reviews and closed after 37 performances.

And finally there's the 1990 touring production, retooled by Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, as a romance against the backdrop of \o7 glasnost\f7 . It died a quick death.

Those versions don't even include the scattered regional takes on the show, one of which included an elaborate chess ballet with chess characters interacting with their human character counterparts throughout the show.

So which one is Starlight Musical Theatre opening tonight at the Starlight Bowl?

None of the above, according to the company's co-artistic director, Don Ward.

"We're going to do one that's unique to Starlight," Ward said.

Rice, frustrated by the show's lack of commercial success in this country, has given Starlight a free hand, Ward said.

"He said, 'If you can make it work, more power to you.' He hopes that someone will come up with a solution that he has not thought of that will make it successful."

James Rocco, who directed Starlight's successful production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" last year, will direct again. Rocco and Ward believe that previous directors worried too much about the show being outdated.

"I'm not worried that our relationship with Russia has changed," Ward said. "I think there is a love story and a nice side story of espionage."

Rocco, who is directing "Oklahoma!" at the Sacramento Music Circus for a Sunday opening, said: "I don't apologize for Oklahoma not being a state when I do 'Oklahoma!' I think it's clear that (this version of) 'Chess' is set in 1988. I think the audience is intelligent enough to accept that."

Sacramento, coincidentally, is presenting its own, successful version of "Chess" through Sunday.

Rocco has trimmed Starlight's show to two hours. In some versions, it exceeded three hours.

He said his emphasis is going to be on the music composed by ABBA musicians Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, with Rice's lyrics.

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