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Across the Bard

Shakespeare Orange County Tries to Stay True to Works in Launching Its 5th Season

June 13, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — The county's only classical theater company, Shakespeare Orange County, has been working its way through the Bard's canon since the summer of 1992.

With the opening of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" on Friday--to be followed by "Macbeth" in July and Moliere's "Tartuffe" in August--the troupe will launch its fifth season. And SOC founding artistic director Thomas F. Bradac regards that as no little milestone.

"Longevity," he said in a recent interview, "is the key in this business. The longer you stay around, the more likely you are to find your audience and survive. Shakespeare is a niche. It's not for everybody, and we don't pretend to make it for everybody."

He pointed out that most, if not all, the notable Shakespearean companies tend to be "destination" theaters--that is, tourists make them part of their travel plans.

This is true of the year-round Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the nation's largest theater troupe of any kind, the summer Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City and, to a certain extent, the summer Shakespeare productions at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

"We're a resident company," Bradac, 48, said. "Though we have subscribers from as far away as San Diego and Beverly Hills, even Palm Springs, 80% of our audience is from central O.C."

The company's 800 or so subscribers--a number similar to that of the past few seasons, he says--includes many former subscribers to the defunct Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove.

But the heart of SOC's audience is made up of single-ticket buyers. They come mostly from this city, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Santa Ana.

SOC's first season came about a year after Bradac was forced out as artistic director of the Grove, which he'd founded more than a decade earlier. The mainstay actors who composed the Grove's resident company--Daniel Bryan Cartmell and Carl Reggiardo, to name just two--chose to leave with him. They threw themselves into starting all over again and found a silver lining at Chapman University.

In exchange for educational benefits to its student body, the university offered Bradac and company the use of the Waltmar Theatre, a 256-seat venue on campus.

There, over the past four seasons, SOC has mounted "The Winter's Tale," "Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar," "Twelfth Night," "King Lear," "The Tragedy of King Richard III" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

This season, with the university's help, SOC will be going outdoors in a serious way for the first time. The lead production, "Two Gentleman of Verona," is to be mounted on a newly built outdoor stage on the campus as a three-week curtain raiser for the season.

"It's an experiment," said Bradac, who was hired to teach at Chapman in 1990 and is now chairman of the theater and dance departments. "I've cast 'Two Gents' with students or graduates of the university. We're calling them our Young Company.

"Part of SOC's educational mission is to build bridges between the university and the community; part of it is to have a theater laboratory led by professionals who can help students get involved."

Bradac, who is directing all three productions, is optimistic that the experiment will work. Besides, he loves doing Shakespeare under the stars, a luxury he used to have at Garden Grove's Festival Amphitheatre.

"Doing 'Two Gents' with the Young Company ought to be a lot of fun. And frankly, I can't do it with Carl Reggiardo and Dan Cartmell, even if I'd wanted to. We're pretty much a group of middle-aged actors. 'Two Gents' is about young love."

*

Festive and youthful though it may be, "Two Gentlemen of Verona" will nevertheless be an amateur show. The other two, "Macbeth" and "Tartuffe"--both to be mounted indoors at the Waltmar--will be produced under SOC's customary union-professional contract with Actors' Equity.

From the beginning, Bradac has insisted on straightforward, language-driven productions. He says he is not dogmatic about it but prefers them to director-driven "concepts."

Mainly, he objects to turning Shakespeare's plays into playthings for contemporary audiences who need user-friendly toys. Despite the Alice-in-Wonderland theme that Reggiardo adopted for his popular, critically praised SOC mounting of "Twelfth Night" a couple of seasons ago, Bradac is convinced that updating or otherwise remaking the classics is not the way to go--especially for small companies.

"I think the future of theater has got to be away from spectacle and into the acting and the words," he said. "That is 'concept' enough. We have to get back to what these plays were originally about: actors going out on a simple stage to entertain.

"If the mere fact of changing costumes and scenic design from one period to another is conceptual, that's old. I've done it. What happens is that the company has a lot of fun and gets to play around. But for the people who really want to see Shakespeare, it gets in the way and turns them off."

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