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A Series of Classic Rip-Offs : Speedy 'Hamlet' Is Quick-Witted; Durang's Plays Leave Much to Be Desired

July 26, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — There may come a day when the works of playwright Christopher Durang will be forgotten, like the early comic-book cowboy plays of Sam Shepard, which haven't been done in a quarter century. In the meantime, Durang's work is done frequently, including three of these short parodies in "OCC Rips the Classics," at Orange Coast College's Drama Lab.

There is one gem in the program, but it isn't by Durang or Wendy Wasserstein. It's Tom Stoppard's lighting-flash "15 Minute Hamlet," and it shows that parody really can work in the hands of a real playwright.

Even as he gets older, Durang doesn't seem to mature as a writer. The pieces included here are "Mrs. Sorkin," a short monologue; "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls," a rip-off of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie"; and a travesty on the classic "Medea," written with Wasserstein.

The Durang pieces, even "Medea," are formless, juvenile, badly constructed and, obviously, hastily written. Director Alex Golson and his drama students try to make what they can of them, and it's only their exuberant energy and the obvious fun they're having that partly saves the day. These actors will outgrow this material quickly.

Shannon Birk begins the program with the wandering monologue by Mrs. Sorkin, a woman who knows less about her subject than she wants to admit. Birk is charming and gets through it quickly.

The "Medea" has no point. Knowing that it ends with a rambunctious rendition of "Camptown Races" and that Medea's children are named Lyle and Erik gives an idea of the level of satire. Shelley Damore manages to be very funny as Medea, announcing first that she "attended a first-class school of dramatic art," then providing a Medea worthy of the saltiest ham actress. Mark Palkoner, with all the fire and virtuosity of Broderick Crawford, is her laid-back Jason, but Steve Howe's flashy Deus Ex Machina, moving like a Trojan horse across the theater's ceiling, manages to outshine even Damore's Medea.

Howe also handily steals the show in the "Glass Menagerie" parody, as Lawrence, Amanda Wingvalley's son, who is crippled, asthmatic and has eczema--all imagined. Joan Meissenburg makes points for playing the nasty Amanda with a reserve that beautifully balances Howe's frantic antics, but Palkoner is even duller here than in "Medea," as son Tom, who brings a girl from the factory home to meet Lawrence. Palkoner's factorypoet, who meets girls at the factory but prefers to meet men at the movies, is as askew as Rachel Davenport's bellicose, butch, lesbian factory girl.

*

Ending the program with some honestly wrought laughs is Stoppard's "15 Minute Hamlet," which, like the Minute Waltz, is a nice title though not really accurate--it runs about 25 minutes. Stoppard lets through Shakespeare's humor by going through the story at breakneck speed, his craftsmanship picking just the right details.

The cast, in this case, is more than up to Stoppard's sense of fun. Howe shines even brighter here as a Hamlet on speed, with his flair for physical comedy and his excellent comic timing. Director Golson understands Stoppard's clockwork structure. Kimberly Fisher is good as the loony Ophelia, Jon Chapman as both King Claudius and old Polonius, and Shannon Birk as a voluptuous Queen Gertrude. With Golson and his cast in tandem with Stoppard, this closer is worth sitting through the rest.

* "OCC Rips the Classics," Drama Lab, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Tonight, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $6-$10. (714) 432-5640. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"OCC Rips the Classics,"

"Mrs. Sorkin"

Shannon Birk: Mrs. Sorkin

"For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls"

Steve Howe: Lawrence

Joan Meissenburg: Amanda

Rachel Davenport: Ginny

Mark Palkoner: Tom

"Medea"

Shelly Damore: Medea

Mark Palkoner: Jason

Steve Howe: Deus Ex Machina

"15 Minute Hamlet"

Steve Howe: Hamlet

Kimberly Fisher: Ophelia

Jon Chapman: Claudius/Polonius

Shannon Birk: Gertrude

An Orange Coast College Theatre Arts Department production of parodies of classic plays, by Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein and Tom Stoppard. Directed by Alex Golson. Assistant director: Laura Viramontes. Scenic design: Timothy C. Todd. Lighting design: D.P. Vining. Costume design: Maggie Blascoe, Erik Lawrence. Stage manager: Donna Ham.

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