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REVIEW : Summer Theater Fest Offers Starry Nights


The Occidental Theater Festival, returning to its classical roots with revivals of three comedies and one tragedy, is once again spreading its theatrical summer carpet in audience-friendly outdoor and indoor theaters at Occidental College.

Under starry skies at the Remsen Bird Hillside Theater, "Pygmalion," "HMS Pinafore" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" are alternating with the festival's single indoor production, "Othello," at the intimate, European opera house-inspired Keck Theater, just up the hill on the Eagle Rock campus.

With its option of catered pre-performance dinners in the lush gardens of the faculty club or gourmet boxed suppers in the forested picnic areas, this festival, with its blend of family conviviality and enriched fare, suggests the champagne-and-box-seat ambience of the Hollywood Bowl--without the long hike to your seats.

In any event, in its 34th year, the Occidental production has arguably grown into the most pleasant and sterling summer theater festival in Southern California.

We can report on only two of the shows ("HMS Pinafore" and "Othello"), but their measure of talent bodes well for the entire Hillside Repertory Company's summer quartet, which alternates nightly through August.

Director Gary Davis unfurled Gilbert and Sullivan's 1878 London operetta, "HMS Pinafore," at the first Occidental festival in 1960 and he's at it again. This production boasts a wonderful, pullout/comic book effect for the Pinafore's two-masted topside (designed by Christa Bartels) and a merry group of sailors--led by Danny Turner's lovesick swabbie Ralph Rackstraw and Jim Kocher's callow Dick Deadeye, who aims to spoil the ship's party.

Costume designer Maria Julie Guitierrez has imaginatively created light blue jerseys and big yellow, swirling silk ties for the male crew. Their chorus of female counterparts who, in a sublime bit of staging, appear to magically float up to the docked Pinafore in small, unseen boats, are gaily festooned in crisp, lovely dresses over bulging petticoats.

Among the 29-member cast, festival artistic producer Alan Freeman has fun with the British Navy's avuncular commander, portrayed by festival veteran Tom Shelton, who bowled over audiences last summer as Charlie in the comedy "The Foreigner." Once again, Shelton is hilarious as the self-inflated ship's commander with the puffed-up chest and a knack for showing off his profile as if he were Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn rolled into one.

Dorothy Smith is the tremulous, love-smitten captain's daughter, but her high, thin voice barely carries her lyrics.

The vocal strength of the show is pearly voiced soprano Beth Ray as Little Buttercup.

Musical director Kathie Freeman paces a flavorful, five-piece, off-stage band.

If you are a lover of Gilbert and Sullivan or, better yet, have never seen a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, this is a charming opportunity to "sail the ocean blue."

Most festival-goers subscribe to all four plays, and the mood swing from director James Martin's stark "Othello" to the rest of the stage menu could not be more startling.

It is not well-known, except to Shakespeare buffs, but Othello's Moorish general, wracked by mistrust and sexual jealousy, is the first instance of a credible black character in English literature. He is a Moor who is so out of his native element in what is indeed a racist Venice that it is not hard to understand how gullible he was to jealousy and the sexual insinuations of his evil lieutenant, Iago. Or how courageous it was of Desdemona (recent Oxy graduate and debuting festival actress Susan Heimbinder) to marry Othello in the first place.

This is certainly a couple for post-riot, multicultural Los Angeles. At one point Desdemona's racist father, Brabantio (Ken Clement), nastily refers to Othello's "sooty bosom."

Billy Mayo, a black actor with much Shakespeare under his belt, has the right physical presence for Othello, but not the requisite fury and emotional stature to tower over everyone else.

At the climax, when he kills himself after suffocating his beloved/hated Desdemona with a pillow on her silk bedsheets in an otherwise powerfully staged scene, the audience barely feels Othello's tragic splendor and the cleansing of his final self-awareness: that he was incapable of trusting deeply enough to deserve and return his wife's love.

Equally harmful is Mayo's diction--too muffled to create the illusion of nobility, let alone the sweep of the verse.

So how damaging is this? Surprisingly, not very. Shakespeare's play is so propulsive, so contemporary and tightly structured that even a mediocre Othello can't sink it.

Interestingly, the chief attraction in this production, which is workably updated to a 1950s-'60s military milieu on a gleaming, spare stage, veers to Iago and his wife, Emilia.

Bennett Davidson's feral, dark Iago and Melissa Berger's vivid, rebellious Emilia (who feels the answer to men and their insufferable ego is simply to cuckold them) are the two strongest actors on stage, although Daniel Stewart's victimized soldier Cassio is quietly distinctive.

Davidson, in his camouflage garb, his assertive visage starkly lit by scenic and lighting designer Susan Gratch, endows his Iago with a kind of metallic evil.

Heimbinder's raven-haired Desdemona (the least showy role in the whole play and thus the most difficult) is angelically full of trust, as called for, but physically her presence is too pale to offset her goldilocked role.


"HMS Pinafore," "Pygmalion," "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Othello," The Occidental Theater Festival, 1600 Campus Road, Eagle Rock, alternating nightly, 8 p.m., with selected matinees, 2 p.m. Through Aug. 28. $11-$16. (213) 259-2922. Running time: "Othello" 3 hours, "HMS Pinafore" 2 hours.

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