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Theater : Fiddling With Tradition : * Wendie Willson has updated the characters, costuming and setting of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' but not the language.

September 24, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Wendie Willson hopes that you won't read anything profound into "A Mid summer Night's Dream."

"It's just fun , a big party--that's all," says the director, whose staging of the Shakespeare comedy opens tonight at Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood.

In this 14-member production, the characters, costuming and setting have been updated, but the language has not: The story takes place in the woods outside Athens, Ohio, and opens with the upcoming nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta.

"Theseus is the attorney mayor; he's going to run for the Senate," Willson explains cheerfully. "He went to Los Angeles, met Hippolyta there, and now they're back in Athens getting married."

The director has little compunction about fiddling with the traditional story.

"I don't think it detracts at all," she says firmly. "Shakespeare did it too. He took stories and changed them all around. That's what's so great about his work--it allows for such flexibility."

Willson says she wasn't always such a fan of the Bard.

A graduate of Northwestern University, she spent much of her adult life overseas with her then-husband, returning to the States in 1980 for a master's degree in acting and directing.

In 1986, she enrolled in a summer program at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art--and fell in love with Shakespeare. "What excites me most about him is the language," she says reverently, "how he puts it together. Everything is right there in his words."

Group Rep President Whitney Vale is playing Hermia. "I think the play is about betrayal," she says, "a light, magical story with a dark edge."

Hermia possesses "a sweetness, a freshness, a willingness to believe in innocence," she says. "After 15 years in Los Angeles, I've kind of had to put a veneer around myself. But playing Hermia reminds me of the person I used to be, growing up in Kentucky. So it's been nice, reacquainting myself with myself."

Willson, who has four grown daughters and two grandchildren, was born in Kansas City and raised in Laguna Beach.

In addition to directing at the McCallum Theatre and College of the Desert, both in Palm Desert, she has headed the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre since 1990. The theater for young people combines a touring program for local schools--performing famous scenes from Shakespeare plays--and an inner-city program, "The Playcreating Project."

The director, who joined Group Rep six months ago, says the company was looking for a play project that would support women.

"Also, I've done a lot of directing, a lot of alternative casting," says Willson, whose far-flung credits include productions with the Caracas Players in Venezuela. "The big thing was, I wanted to do Shakespeare for everyone, not this elitist thing. In his time, Shakespeare was playing to people who wanted to have fun."

What: "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Closes Oct. 31.

Price: $10.

Call: (818) 769-PLAY.

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