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A Trim of the Bard : 'Twin Peaks' alum Wendy Robie directs and stars in hourlong versions of 'Twelfth Night' and 'Macbeth.'

January 14, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — Who's crazier? a) The housewife trying to find the world's quietest runners for her living room curtains, or b) the actor-director who is editing two Shakespeare plays, "Twelfth Night" and "Macbeth," down to one hour each.

You might have your own answer, but Wendy Robie would probably demur, since she has intimate knowledge of both cases. In the first, she played the housewife--the eye-patch-wearing Nadine on David Lynch's "Twin Peaks." In the second, she's the daredevil editor, squeezing the contrasting pair of classics into the simply titled "An Evening of Shakespeare," opening tonight at the Whitefire Theatre.

When Robie, who's in her 30s, sits down in the Whitefire space and considers whether what she's doing is foolhardy, she valiantly makes a case for the negative: "I admit this is an audacious thing to do, but I've played and taught Shakespeare's characters, so I know them very well."

Besides, far more outlandish projects to reduce, reuse and recycle Shakespeare have flourished for many years. The Reduced Shakespeare Company first made its L.A., then its international, name with a manic act that included every play by the Bard--even if just a line from each.

And this writer remembers a notorious 1989 East German production of "Hamlet" in which playwright-adapter Heiner Muller turned the tragedy into silent-film farce and dropped all but a dozen lines from the original text.

Robie's motives are far less subversive. In fact, they're downright inviting. Her intent with this project, she says, is to introduce audience members to the works and offer a chance to those who know the texts to play What Lines Were Cut?

"You always see those people in the audience who bring along their copies of the play," Robie says, "and try to spot cuts. This time, they should have a field day."

It might not be easy for those text hunters to track Robie's editing, because she insists that this is no literary clear-cutting. Think of it as, in Robie's phrase, "clipping" both the "Macbeth" plot--in which the misguided hero sinks into a bloody morass of revenge and maneuvering for control of Scotland--and the "Twelfth Night" plot--in which shipwrecked siblings Viola and Sebastian find themselves on the island of Illyria, home to a society overrun with foolishness.

"Our effort is to tell the stories clearly," she says. "It's just that I'm choosing the stories to focus on. In the case of 'Twelfth Night,' it's Viola's relationships to Orsino (Duke of Illyria) and Olivia (the Illyrian countess), as well as Sebastian's relationship to Olivia. I want to tell the story of a leisurely colonial island people with far too much time on their hands, who get taught a lesson by the shipwrecked visitors."

Thus, Robie's Illyria is a Caribbean isle in the 1930s, modeled after the carefree spirit of the 1933 Dolores Del Rio musical "Flying Down to Rio."

Robie's "Macbeth," though, is still the "Macbeth" of 11th-Century Scotland, with the pivotal marriage-in-blood of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as its centerpiece. Finding just the right verb to term her adaptation, Robie says, "I axed the Thanes. Most people have a hard time telling apart Menteith from Angus from Caithness from Lennox, so it's been reduced down to the character of Ross. A lot in Macduff's speeches is cut, as well. It's also important to remember that Shakespeare gives one clues where to cut, when information is repeated in dialogue."

Although Robie has assembled an eight-member cast, including herself (playing Viola and Lady Macbeth), co-director Tony Carreiro (playing Orsino and Macbeth) and Whitefire owner-operator Dan Hirsch (in a number of smaller roles), this "Evening" actually began as a two-actress show in Robie's former artistic home, Seattle.

She's a bit reluctant to admit to that show's title--"A Coupla Shakespearean Chicks Standing Up and Talking"--but its essence, as a vehicle to do Shakespeare scenes for and by women, became "Redheads Do Shakespeare Standing Up," which Robie performed with current cast member Andrea Goyan during the 1993 NoHo Performing Arts Festival.

"Maybe it's because Wendy and I are both from Seattle theater and love Shakespeare," says Carreiro, who teaches stage fighting when he isn't acting, "but we talk alike. It became clear during rehearsals that it was better for me to direct some scenes, especially those involving fighting. Actors often forget that they're still acting while they're fighting."

What lured Robie from the land of rain to the land of rays was Lynch, who saw her work at Seattle's Bellevue Repertory and asked her to read for something then titled "Northwest Passage."

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