And Now for Something Completely Different

After three years, we know a few things about the Troubadour Theater Company's annual summer homage/rip-off of William Shakespeare. It will be irreverent and entertaining. It will contain pratfalls and puns and some of the most energetic, no-holds-barred physical comedy on any stage outside a Mexican wrestling ring.

But there are two things that are different about this year's Twelfth Dog Night, the Los Angeles-based troupe's latest offering (which opens on July 16 at the Grove Theater Center in Garden Grove and moves two weeks later to Fullerton's Muckenthaler Cultural Center). First, it blends Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity and self-indulgent love, Twelfth Night, with a more than slightly unorthodox partner: the pop music of Three Dog Night.

Second—and just as important (as well as odd, considering the aforementioned coupling)—this is Troubadour's most faithful production of a Shakespeare play. It still won't satisfy the purists—and thank God for small miracles—but it does come closest to striking the kind of balance that Troubadour co-leader Matt Walker wants to achieve between story and spoof, physical comedy and "real" acting.

"I don't know if it's because we're getting a little older and pratfalls aren't so easy anymore, but it's great to get back to the acting on this show," says Walker, 29, who directs and acts in the show and who is also one of Southern California's most gifted actors. "For the past couple of years, the attitude has been, 'Hey, we have a mini-trampoline—let's use it!' The actor in us gave way to the physical performer. But I'm very interested in finding a happy medium between the eye candy and the musical numbers and the fun physical moments but still telling a good story—as opposed to just a bunch of clowns jumping around."

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The only potential bummer in Walker's interest in balance is that it's precisely the irreverent exuberance of a bunch of clowns jumping around that makes Troubadour's Shakespearean offerings among the most anticipated theater events of the year in Orange County. While there are too many companies—professional and amateur—willing to stage Shakespeare in the park, under the stars and by the book (the book that says Shakespeare has to be taken so goddamn seriously), we have no resident companies willing to risk looking like idiots by having fun with the bard. And while you can argue quite convincingly that Shakespeare is hotter now than ever (what with all the films and festivals and productions), you could also argue that he's bigger than ever not because of but despite the maudlin deluge.

Troubadour makes Shakespeare fun through a decidedly nontraditional approach. The company attacks Shakespeare as commedia dell'arte meets late '90s pop culture. Characters parade on stilts, carry copies of Cliff's Notes and sing the baby-back ribs jingle from the Chili's commercial. Those unfamiliar with the original might walk away not knowing some of the key characters or events, but they'll walk away thinking Shakespeare can make you laugh.

The key to Troubadour's madness is that the company is made up of actors who can really act and really know Shakespeare.

"I think you have to be able to do the material in order to send it up," says Walker. "As we do the canon over the next 20 years, I think we'll eventually get around to a faithful production, maybe of King Lear or one of the gentler comedies. Our tastes are evolving. But I don't know if we'll ever do a purist version."

For the moment, Troubadour's shows are perched on the lunatic fringe of the Shakespearean industry, as evidenced by the fact that they use the music of Three Dog Night, complete with a backing band.

Now, before all you haters of pop music pre-Ricky Martin dismiss the presence of Three Dog Night in this show as forced or campy or just plain silly, it's time for a memory check. Yes, Three Dog Night never recorded an Exile on Main Street or a White Album, but damn if they weren't a successful pop group, with 21 Top 40 hits between 1969 and 1975. If nothing else, the band—or someone close to it—showed remarkable instincts in picking cover material, from Randy Newman ("Mama Told Me Not to Come") and Harry Nilsson ("One") to Laura Nyro ("Eli's Comin'") and Hoyt Axton ("Joy to the World").

The music in Twelfth Dog Night isn't designed to rehabilitate the band's image. In truth, Walker would have been hard-pressed to name more than a couple of Three Dog Night songs when the idea first surfaced. During a rather festive argument about what Shakespeare play to do next, a company member accidentally yelled, "Twelfth Dog Night!" That's the closest we get to divine intervention these days.

"It was a silly premise, but it kind of worked out for the best," says Walker. "We're not just slapping the music on. It's actually a nice way to tell the story."

Nice, indeed. In Shakespeare's original, Duke Orsino tells a musician to play one of those "antique love songs." So it's natural that in this production, the company breaks into "Just an Old Fashioned Love Song." And Malvolio, the bad guy of the piece, sings the ballad "One" in jail as he pines for his true love.

The aim is simple: to rescue Shakespeare from the fetishists and antiquarians and make him feel fresh and vibrant. "Maybe Shakespeare does belong in a museum," Walker says. "Maybe the only way to produce it should be a faithful revival. But when I go to the theater or see a movie, I want to see something new, something I haven't seen before. And I'm not sure most companies think that way."

Twelfth Dog Night at Grove Theater Center's Festival Amphitheater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Opens Fri. $18.50-$22.50. Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m. (The production moves to the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton, on July 30.)

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