(Garden Grove, CA) August, 2014 – Any successful theater company worth its salt knows that in order to evolve, grow, and sustain its longevity, the program must possess a unique type of diversity within its programming. Well renowned theater companies that are known for creating phenomenal Shakespearean productions thrive when they also include contemporary and modern experimental works within their seasons. The best examples of American theater companies who annually produce classic Shakespearean plays and more modern works include The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, and A Noise Within in Pasadena, to name a few.
For the past 34 years, Shakespeare Orange County (SOC) has produced the finest theater in Southern California with its Shakespearean plays. But during that time, SOC has rarely deviated from their classical format, perhaps only 1-2 times in its history. However, when theater, film, and TV veteran John Walcutt came on board as the new artistic director, he utilized his masterful foresight in expanding the theater company’s horizons: creative and cultural diversity and inclusion. So far, the theater company’s 35th season has begun with a bang, courtesy of its season opener, the Pan American “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as well as opening its artistic doors to other theater companies, most notably the Troubadour Theater Company’s “A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream.” Both productions performed to full houses during their runs. Now, SOC’s new vision of “One Big Family Under the Stars” will include George M. Cohan’s comedic mystery, “The Tavern,” thereby expanding the company’s creative range and bringing in a wider diversity with regard to their patronage. Shakespeare Orange County successfully breaks new ground in its vision and evolution with this contemporary classic.
It was a dark and stormy night at a local tavern, with frenetic lightning bolts ripping through the nighttime skies and the thunder booming to deafening proportions. Innkeeper Freeman (Craig Brown) is trying to teach his son Zach (Connor Dugard) his philosophies of the trade and how to temper his passions when it comes to Sally (Mikki Pagdonsolan), a servant girl Zach loves. Gun shots are heard, frightening all within the tavern, especially the harried worker Willum (Walcutt). They soon discover two people in the tool shed: a charming, if slightly eccentric vagabond (Bo Foxworth) and a haunted hysterical Violet (Dianne Manaster), whose rants and ravings may expose hidden secrets, especially when it involves a visiting family: the state governor Lamson (a practically patriarchal Gene Godwin), his wife (a marvelously matriarchal Bonnie Walker), their daughter Virginia (Monique Marie Gelineau), and her fiancé Tom (a positively priggish Morgan Lauff). The vagabond, then, adds his own insights and machinations into the mix, resulting in a delightful dose of hilarity and poignancy for both the cast and the audience.
Including this 1920 classic in the season was a wise move for SOC, for Cohan’s story demonstrates a considerable amount innocent fun and simple character context that is not only suitable for the whole family, but also perfect for the diverse cultural demographic in Garden Grove. Director Mike Peebler expertly paces the story and the transitions at a fluidic speed. Michael Drace Fountain’s scenic design captures the cozy ambience of the tavern and William and Jennifer Georges’ lighting and sound design deliver powerful punches with the storm effects.
The overall acting is a true sight to behold as they explore the combination of Cohan’s carefree silliness with the subtle context of his characters. The two leads—Foxworth and Brown—beautifully represent how two contrasting worlds clash: chaos and order, and then eventually come together in the end. Both talented artists drive the inner dynamic pulse of the play. Foxworth’s Vagabond is a fun-filled bohemian who expertly interlaces poetic wisdom with manic energy, but he does so without robbing the presence from his fellow artists. His vagabond is a perfect example of a Shakespearean wise fool, utilizing his own foolishness to bring out the foolishness of his companions, especially his primary target: Brown’s stern and staunch Freeman. In almost all of his SOC appearances, Brown has wonderfully proved himself a master comedic character actor in memorable supporting roles such as the Porter in “Macbeth” and Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing.” In his first co-leading role, Brown reveals a side of his talents that he hasn’t shown at SOC before: his ability as a straight man of a comic duo. He is the “Abbott” to Foxworth’s “Costello,” or the “Martin” to Foxworth’s “Lewis.” Brown’s presence dominates the stage along with his commanding voice, and he masterfully peels away Freeman’s uptight, judgmental demeanor, exposing the character’s openness and tolerance. It’s a significant, accomplishing performance for Brown, which will hopefully result in other prominent leading “serious” roles in the future.
The supporting players shine in their own memorable glory. Manaster’s Violet is a true marvel as she slowly transforms from a pleading helpless victim to a crazed “mad woman in the attic” kind of character. She steals her scenes beautifully, as well as Walcutt’s Willum, whose crankiness is matched by his hilarious frustrated paranoia to everything that happens at the tavern. Pagdonsolan and Dugard are sweet together as the young couple, and Gelineau’s Virginia shows much elegance and class, especially her poignant scenes with Foxworth. And by combining these talented performances with the skilled direction, The Tavern will no doubt fill all the seats at the amphitheatre during its run, proving that Shakespeare Orange County’s vision of artistic and cultural expansion will prove to be a long term success for many years to come.
The Tavern runs August 14-26, 21-23, and 28-30 at 8:00 p.m.
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by Jordan Kubat