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Protege of N.Y. Fest's Papp Has His Own Ideas : Stage: Shakespeare Festival/LA producer Ben Donenberg combines his vision of Bard's verse with free shows, canned-food drives and sheer determination.


LOS ANGELES — Central Park, on a summer evening in 1981. A not-yet-famous John Goodman and Mandy Patinkin were dueling during a dress rehearsal for the New York Shakespeare Festival's "Henry IV, Part One," directed by the not-yet-famous Des McAnuff. Suddenly the sword flew out of Goodman's hand and appeared to land on the noggin of an even more obscure young actor named Benjamin Donenberg.

The festival's legendary producer, Joseph Papp, dashed onstage and asked Donenberg if he was OK. The unhurt greenhorn replied with one sentence only: "Now Joe Papp knows who I am."

Los Angeles, too, is beginning to know who Donenberg is.

Having consciously modeled his Shakespeare Festival/LA on Papp's--indeed, using budget formats that Papp loaned him--since 1986, Donenberg (now known as Ben instead of Benjamin) has created alfresco productions for audiences that have grown from 800 in the first year to 22,207 last year. This summer, for the first time, the 36-year-old producer will do two plays instead of his customary one.

The festival's first tragedy ever, "Romeo and Juliet," opens on Saturday. Previews began at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre Wednesday. As usual for the festival's Los Angeles productions, admission is free, but playgoers are asked to bring cans of non-perishable food that will be donated to the Salvation Army and AIDS Project Los Angeles. (Last year's show netted food valued at $100,000--a sum tripled by Vons.)

Next, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is slated for a July 29-Aug. 8 paid-admission engagement at South Coast Botanic Garden near Rolling Hills Estates. Depending on how much money is raised between now and then, "Verona" may move to the festival's traditional downtown L.A. home, Citicorp Plaza, for an Aug. 12-22 run with no admission charge. But even if "Verona" doesn't make the move, the festival will stage a one-hour version of "Romeo and Juliet," using youth from Nickerson Gardens, at Citicorp Plaza in an early evening slot, Aug. 13-15.

Shakespeare Festival/LA is tentatively expanding in an era when many companies are contracting or dying. The most obvious comparison is the recent collapse of GroveShakespeare in Garden Grove. In an interview, Donenberg--who has never been to any GroveShakespeare productions--expressed regret at the moribund company's plight. But Los Angeles is more willing and able to support a summer Shakespeare festival than was Garden Grove, he claimed.

With his next breath, Donenberg thought aloud that he should send information about his own company to GroveShakespeare subscribers. Fifteen minutes later, he was talking about investigating the possibility of bringing his own shows to the amphitheater in Garden Grove, thereby helping amortize costs.

That's the same notion that led David Houk to take his Pasadena Playhouse productions to Poway and Santa Barbara, noted Donenberg. Houk, along with Papp, is another mentor for Donenberg--and donates downtown office space to Donenberg's company.

Some of Donenberg's downtown corporate and county support has dried up during the recession. But then Donenberg has always had to "beg, borrow and steal--literally," he said, to keep the festival going.

For the first season, Donenberg borrowed costumes from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego "without telling them," thanks to a designer who worked for both companies.

When he started the project, Donenberg was doing part-time clerical work at the Beverly Hills estate of the late Ira Gershwin, and sometimes escorted Leonore Gershwin, Ira's widow, to the theater. She asked Donenberg how much he wanted for that first season, he recalled, and he asked for and got $3,000. She even directed her limousine to the gritty Al's Bar in the downtown loft district to see one of Donenberg's first productions, "Starship Shakespeare," a spoof that mixed characters from Shakespeare and "Star Trek." Mrs. Gershwin's reaction to "Starship," according to Donenberg: "I loved it--it's so . . . poor!"

Donenberg's first theatrical roots were far from classical. As a Skokie, Ill., teen-ager, he studied at Second City in Chicago and belonged to an improv group. He sometimes attended his high school classes dressed as Groucho Marx.

He didn't dress at all for a solo performance piece he created while a summer intern for the National Shakespeare Company in Woodstock, N.Y. Called "The Menu," he lay on the floor, naked, then carefully placed breakfast items on his feet, lunch items on his chest, dinner items on his head, and a banana split "where you might expect it to be"--all to the strains of "Thus Spake Zarathustra." He thought it was a comment on "the excesses of humans," but his teacher didn't take it seriously.

Nowadays, Donenberg might not either. "I don't cotton much to performance art," he said. "It's indulgent." He believes that "you do art in order to create communities. That's why I like to use big casts"--and why he keeps admission free in Los Angeles, collects canned food and prints program notes in three languages.

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