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Live 'Hamlet' to Animate El Capitan

March 12, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

From 1926 until 1941, Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre was primarily a home for vaudeville and plays. Then the movies moved in, with the premiere of "Citizen Kane" in 1941, and live performers were only occasionally seen on El Capitan's stage. Now, however, they're back.

Actually, flesh-and-blood performers have accompanied some of the screenings at El Capitan since its grand reopening in 1991, after an extensive renovation of the lobby and seating area by Disney, which bought the theater in the '80s. But most of the performances were brief, about 23 minutes, and limited to Disney-themed musical numbers preceding the movies. In most of the '90s, performers at El Capitan had only the six feet in front of the screen in which to emote. Meanwhile, behind the screen was an unused stage, 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep.

Even using the cramped quarters in front of the screen, "we saw the stage shows were working," said Ed Collins, director of theater operations. So the stage and backstage were cleaned up as part of the second phase of renovations, completed in 1998. The fly loft above the stage was reopened so the screen could rise, showing off the stage. The expanded stage was used last year for the hoopla surrounding the movie "Tarzan," including an hourlong production shot for TV.

Now, at last, a real play is scheduled for El Capitan. And not just any play, but perhaps the most famous of them all: "Hamlet."

Will & Co. is bringing the Bard to the 1,030-seat venue for three performances, April 13-15. They're scheduled for 10 a.m.--not the usual hour for theatergoing. But that hour allows the movies to resume at 1 p.m., and it's ideal for busloads of high school students who are expected in the audience.

The performances aren't just for students--they will be open to the public, and one wonders if other theatrical producers might show up just to see how El Capitan works as a stage venue.

"The El Capitan has not seen its full potential yet," said Joe Musil, who supervised the theater's redesign for Disney. "It's built like a Broadway theater, not like a movie theater. It's foreshortened so the balcony seats are extremely good. It's rewarding for Disney to open its films there, but all of these other elements of theater are waiting in the wings. Their moment will come."

Of course, union contracts required by the number of seats might make costs prohibitive for most local producers. Because of its student orientation, "Hamlet" will be on Actors' Equity's Theatre for Young Audiences contract, which recognizes that such shows usually have low ticket prices and therefore doesn't mandate wages as high as those that normally would be used at a theater on the scale of El Capitan.

This "Hamlet" will be heavily cut, to about two hours. "I hated Kenneth Branagh's movie; it was too long," said director Colin Cox of the four-hour film released in 1996.

"Hamlet" opens Saturday evening at its primary venue, Los Angeles Theatre Center's Tom Bradley Theatre. Most of the performances there will be school-oriented morning shows, but the public is invited to the opening and the April 8 closing at LATC, as well as to performances at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park on April 12, the three shows at El Capitan and a final performance at Palmdale Playhouse on April 15.

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IN CANOGA PARK: Speaking of the Madrid, it will have another, smaller, mid-size neighbor soon. Clyde Porter bought a Masonic temple a block north of the Madrid and is converting it into a 150-seat theater to be called the West Valley Arts Center. It will be the home base for the Woodland Hills Theatre, which has used at least some Equity actors on contract for one show in each of its six seasons. The Woodland Hills group is losing its lease in June in its current 100-seat venue at a West Hills church.

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ANOTHER ANTIGONE: You haven't seen the last of Cornerstone Theater's updated version of "Antigone." The production that closes today at the Getty Center is considered a workshop by the troupe; look for the full production next summer in a radically different venue, the downtown subway terminal, opening July 29.

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