(Garden Grove, CA) June, 2014 – There are two things that can be said about TV/Film/Theatre actor John Walcutt: He doesn’t do things half-measured (quoting the Jonathan Banks character, Mike, in the Emmy award-winning series Breaking Bad and the soon to be aired Better Call Saul) and he thinks outside of the box. As an actor on the Shakespeare Orange County (SOC) stage in Garden Grove, he approached his memorable roles in very unconventional ways: a battle scarred, war hungry Cassius, an uptight Malvolio who longs to reveal his “inner Elvis,” a pleasant, happy-go lucky Richard III…even when he starts killing people, and a complex portrayal of Macbeth that has been called Walcutt’s best performance by several Southern California presses.
His ability to accomplish any goal utilizing creative methods was also reflected in the beginning of SOC’s 35th anniversary as he took over as artistic director and delivered a powerful punch of a welcome mid May as SOC featured a fundraiser benefit that included a barbershop quartet, a deluxe prized raffle, and especially producing a 1940s radio show that highlighted an all star cast of veterans, like Academy Award nominee James Cromwell (Babe), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek), Gregory Itzen (24), Robert Hays (Airplane), Robert Foxworth (Falcon Crest), and Tamlyn Tomita (Joy Luck Club), as well as rising stars Michelle Krusiec (Saving Face), David Denman (The Office), Jerrika Hinton (Grey’s Anatomy), Trieu Tran (The Newsroom) and Hrach Titizian (Homeland).
It was a night of hilarity for the packed amphitheatre, serving as a tantalizing prelude to this diverse 2014 season, beginning with the brilliantly staged A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Performing in front of a sold out performance during press night—the first for this 500+ seat amphitheatre in many years—this dynamic show has been updated and adapted to include over 60 cast members and a plethora of exotic dance numbers that enhance the overall outdoor Shakespearean experience. Courtesy of a talented, multiethnic cast and Susan Angelo's deft direction, this popular Shakespearean comedy enhances Garden Grove’s presence as a cultural capital in Orange County.
Three stories transpire on this particular night, starting with the tale of a four love-struck youths (EJ Arriola, Morgan Lauff, Patricia Fa’asua, and Mikki Pagdonsolan) who try to flee an arranged marriage established by the Athenian King Theseus (a regal commanding portrayal by SOC's Jeremy Schaeg, who has grown substantially the past ten years from background to leading parts) and the Amazonian bride Hippolyta (a feral Kapua Miyahira-Chow). The passionate lovers hide inside a mystical forest which is ruled by the Fairy King Oberon (a charismatic Miguel Perez) and his queen Titania (Amanda Zaar). The king has his own problems as he and his chief fairy, Puck (Evelyn Carol Case), try to steal an orphan child away from his queen, utilizing a group of dim-witted rustics to get what he wishes. Meanwhile, the rustics, led by Peter Quince (a hyper Nicholas Thurkettle) and the pompous Bottom (Thomas Bradac) are trying to rehearse a play for King Theseus’ wedding. When the mischievous Puck casts the wrong magic on the wrong people, everything goes out of control until Oberon steps in to bring order to the magical chaos.
This season opener—which is a co-produced by SOC and the award-winning Hitia O Te Ra Polynesian Dance Group—beautifully combines the comedy of Shakespeare’s prose with the magical ambiance of the updated 1700s Polynesian settings, as well as the native and British military costume design, beautifully recreated by Shon LeBlanc. By also including multiple dance sequences in between certain scenes, courtesy of Hitia O Te Ra, this production had the risk of becoming an unwieldy large ship to sail. Fortunately, Director Susan Angelo serves as the play’s perfect captain. As a critically acclaimed stage actress at such esteemed LA based theatre companies—most notably A Noise Within and the Theatricun Botanicum, Angelo’s eye and instincts are razor sharp when it comes to exploring the fine intricacies of the characters she has played in the past. Her sense of precise control and mercurial creativity is amazingly shown in this production, which flows as though it were a symphony going from one movement to another without slowing down. With a cast of over 60 actors and dancers, Angelo succeeds in tapping into the nuances and pacing of this popular comedy.
All of the performances—from both the actors and dancers—stand out in their own prominent glory. What is extremely impressive is SOC has accessed a magical reservoir of talent that spans many different cultures and ethnicities. The performances and chemistry amongst the four young lovers is a pure treat. Arriola’s Lysander is a wonderfully whiny protagonist and Lauff’s Demetrius is an amusing callow dolt where it’s a wonder what Hermia (Pagdonsolan) and Helena (Fa’asua) sees in them in the first place. As far as Pagdonsolan is concerned, she expertly combines the delicate beauty of an island princess with the fiery temper of a pit-bull. But although all three give fine performances, Fa’asua steals the show whenever she appears on stage. Her grasp of Shakespeare’s poetics is the strongest of the four; her projection and eloquence is quite fluid and natural, without any effort at all. She combines a self-deprecating charm with overeager compassion. And her comic timing and composure is masterful where even a look or a simple gesture draws laughs. Hopefully, Fa’asua will appear in many other SOC productions in the future.
SOC veterans such as Zarr and Case memorably show more facets of their creative range. Known for playing tragic victims like Portia in Julius Caesar and Lady Anne in Richard III, Zarr finally shows her “theatrical teeth” as the lioness Titania, who exudes a primal, protective nature regarding her realm and her orphan child. However, Zarr also adds layers of endearing humor when she is under the spell of a love potion and falls for Bottom, who is transformed into a donkey-like creature. In past SOC productions, Case possessed an air of dignified, disciplined regality playing queens. As the playful, frenetic Puck, Case phenomenally demonstrates her physically limber expertise in playing this prankster. Her performance combines human and animalistic traits perfectly.
But the most pleasant site comes in the form of the voluminous Bradac as Bottom. His first stage appearance in almost 16 years, the former artistic director wears Bottom as though he was wearing an old tuxedo that hasn’t been worn in a long time, and it still fits. He interlaces both foolish pomposity and intellectual denseness, but also adds a surprising dose of pathos when the “dream” is over with Titania. As the spells wear off, his image as the King of the Forest is broken, and Bradac shows a subtle touch of sadness that brings sympathy to the character. But when he performs the play with his troupe, Bradac brings the house down with his “death scene” that hilariously goes on and on and on. After 16 years, Bradac’s return to the stage is something to behold. And if A Midsummer Night’s Dream is another indication of what the 2014 season is going to be like, then Orange County and all of its diverse cultural facets will be treated as though they were, quoting SOC’s slogan, “one big family under the stars.”
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened June 19-20, then runs from July 3 to July 20
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by Jordan Kubat