George M. Cohan has been dust for more than 70 years and today is remembered mostly for writing popular ditties like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "It's a Grand Old Flag," and by film buffs for James Cagney and Mickey Rooney portraying him in several movies. But his contributions to American popular culture in the first decades of the 20th Century were far greater. He helped lay the foundation for America's sole contribution to world theater–the book musical–was a founding member of ASCAP and was one one of the first major American playwrights to write plays for the common man, instead of well-heeled douchebags.
And, had he had his way in 1919, he would have destroyed the Actors Equity Association, the union for stage actors in the United States. As a producer, he felt he took care of his actors, so viciously opposed a union strike that year, something that many in the theater community never forgave him for. He lost, the union won and after refusing to join the union, Cohan basically was unable to perform in his own shows for a number of years.
His opposition to the union sparked him to write The Tavern in 1920. Unlike the song-and-dance revues that had made him an international star, this was a far more subdued work, a comedic melodrama that was both an homage to the theater as well as a big fuck you to those who he thought were hellbent on destroying it. At least that's the impression in this excellent production at the retooled Shakespeare Orange County Summerfest, which runs through next weekend in Garden Grove.
A concise note in the program courtesy of dramaturge Edd Bass supplies some of the back story, but while this is an interesting play as a historical document, why it's really worth seeing is for Bo Foxworth, a stage, film and TV actor with a slew of credits. He plays the central role, a mysterious vagabond who seeks shelter in a tavern in the middle of a fierce storm. He's a drifter and raconteur who might also be a mountebank if not an overt criminal, and Foxworth pulls off a spectacular performance, giving the vagabond's often lofty language a Shakespearian flourish. He's a joy to watch and listen to, and while most of the supporting cast doesn't reach his level, that is probably less a testament to its collective skill level than it is that this play exists for one reason: for Cohan to capture the essence of a character who is madly in love with the theater, but who also has thinly veiled antipathy for practitioners of it.
Now in its 34th season, this is the first year that SOC is under the helm of John Walcutt, another actor with a ridiculous resume. (His brief but memorable turn as a crazy occupant of the tavern is another high-point of the show, which is directed by Mike Peebler. Determined to open up the theater's programming, and to fill its seats, with something other than straight Shakespeare, Walcutt's first season has included a Polynesian-themed Midsummer Night's Dreamand a one-man show by Trieu Tran about his experience of fleeing Saigon in the 1970s. Upcoming is a multi-ethnic Romeo and Juliet co-produced with the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Associations and another one person show, Michelle Krusiec's Made in Taiwan.
Using local talent, mostly culled from the university ranks, as well as Hollywood-based professionals, it's a striking theater experiment in Orange County and if every show succeeds as well as The Tavern it's one that all Orange County theater aficionados should be grateful for.
Festival Amphitheater, 12762 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 590-1575. Thurs.Sat., 8 p.m. $25, Thursday shows are pay-what-you-wil and Friday shows are $7 if you buy at the door after 7 p.m. Thru Aug. 30. www.shakespeareoc.org.