If you were to assume that most community-college theater programs teem with students anxious to perform in lightweight Neil Simon-esque comedies or inane musicals, you'd be right. Orange Coast College Repertory, though? They're performing a free Giraudoux play—and kudos to them for doing so.
Best known for his comedy The Madwoman of Chaillot, French playwright Jean Giraudoux decided in 1929 to tackle a comedy based on the centuries-old drama of Jupiter, Alkemena and her husband Amphitryon. With a nod to the story's ancient roots and its continued popularity, he named his take on the myth 38—supposedly the number of previous adaptations before his (but actuallya number he just picked out of the air).
The myth goes like this: Alkemena is hot, and Jupiter wants to jump her, but she keeps her legs together because she's faithful to her soldier husband Amphitryon. As gods have a tendency to do, Jupiter sends Alkemena's husband off to war, then poses as him to get into her pants. Problems arise when the war ends, the veteran comes home, and the god—who had to take a more or less mortal form to sell his impersonation—discovers he's fallen in love with a human being.
Filled to the brim with intellect, Giraudoux's poetic writing is romantic, political (it makes both pro- and antiwar arguments), very funny and damn smart, blending a French existentialist perspective (lots of ruminations about death and dying) with aspects of bedroom farce. Those seemingly mismatched styles and moods require that you know what you're doing if you're going to tackle a production. If you don't, its schizophrenic tone is a minefield guaranteed to leave amateur actors wounded and bloody simply because they don't have the required skills necessary to avoid its pitfalls.
Factor in the challenge of producing a show like OCC Repertory's with amateur actors outside in a small venue—lighting issues, random fireworks, planes flying overhead, bugs nesting in your ears and rude patrons answering cell phones—and the best you can hope for is a semi-controlled chaos.
Needless to say, not the best way to latch onto any of the play's wisdom.
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Not that there aren't great moments: There's a wonderful scene in which Mercury (Sean Engard) teaches Jupiter (Nick Breslin) how to be human, and Jupiter follows his instructions, ending the scene with the repeated mantra "I will die. I will die" to remind himself to act mortal. And there's the scene in which the lovesick god tries to talk Alkemena (Taylor McDermott) into becoming a goddess so she can live with him forever. She will have none of it, happy to live out her days with the husband she adores. Engard captures some of Mercury's grinning obsequiousness, but opening-night jitters had him stumbling over his lines—which also need a tad more variety in their delivery. McDermott has presence but speaks too much of dialogue either too softly or with her back turned, obscuring chunks of Giraudoux's wit. Breslin's sharp, strong performance as Jupiter—he understands every word he delivers and imbues the god with both a dense pomposity and a loving simplicity—just further points up the shortcomings of his co-stars.
While director Samantha Wellen's pacing of the action is generally good, there are a handful of dead spots in the acting, and she neglects to get all of her actors on the same page. She also doesn't use David Scaglione's simple but effective set well. The playing area is split into four sections on two levels, but she stages the bulk of her important scenes stage right in one tight, small corner. Moving them center, with the other scenes mixing it up in the crowd or at the edge, would really open things up.
While the production can hardly be called a success, the play is free, the tackling of a difficult play admirable, and Breslin's work strong enough that it can be a unique distraction for a couple of hours. Because of the outdoor venue, make sure to bring something soft to place between your ass and the hard brick of the amphitheater. Or even better, drop three $1 bills on the theater staff for a chair rental.
Amphitryon 38 at Orange Coast College's Fine Arts Amphitheater, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880; www.occtickets.com. Fri.-Sat., July 6-July 7, 7 p.m. Free.