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Expanding on the Classics : Excalibur offers William Sheridan's comedy 'The Rivals' as its second production.

November 11, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

STUDIO CITY — Don't tell Rajan Dosaj that there's no room in the San Fernando Valley for more than one classical theater company.

"It's a big place," says Dosaj, co-founder (with Carl J. Pfeifer) of Excalibur Theatre Company.

A little more seriously, he observes that the more classical theater there is, the better it is for everyone. "I think giving an audience a choice of these types of theaters will be beneficial to us," he says, "because it can only help spread the awareness of classical theater."

The other classical company is Glendale's A Noise Within, whose success has proven that there really is a way for a classical ensemble theater to develop in Los Angeles' sometimes anarchic theater environment.

But A Noise Within has settled into its home on Brand Boulevard with a loyal audience base and plans to build a real theater. The Excalibur people don't even have a home yet, but instead have a friendly rental arrangement at Lionstar Theatre in Studio City's Sports Center building, where on Saturday the group is opening its second production, a revival of William Sheridan's 1775 comic masterpiece, "The Rivals."

The issue isn't so much about too many classics on stage as every artist's bugaboo: comparison. "I told Carl when we first started this," Dosaj says, "that we were going to be compared to (A Noise Within). You can't do anything about that."

Ironically, the group was considering Sheridan's "The School for Scandal" as the follow-up to its lauded initial production of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." But no sooner had the idea occurred to Dosaj and Pfeifer than "we opened up the paper and saw that A Noise Within was doing it for the fall season."

That pretty much guaranteed "The Rivals," because if Excalibur was going to do a Sheridan play, there were very few to choose from. His other four plays--"The Critic," "St. Patrick's Day," "A Trip to Scarborough" and a ballad-opera, "The Duenna"--flounder in obscurity.

"Rivals" director Christine Ashworth, notes that Sheridan--a notoriously undisciplined writer who wasted his money on booze and women--"wrote the play in a couple of weeks because he was desperate for money to elope with a woman." The comedy, most famous for the spectacularly misspeaking character Mrs. Malaprop (the source of the term malapropism ), is perhaps born out of Sheridan's own hasty heart. Its complex web of plots, subplots and intrigues--set among high society taking the waters at Bath, England--ensnare a range of characters in various states of disastrous amour , jealously and passionate flux.

Fortunately for Ashworth, the late 18th Century need not be the only setting for "The Rivals."

"For 'School for Scandal,' " says Ashworth, an associate director of the Nevada Shakespeare Festival, "you need the proper period costumes, the hoop skirts, and so on. 1904 in England was a similar time to the 1770s, in that the natives were restless and the monarch was weak.

"Manners were extremely important in both eras," he added. "Your good name was more important than what you had in the bank. So we decided to shift the time to 1904, and all we had to change was the clothing."

Besides, costumer Jeffrey Schoenberg informed the company that 18th-Century costume design would be very costly. Practicalities, though, presented Ashworth and crew with new multicultural insights into Sheridan's social world: Dosaj, of Indian heritage (his father was born in New Delhi), is playing Fag, the servant of Sir Anthony Absolute, as an Indian manservant.

"It makes perfect sense for the time," says Ashworth, "at the height of the British Empire, and its hold on India."

Both Ashworth and Dosaj, a veteran of Actors Alley, Santa Susana Repertory, the Globe Playhouse and the defunct L.A. Shakespeare Theatre, know the value of a stable acting company--and both admit that Excalibur has yet to reach that kind of stability.

"Except for me and Carl," Dosaj says, "there is no one from the 'Shrew' cast in 'The Rivals.' You can never predict an actor's life, and because the actors we cast are so good, they're also in big demand for film and television.

"After seeing the mistakes made by other theaters, Carl and I decided last year that Excalibur would do two productions a year. With two, we can deliver the best, which is the only thing we think worth aiming for."

Where and When

What: "The Rivals."

Location: Lionstar Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: Opens at 8 p.m. Saturday. Regular hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 18.

Price: $11 to $14.

Call: (310) 289-8515.

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