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Twain Conjures Up Shakespeare in 'Slings and Eros'

April 04, 1993|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a regular contributor to The Times

Bridget Dobson likes her Shakespeare in unexpected places. As creator, with husband Jerome Dobson, of the recently defunct soap opera "Santa Barbara," she fashioned the leading character of Mason Capwell after Hamlet. Capwell was given to quoting the Bard, and at one point recited a version of the melancholy Dane's "Alas, poor Yorick" speech to a platter of whole roasted pig after a family dinner party had gone awry.

Now Dobson has put Shakespeare in an even more irreverent setting: opposite Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain himself, in the new musical comedy "Slings and Eros," which opened last night at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood. Dobson wrote the book and shares lyricist credit with the show's composer, girlhood friend Janet Barnet. Prominent local director David Galligan is at the helm and Toni Kaye is choreographer.

Based on the historical fact that Clemens envied Shakespeare's worshipful regard by critics, the show begins with Clemens (Kenny Rhodes) reading a newspaper review of his just-published novel "The Prince and the Pauper," about the exchange of identities by look-alikes Edward VI and a young pauper a few days before Henry VIII's death.

When the critic calls him a "literary wart" in comparison to old Will, an enraged Clemens goes into action. He decides to rewrite "The Prince and the Pauper," throwing in a romance between Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth I (Sharon Mahoney) and the impostor Tom Canty (Dan Sachoff) who is posing as her brother, while, as in the novel, the real Prince Edward (Paul Formanek) explores the world outside his palace.

In the process, Clemens conjures up Shakespeare (David Keith Miller), trying to prove him a bumbling fool. In the course of the two-hour show, the characters perform traditional theater numbers and an array of musical send-ups ranging from a vaudeville joke-and-dance routine by Tom and Edward to a "Henry's Dying Hoedown" square dance.

Dobson was inspired to write what she calls this "rollicking, wild romp through history and literature" by a lifelong fascination with the Elizabethan era. In the late 1960s, as a visiting professor at Cal State Chico, she taught the first televised course in the consortium of state colleges on the BBC television series "Henry VIII" and "Elizabeth I," and says, "Henry was a horrible man in many ways, but he was such a colorful character. And Elizabeth I was one of the best queens."

Dobson first thought of writing a play during a forced hiatus from "Santa Barbara," for which she and her husband were executive producers and head writers. The couple were barred from the series for several years until a breach-of-contract lawsuit against production company New World Television was settled. She had long spoken of doing a musical with Barnet, a writer of special musical material for business functions and parties, whom she had met in the third grade.

"We were really kind of playing, and then it got to be serious fun," Dobson recalls. "After about 450 lunches together, Janet suggested 'The Prince and the Pauper.' I read it and thought it was beautifully written, but I hated it. The story was boring. It didn't even have a romance. So we all--(Dobson's husband) Jerry too--tried to explore ways to make it interesting."

Says Barnet, who studied composition as a UCLA music major and for 10 years was music director for the eight-woman local singing group "Collage": "I did like the story as a basis. But we've made it more adult. Before, it was a kid's story. I hadn't really read Shakespeare since college, and when we started reading him, the things he wrote were so wonderful. So many things we say today are from his works."

Dobson really got excited, she said, when she remembered her father, an English professor, telling her that Clemens was jealous of Shakespeare, an idea that evoked associations with the award-winning play "Amadeus," about the composer Salieri's envy of Mozart. With that in mind, Clemens provides the framework for the show's multiple story lines, learning finally that perhaps the Bard wasn't critically misjudged, after all.

"God, it's been fun," Dobson says of the two years since work on the show began in earnest. "You have time to have more fun than you do in soaps, because you get to work on things. You do a run-through, and you can see the holes and take care of them. And you don't have to deal with networks."

Writing a play seemed a natural transition from soapdom, she adds, noting that she learned to write on soaps. And what an education it was: Dobson's parents, Doris and Frank Hursley, created the ABC serial "General Hospital," which celebrated its 30th anniversary Thursday. After Dobson married and earned a master's degree in communications from Stanford, she worked as an associate writer on "GH" for five years, then shared the post of head writer with her husband for two more years.

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