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O.C. Theater Notes

Santa Ana Stage Company's 'Hamlet' Comest in Such a Questionable Shape

January 26, 2002|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Coming soon to a theater near you: See the birth of Hamlet, prince of Denmark. And what a lovely baby girl she is.

Santa Ana's Hunger Artists Theatre Company always has enjoyed putting twists into the classics, and it has a radical one in mind for the first Shakespeare play in its five-year history. In this "Hamlet," running April 26-May 19, we will meet a prince who is really a princess--but who has been posing as a male all her life.

Director John Beane plans to present the subterfuge in an opening montage that shows Queen Gertrude giving birth. In Beane's conception, King Hamlet (later to appear as the ghost of the murdered king) is obsessed with producing a male heir; presented with a baby girl, he simply has her spirited away and raised as a boy, unbeknownst to her mother and everybody else in the play. Beane, a Fullerton resident, says he hatched the idea over the last two years with friend Jesse Runde, the actress who will play Hamlet.

It brings a new level to [Hamlet's] denial of Ophelia, to her vehement attitude with Gertrude, and to her constant questioning of herself, her identity problems, her basic unwillingness to fight," says Beane. "It's going to be dark, moody and philosophical."

Although "Hamlet" is a Hunger Artists show, Beane is renting out the Hunger Artists space for the Feb. 8-March 2 run of another Shakespeare play, "Henry V." It is being produced by his own fledging company, the Insurgo Theatre Movement. Beane, 26, and his actress wife, Jessica, 24, are launching Insurgo mainly with their own savings. The two met while acting in a Huntington Beach Playhouse Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of "Love's Labour's Lost." She is about to earn a degree in literature at Cal State Fullerton; he helps run Mad Science, an Anaheim company that offers after-school science programs.

The Beanes are searching for a warehouse-type space in north Orange County and hope to present a full season of plays starting in August. Insurgo, says Beane, is Latin for "to rebel, to expand, to ascend. I want the name to remind us to be constantly aggressive and expand our horizons. Obviously none of us is in it for the cash. We want to beat our heads against the stage and make some art." On the agenda, he says, are more classics, popular contemporary plays such as "Amadeus" and new works, including a rock opera called "Heaven's Cafe." Another title, "Theseus and the Minotaur" is a fresh take on the Greek myth written by the Beanes.

"Henry V" will be fairly straightforward, a period dress-up piece set in the milieu of 15th century England and France. But Beane's staging introduces a new character--a scribe struggling to make sense of the heroic monarch while chronicling his deeds, thereby serving as an onstage surrogate for the audience. Beane promises knights in armor fighting heated battles. The big experiment, be says, is to see what happens when one of Shakespeare's most epic plays unfolds practically within arm's reach of the audience. Insurgo's "Henry V" will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. (714) 870-0598.

Speaking of female Hamlets, the attitude of the American Shakespeare theater establishment seems to be "why not?" At least that was the feeling Thomas F. Bradac, leader of Shakespeare Orange County, got while presiding last weekend over the annual conference of the Shakespeare Theatre Assn. of America. Bradac, the association's president, said that 115 representatives from 42 Shakespeare theaters attended, the gathering in Washington, D.C. The consensus was that it is fitting for actresses to tackle one of Shakespeare's meatiest parts, whether posing as a prince or playing Hamlet as a princess.

"There was a general sense not that it is just in vogue to do it, but that it brings a different richness to the play itself," Bradac said. "We've changed as a society, and it allows us to, look at the play through different eyes."

Bradac, who began producing Shakespeare in Orange County 23 years ago, has something new in mind for this year. He plans an effort to get youngsters stoked on Shakespeare. Bradac thinks kids get turned off because they first encounter the Bard as just another reading assignment. His plan, The Shakespeare Project, calls for students from the fourth and fifth grades to act in scenes from Shakespeare plays. "I want a program that gets kids up on their feet and excited about language," says Bradac, a theater professor at Chapman University. "I would like to personalize it in some ways so they don't feel it's a marble statue they're supposed to like. It's fun. It's sex and violence. Shakespeare was a guy talking about the things people are always interested in, and we need to unlock that. If you approach it as 'This is great poetry,' you're going to lose them,"

The task Bradac has set for himself is to develop ways to train teachers and theater professionals so they can bring Shakespeare alive in classrooms--and to raise the $25,000 he thinks he needs to get The Shakespeare Project ready in time for the next school year.

Good reviews have not translated into good box office for "Bash," running at Hunger Artists through Feb. 3. Neil Labute's string of three one-act monologues is a dark exploration of how ordinary, seemingly decent people can commit unspeakable acts against innocents. A total of 40 customers bought tickets for the three performances last weekend, says Mark Palkoner, Hunger Artists' co-managing director. Palkoner thinks the post-Sept. 11 mood has suppressed the public's appetite for ultra-dark stuff. "Bash" plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with an additional performance Monday at 8:30 p.m. (714) 547-9100.

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