Photo by Steve MayedaOrange County theater goes positively European this week, as plays written by krauts, micks, frogs, dagos and not one but two russkies appear in some of the county's best theaters.
We begin first at The Hunger Artists, who open their freewheeling adaptation of Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector Generalthis weekend. That 1836 work—Gogol's last before he went nuts and began burning manuscripts, joining monasteries and justifying serfdom—is about the corrupt mayor of a vice-ridden Russian town who receives news that a government inspector is arriving in disguise from St. Petersburg. The mayor goes into a conniption. Coincidentally, a young government clerk, who has squandered all his dough on cards, clothes and women, arrives in town. Frightened town officials mistake the young clerk for the inspector general, which begins a cycle of bribery, courting and outrageous deception.
The plot remains intact in director Kelly Flynn's adaptation, here called The Attorney General, as does one of Gogol's primary themes, says Flynn. The arrival of the inspector general is, in reality, the arrival of self knowledge—and Gogol's characters would prefer a blissful self-ignorance.
But there are differences between Gogol's original and Flynn's tweaking. The play is set in a "small Orange County town" plagued with corruption. The mayor's name is Dave "Buddy" Gorfallo. The Bible-thumping commissioner of schools is Gloria Mater Tuchmann. The district attorney goes by the name of Anthony "Tony Rock" Rockauckass. There are brief mentions of political wags—with the last name of Hewitt—and a certain alternative weekly.
"Some of the characters are loosely based, or suggested, by people who may or may not be real," says Flynn. "We just wanted to have a little fun with things."
Ironically, fun isn't what sparked Flynn's desire to stage a play about government corruption. He knew he wanted to direct a twisted comedy and put a slant on it. That's a wise choice. He and his troupe have a solid pedigree in spinning classic comedies. The first was an all-male production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The next was White Trash Privit Lives,a bastardization of Noel Coward's biting drawing room comedy Private Lives, which was set in a Texas trailer park.
"We had already explored gender in Earnest and class in White Trash Privit Lives," Flynn said, "so I didn't want to revisit that. And I'd been growing more aware of the political climate for the past two years, so when the Inspector Generalfell in my lap, the parallels between the politics of that time and today were freaky. I thought it was a perfect time to do it."
The adaptation is infused with Flynn's growing sense of outrage at politicians large and small (some of his favorite anti-establishment writers are found on the liberal website smirkingchimp.com, as well as in recent books by Al Franken and Michael Moore.) There's also his personal sense of anger at watching Huntington Beach—the town of his youth—abandon all sense of its own history.
But the play doesn't just satirize and condemn bungling and corrupt local officials. It also attacks a citizenry that mutely accepts lying as the way things are done.
"There's a line in the play's foreword that says this is a town where people mistake gesture for truth," Flynn said. "And that definitely has resonance for current events and current culture. Lying has become the accepted form of communication and it seems most people think they're being worldly by assuming everyone is lying. But there is no outrage. It's just easier to be jaded and not believe anything because that way you don't have to take action."
One city over from the Hunger Artist's Fullerton haunt, two Anaheim Hills (a city founded by Huns, no less) theaters are also immersed in plays by Euro writers. One is the Insurgo Theater Movement's mounting of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's existential masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Directors John Beane, who also stars as one of Godot's comic tramps, and Russ Marchand, knows this play has been studied, analyzed, debated and researched for decades. He knows it's deep, heavy, weighty, intellectually resonant, a brilliantly profound Seinfeldepisode. But he's not overly concerned with probing the play's existential questions or man's place in an absurd universe.
"I think this is a pretty straightforward production of Godot in that we've gone back to the original tragic-comedy slapstick that he intended in the first place," Beane said. "He said an ideal cast would be Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney. Just about everyone I've seen do this show has made the mistake of making it so heavy and so thick. We know it's deep, but Beckett's words convey the intellectual brilliance. Our job is to make it visually interesting."
Just down the road from Insurgo, the Chance Theater—which has established itself as the county's most prolific company—is mounting two plays this weekend with a Euro feel: Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, and American Tony Kushner's adaptation of French playwright Pierre Corneille's The Illusion.
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It's an interesting bill from a theater that prides itself on staging original work. The theater remains committed to that mission, says Jocelyn Brown, the Chance's director of public relations. But the company thought mounting two classic plays would be a great way to introduce its new space—some 1,000 square feet larger than its old one—to the public.
"This is the 100th anniversary of The Cherry Orchard and Chekhov's death, so we did want to stage that play this year," said Brown, who is directing the work with a modern translation. She says it's a pretty straightforward staging, in contrast to Kushner's wildly innovative adaptation of Corneille's 17th-century work. "In effect we have one classical piece that pays tribute to the writer, and then Kushner's play, which is an innovative updating of a classic. So that kind of makes sense."
South Coast Repertory is staging John Strand's adaptation of French playwright Montfleury's Lovers and Executioners.Check out the review in the calendar section.
And, finally, on a serious note, there is a fund-raiser Saturday night for Laura Marchant, a prodigious member of the local theater community—she's worked with loud *R* mouth Theatre Company and the Garage Theatre Company, to name just two. Marchant is undergoing radiation treatment for a malignant brain tumor, a perfect example of terrible things happening to great people. Marchant is a warm, radiant and immensely talented person. Her medical treatments are absurdly expensive, and the fund-raiser, No One Is Alone,will bring together a bunch of seriously talented theater types who will perform music, poetry, dance and humorous sketches. The event, which asks for a $20 donation at the door, begins at 7:30 p.m. and will be staged at the Empire Theater, at 200 N. Broadway, in Santa Ana. For more information, call (714) 547-4688.