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THEATER REVIEWS : Two Productions Lack Students, but Not Class : Santa Barbara colleges host 'King Lear' and 'Six Degrees of Separation' featuring faculty, local and visiting artists.


Two productions opened last weekend at collegiate venues--but don't be misled. Neither "King Lear" at UC Santa Barbara nor "Six Degrees of Separation" at Santa Barbara City College are student productions, but professional-caliber stagings worthy of serious attention.

"Lear" is the latest project from UCSB's Theatre Artists Group, an interdepartmental program spotlighting the talents of faculty and visiting artists.

"Six Degrees" features an impressive array of performers and technical specialists drawn from Santa Barbara's theatrical community.

Spanning centuries and sensibilities, the shows represent different takes on the nature of identity--Shakespeare's timeless descent into the painful birth of a self and John Guare's abstract meditation on our uniquely 20th Century brand of alienation.

Either way, you can't go wrong.

You couldn't ask for a more lucid, insightful and impeccably realized staging of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy than director Robert G. Egan's inspired production at UCSB.

Without recourse to exotic resettings or other ephemeral gimmickry, Egan sets his sights on a clear and faithful rendering of the text, and his confidence that the work speaks forcefully to our own time proves well-founded.

The role of Lear is the supreme test of a mature actor's craft, and guest artist Al Ruscio, a familiar face from film and television, rises magnificently to the challenge.

But however successful, Ruscio's Lear doesn't overpower the production. He's well-balanced by George Backman's Earl of Gloucester (similarly undone by deceit and his own folly in the play's parallel tragedy); Joshua Haber's scheming Edmund, the first existential character in literature; Frank W.D. Ries's all-seeing Fool, and Michael Morgan's exiled Edgar.

Those who claim that "King Lear" is the greatest play in the English language will find plenty here to bolster their argument.

At Santa Barbara City College is playwright John Guare's quirky puzzle-box drama, "Six Degrees of Separation."

Mathematicians tell us that separating any two people on the planet is a chain of only six acquaintances. Guare maintains that the psychological gulfs between us are far greater.

"Six Degrees" sketches the forms alienation takes in the midst of the enlightened egalitarian society on which we Americans pride ourselves

It's a false comfort, Guare maintains. He holds up to scrutiny a contemporary upscale Manhattan couple--the Kittredges, an art dealer (Tony Miratti) and his partner/wife (Laurel Lyle)--who find their professed liberal humanism tested by Paul (Edd Stockton), a young black man who gains entree into their home by claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier.

In framing Paul's quest to remake himself as a member of the Kittredges' class--white, cultured and wealthy--the play brushes up against a plethora of social issues without addressing any of them in depth. Like the Kittredges, we're confronted with an ambiguity without a pat interpretation--the dramatic equivalent of the massive double-sided Kandinsky painting (vibrantly reproduced by scene designer Patricia L. Frank) that dominates the stage.

The rest of director Rick Mokler's staging is likewise steeped in the play's intentional abstraction, and it falls to the performers to supply the human connection.

Most successful in this regard are Miratti's increasingly testy Kittredge and Stockton's breezy, elegant Paul, who ultimately drops the mask of self-assurance to reveal a frightening portrait of a self without a center, an identity shaped not by experience (as we saw in King Lear), but rather by the frustrated desires nurtured by hollow social values.


"King Lear"

* WHEN: Through Sunday, 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

* WHERE: Hatlen Theatre, UC Santa Barbara.

* HOW MUCH: $14

* CALL: 893-3535.

"Six Degrees of Separation"

* WHEN: Through Oct. 29, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

* WHERE: Garvin Theatre, 800 block of Cliff Drive in Santa Barbara.

* COST: $13 to $15.

* CALL: 965-5935.

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