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Strange Stage for the Bard : Director Coral Suter decides to tell the tale of one of Shakespeare's least-known plays in the coffeehouses of Los Angeles.

July 30, 1993|RAY BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Bennett is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Why "Pericles"?

Coral Suter, who is directing a production of Shakespeare's seldom-seen "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" at various city coffeehouses, includ ing Canoga Park's The Storyteller, starting this Sunday, says that is the wrong question.

" 'Are you insane?' That is the question," Suter says. 'Pericles' in coffeehouses? Have you gone mad?"

Suter, a Los Angeles native who has a master's degree in theater from California Institute of the Arts, is known in Los Angeles stage circles for productions of modern plays, especially those of Harold Pinter.

She has become accustomed to having to justify her desire to present one of Shakespeare's least-known and often-disparaged later plays. "I came up with this long rationale: Well, the later work is really good, blah, blah, blah," she says.

"But the truth is that a friend of mine got very involved in the debate of who had actually written Shakespeare's plays, and we were talking about the later work. I've loved 'The Tempest' since I was a child, and then I saw a production in New York of 'A Winter's Tale' that made me cry, it was so good. And I thought, gosh, I wonder about 'Pericles.' "

Suter read the play and, like many before her, was struck with its odd structure. "The first two acts are strange," she says. "They're lovely, but they're strange. But before I got to the third act, I was determined to do it and, not only that, but I was going to do it in coffeehouses. The two ideas were wedded, and it was there full-blown."

The connection is not really so odd. The story of Pericles--a prince who sets out on a quest to find a princess and, when he finds her, all hell breaks loose--is 3,000 years old. It has been handed down as part of the oral tradition of many Mediterranean countries. It is declaimed as myth to this day in the hills of Greece. Shakespeare's was merely one telling of the tale. Why not tell it in the coffeehouses of Los Angeles?

"This is the prime dramatic teller of tales in the English language telling this 3,000-year-old myth," Suter says. "Everybody says he's done it wrong; it's not been a well-liked play, but you can see Shakespeare's hand all the way through. He has this tremendous contrast of high drama with almost buffoonery; he'll have people at the height of passion suddenly make a joke or notice how absurd they are. It was difficult, but I realized that he can be trusted; he really knows what he's doing."

Presented under the auspices of Mean Noises Productions, a nonprofit company founded in 1981 by CalArts graduates, the play features a cast of actors only too pleased to be performing Shakespeare under any circumstances.

Sharon Saks, a North Hollywood resident who left San Francisco nine years ago to pursue an acting career, is a former dancer who last year had her own monthly cable-access comedy show, "You Don't Know Me, But." Although more used to sketch-improv comedy, she says, "this is my first full-length Shakespeare, and I didn't know it would be this much fun."

John Timmons, who lives in Van Nuys, is a veteran of Shakespeare productions in New York and his native Philadelphia. "The real discipline in doing this in coffeehouses is in the concentration," he says. "As your physical world gets smaller, you have to make the world on stage more intimate. I've worked in dinner theaters, which are notorious for serving food and drinks while you're performing, but it seems that the people in coffeehouses here really are more respectful and interested in what we have to say."

Cuban-born Victor Marcel has also performed Shakespeare many times, and he relishes playing seven different roles in the small performing space. "No costume changes, no makeup," he says, "so my job is to use characterization, changes of voice, changes of rhythm, so that the audience sees seven different people."

Gina de Lagerheim, who is from Colorado and now lives in Altadena, not only hasn't performed the Bard before, she has never stepped on a stage. A production manager for seven years, de Lagerheim decided to take the plunge as Marina, the king's daughter, when her friend, Suter, suggested it.

"It's hard when you have an ego, and you want to do everything perfectly," she says. "But I went in there and made some mistakes and just dove in with everything I had. I absolutely love it."

Suter says simply: "I have been blessed with a cast beyond my hopes," although she agrees that watching "Pericles" calls for a commitment on the part of audiences.

At a little more than three hours long, including three intermissions, the play is demanding.

"We're asking people to listen and take the visual imagery into their imaginations," Suter says. "You must get through the first two difficult acts. The build in this play is really in the fourth and fifth acts and, when you get there, the whole thing makes sense with a really beautiful emotional payoff."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" by William Shakespeare.

Location: The Storyteller, 22047 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, one block west of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Hours: 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8 and 15.

Price: $10 includes a regular beverage and dessert; open for dinner at 6 p.m.; coffee, desserts at intermission.

Call: (818) 713-2518.

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