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You Can Buy a Jury (for Good Cause)

April 01, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Hamlet is about to go on trial for the murder of Polonius, Judge George Deukmejian presiding.

All of this will transpire at "Hamlet on Trial," one of the most high-concept theatrical fund-raisers in years. It will occur at, as well as benefit, the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, on April 21.

Conceived and directed by Elizabeth Falk, "Hamlet on Trial" has been presented on two previous occasions, as a New York fund-raiser for the reborn Globe Theatre in London and as part of the UK/AZ Festival, held in Phoenix in 1997. Peter Lesnik produced the Phoenix fund-raiser, then brought the idea with him to Long Beach when he became executive director of the Carpenter a few months later.

Here's what happens: The "Hamlet" back story is told in a modern-English prologue. Then actors reenact the event that has brought Hamlet into court-the prince confronts his mother in her boudoir and stabs the hidden but eavesdropping Polonius, erroneously assuming that the eavesdropper is actually Hamlet's new stepfather. The actors are dressed for the period and use the original text.

At the end of the scene, Judge Deukmejian, attorneys and a jury-all dressed in contemporary garb-are brought on stage. The attorneys grill the witnesses-Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, the Ghost and Ophelia-who respond with passages from the play. The judge instructs the jury, which retires to deliberate. More scenes from the play follow: a soliloquy or two and the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. Finally, the verdict is announced, followed by the "What a piece of work is man" speech, followed by a party.

The jury is made up of those who contribute at least $1,000. While promoting the event before a Long Beach Bar Assn. meeting, Lesnik asked, "How many people here have wanted to buy a jury? Here's your chance."

Deukmejian, the former California governor, lives in Long Beach, and Long Beach attorneys-Tom Stolpman for the prosecution and Ed George for the defense-will conduct the questioning. Based on the verdicts in the earlier two presentations-the defendant was found not guilty-Stolpman has his work cut out for him.

Actors from A Noise Within will play the Shakespearean roles, and about $5 out of each $35 ticket will support the Glendale company, which was born with a production of "Hamlet" almost 10 years ago.

Louis Lotorto, currently at A Noise Within in "The Comedy of Errors," will play the prince.

Meanwhile, still pending is A Noise Within's real-life lawsuit against another Cal State campus, Cal State Los Angeles, over the company's aborted residency at the school's Luckman Theater in 1999-2000. The matter has been submitted to arbitration, but the wheels of justice turn more slowly in modern-day L.A. than they do in Elsinore.


WHITTIER LOSES LOST WORLD: A Noise Within is not the only company whose residency at a local campus ended recently. The Lost World has left Whittier College.

A professional company whose three-year residency at Whittier climaxed last summer with the premiere of Horton Foote's "The Day Emily Married," the Lost World is run by Crystal Brian, who left the Whittier faculty last fall to take a job at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. Last week she said that the company will regroup at Quinnipiac.

"It was a great thing while it lasted," said Brian Reed, chair of the college theater department. He said the college lacks resources that the Lost World had independently drummed up to finance a professional company.


OJAI DIRECTORS: Actress Kaitlin Hopkins and Robert Menna are the new artistic directors of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Hopkins is known for her performances at Pasadena Playhouse and South Coast Repertory, while Menna was literary manager at the Intiman Theatre, one of the top theaters in Seattle.

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