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Bard Tenders Make It a Double

Happy Hours: Theaters Set Up 'Comedy of Errors' (Straight) and 'Spamlet' (Wry, With a Twist)

June 13, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dueling farcical romps--no holds Bard!

Shakespeare Orange County's "A Comedy of Errors" opens tonight in Orange, while the Grove Theater Center airs a spoof called "Spamlet" in neighboring Garden Grove. (Can you guess which classic tragedy it's based on?)

Both shows play weekend evenings on outdoor stages; both are intended to woo audiences otherwise intimidated by Shakespeare, and both are influenced by commedia dell'arte, a style of Italian comedy, improvised from stock situations, popular in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Still, the productions couldn't be more different.

" 'A Comedy of Errors" is as close as you can get to Shakespeare sitcom," said Tom Bradac, SOC's producing artistic director. "It's the shortest of the plays, the show for people who think they're afraid of Shakespeare or who got frightened away in high school.

"It's also his one certifiable farce. Other Shakespeare plays have elements of farce . . . . but here the physical humor, the knockabout, is written into the piece itself. The characters are constantly getting hit, beaten upon."

So slapstick predates Larry, Moe and Curly?

"Commedia dell'arte used a great deal of slapstick, and this is certainly in that genre," Bradac said. "In fact, physical comedy dates back to ancient Greece--Jim Carrey comes from a long line."

"A Comedy of Errors" runs through June 29 on the Schweitzer Mall Stage at Chapman University. The cast is drawn entirely from SOC's Youth Conservatory and from students in Chapman's theater department.

While the Bard wrote "A Comedy of Errors," the freewheeling "Spamlet" was collectively penned (and is being performed) by the Hollywood-based Troubadour Theater Company "with additional material by Wm. Shakespeare." The show continues through Sunday at the Grove Festival Amphitheater.

*

"It's not 'Hamlet,' but the story's there," said Charles Johanson, producer of "Spamlet" and executive director at Grove Theater Center (GTC). "If someone had to take an exam on 'Hamlet' and had seen this, they'd probably pass the exam but answer the questions kind of oddly.

"It's hysterical, stylistically unlike any theater you will have seen recently," Johanson said by phone from his offices at the center, talking over one or more dogs barking in the background. "I don't know a lot about commedia dell'arte, but if commedia dell'arte existed today, as we go into the new millennium, this would be it."

"Spamlet" follows last year's "Shrew!" based on "The Taming of the Shrew." (Before it evolved--devolved?--into "Shrew!" Johanson recalled, he told the Troubadour troupe's Matthew Walker, "I really like it, but cut all that Shakespeare stuff!")

Earlier inspiration might have come from Monty Python; the show's even closer in spirit to the touring Reduced Shakespeare Company productions, yet--surprisingly--no Troubadour member has seen one.

How freewheeling is "Spamlet"?

Imagine Ophelia in drag jumping off a 60-foot tower; an impression of tenor Jose Carreras doing a cover of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There"; a game show called "The Bard's Barbs," in which contestants verbally abuse opponents using Shakespearean epithets; Hormel-inspired lyrics ("Spamlet, you're some kinda meat"), and the THX sound test--live! The set includes mini-trampolines and a jazz combo.

"At every turn you don't know what you're going to see," Johanson said. "But there's this safety net; you're seeing this classic." Well, sort of.

Would Bradac ever play that fast and loose with Shakespeare?

"No," Bradac said. "For a [company] dedicated to Shakespeare, artistic investigation of the plays is the most important element . . . and the responsibility to present the language of the original as intact as you can. Otherwise, why dedicate yourself to doing the plays of Shakespeare? It wouldn't be suitable for our audiences."

Although the "Shakespeare stuff is there" and "you hear the most beautiful language ever written," Johanson contended, those elements are minimal at best in "Spamlet."

Though it has presented Shakespeare each summer, GTC does so as part of a year-round mix. Running concurrently (in the adjacent Gem theater) with "Spamlet" are James McClure's newly revised "Max and Maxie," opening tonight; GTC Kids' "Camp Friendship," and open-mike comedy nights Saturdays after 10 p.m. GTC will stick closer to the original for its production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV," an adaptation combining Parts I and II, July 11-27.

"We're not at all a Shakespeare company," Johanson agreed, noting that the venue has changed a great deal since Bradac in 1991 was forced out, apparently because of financial disagreements with the board, as artistic director of the Grove Shakespeare Festival, which he'd founded there more than a decade earlier. The current management team took over the Grove complex almost three years ago.

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