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Dog and Tony Show : UCI Troupe With Tongue-in-Cheek Name Gives Classics Some Stylish, Satiric Twists

August 08, 1995|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Woof! Woof! give your dog a bone .

Just how Eli Simon and his company of actors came up with that name for their improvisational theater troupe is probably beside the point. But we couldn't help wondering.

Turns out that they "bandied some names around for about an hour and a half" with "no idea whether this one was a good name or not," Simon said during a recent interview. "We don't take ourselves seriously."

In other words, the give your dog a bone commedia troupe --to use the proper, lower-case mouthful--isn't asking for a sirloin steak.

"Scraps for a scrappy company," said Simon, 37, a UC Irvine associate professor who heads the acting program at the School of Fine Arts and who organized the troupe with five undergraduate actors and five recent graduates.

"What we do is very much like street theater," he explained. "Everything is borrowed. Jokes are stolen. What we can get for free we take. And we'll do tricks for our bone."

The trick tonight and Wednesday is a bawdy, modern version of Carlos Goldoni's 18th-Century slapstick farce "Servant of Two Masters," being presented in association with Shakespeare Orange County at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre in Orange.

Simon said he and the actors have updated the text "in a very loose way. We're certain Mr. Goldoni is rolling in his grave. But I hope he's not taking us any more seriously than we take him."

Goldoni, a prolific Italian playwright, harked back to the commedia dell'arte tradition of the 17th Century but stripped away the masks and codified the improvisational format of the artificial genre with fixed scripts depicting real life.

He thought it "demeaning to improvise in the theater," Simon noted, and so he "corrupted the spirit of commedia." At the same time, however, Goldoni retained the customary gags, the men in drag, the mistaken identities and the usual stock figures: the doddering old fool, the zanies, the harlequin and the brigand, among others.

"We're taking things full circle and returning to the true commedia," Simon said. "This is a show for people who love pratfalls and bad jokes. It has an 'Animal House' energy. It's fast, loud and almost acrobatic. The actors sprint through it. They're kinetic."

They also treat the convoluted plot of "Servant," which takes place in Venice and centers on discordant lovers, strictly as a formulaic mechanism to float the humor.

Because the old commedia thrived on latzi --that is, vaudevillian "bits"--as well as social satire commenting on current events, this adaptation is being revised constantly. Spontaneous "improvements" are added from one night to the next.

"Usually when you direct a show, you want it to look exactly the same every night," Simon pointed out. "You pull your hair out to get it that way. The director's classic line to actors is, 'Take out the improvements.' You're always saying that because they think they're improving things when all they're really doing is sliding away from your direction.

"But this time, I honest-to-God didn't know what was going to happen every time they got out there, because they would come up with ideas in the dressing room and throw them into the show. An idea would either work or it wouldn't. If it didn't, they'd take out their note pads on stage and write: 'Don't use this joke tomorrow night.' Which became one of our latzi .

"Of course, you don't want to overdo something like that. You hope you have enough good jokes that you're not saying that all the way through the show."

The production, launched in November as an undergraduate project at UCI with many of the same cast members, had its first off-campus outing last weekend as part of Shakespeare Festival/L.A. at Grand Hope Park in Los Angeles. After the Waltmar, it is to head north again for three performances later this month at the Court Theatre in West Hollywood.

"Many times you do a university show and you realize it ought to have a longer life," Simon said. "This was very successful on campus. We kept quiet about it because it was an experiment. But we think this show has legs. It can run. It can skip or hop. And that has given us the incentive to take it out on the road.

"What we'd really like to do is visit Shakespeare festivals all over the country and set up residencies. This thing is so flexible, anything can happen."

* "Servant of Two Masters" opens tonight at 8 at the Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 310 E. Palm Ave., Orange. $12.50 in advance; $15 at the door. Also Wednesday. (714) 744-7016.

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