San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Where Americans play Shakespeare with Elizabethan passion

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Peacocks call in the gathering twilight and the tall palm and eucalyptus trees assume magical colors. The lush gardens of San Diego's Balboa Park provide the perfect setting for an outdoor production of Shakespeare's ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' at the Old Globe Theatre, and artistic director Jack O'Brien has capitalized on this resource to create a ``Dream'' both magical and human. Using resources at hand and playing Shakespeare with an uncommon vitality and freshness have become hallmarks of the Old Globe Theatre -- celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year.

In 1984 the Old Globe received a special Tony Award for outstanding achievement by a regional theater. Jon Voight, Christopher Reeve, Barry Bostwick, Sada Thompson, Patrick Duffy, and Daniel J. Travanti are among the performers who have appeared here, and over the years the theater has established a tradition of performing Shakespeare by using the best in American acting technique instead of trying to mimic the British.

``American actors have the energy and vitality that English actors sometimes lack,'' says Craig Noel, executive producer of the Old Globe and a member of the company almost since its inception. ``Where this continent is today is where England was during Elizabethan times -- it was new fields to conquer -- discovery.

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``English productions are sometimes so dull. When you come here, you think, `These are the kind of men that Hotspur and Henry V were . . . this is the red-blooded Englishmen. . . .' All that vitality is terribly important to Shakespeare.''

British actor-director Norman Welsh, who appeared in Olivier's original ``Richard III'' in England and is now head of the theater program at the University of California at Los Angeles, shares this view. ``The North American English is closer to Shakespeare's English than is present-day British speech,'' he says. ``The work at Ashland [the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.] and the Old Globe is sometimes exotic, but it is at all times exciting.''

The dynamic techniques of the Globe's American approach to Shakespeare have worked for comedy as well, according to Los Angeles-based actor-director Brendan Dillon, formerly of Dublin's renowned Abbey Theatre. ``The British approach to Shakespeare is pragmatic and works very well, but it often lacks passion,'' he says. ``And in Shakespeare, you have got to have the passion. But I have seen fine productions on both sides of the Atlantic, where actors combine the best elements of both approaches. This als o works for comedy. A few years ago, I saw a production of Wycherly's `The Country Wife' at the Old Globe that combined Restoration acting technique with a sense of realism which I liked very much.''

The focus of the Old Globe remains Shakespeare, however, and this theater -- along with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, also celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year -- paved the way for other festivals across the country and inadvertently created an American brand of classical theater.

``What the Old Globe and Ashland did -- slowly but surely, was to raise cultural standards,'' Mr. Noel says. ``We gave actors classical training and experience. Regardless of what you say about our work -- good, bad, or indifferent -- there is no doubt that actors in this country are playing and acting Shakespeare better because of these two organizations.''

American actors have been playing Shakespeare with a difference at the Old Globe since 1935, when Thomas Wood Stevens of Chicago's Goodman Theatre designed a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre as part of the California Pacific International Exposition. When the exposition closed and the playhouse was threatened with demolition, citizens of San Diego joined with a group of actors and the Works Projects Administration to raise $40,000 to turn the Globe into a permanent fixture of Balboa Park and begin

a tradition of summer Shakespeare festivals.

``San Diegans came flocking here,'' remembers Noel, ``and they saw Shakespeare for the first time -- on an Elizabethan stage. They fell in love with Shakespeare. They fell in love with the little replica of the Globe. It was that love and enthusiasm . . . that really was the foundation for building a theatrical enterprise that would continue.''

That community support proved vital to a theater twice destroyed by arson. Both times the company rebuilt in time for opening night the next season. ``The theater was a part of everybody's life,'' recalls Noel. ``When it burned down after 42 years, there was a great outpouring of sympathy, and we were able to raise $6.3 million, which is more money than anyone had ever raised for an arts project in this town.''

Today, the Old Globe is a modern three-theater complex that operates nearly year-round, and audiences come from throughout southern California and as far away as Phoenix, Ariz., to see its repertory -- now broadened to include non-Shakespearean fare.

Of course, the setting helps as well. In the final moments of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' when Oberon and Titania were embracing in the soft light, with strains of music in the air -- as if on cue, a large gray owl appeared from behind the audience, swooped noiselessly over the stage, and disappeared into the canyon beyond.

`A Midsummer Night's Dream' Clearly the centerpiece of this season at the Globe, Jack O'Brien's production is filled with vitality, although there are some ragged moments.

Margaret Gibson's Hippolyta is stiff and her voice forced, and Charles Janasz as Theseus seems uncomfortable and strained in the large outdoor theater. But David Ogden Stiers's powerful, dark-hued Oberon, Katherine McGrath's radiant Titania, Jeffrey Combs's athletic, Pan-like Puck, and Tom Lacy's bumptious Bottom carry this ``Dream'' to new heights. `Richard III'

Paxton Whitehead's Richard is an unconventionally intellectual villain who fills the play with menacing black comedy. Jacqueline Brookes adds humanity and passion to the usually bitter Margaret, and Frances Conroy brings strength and cunning to the often weepy Elizabeth. But with greatness so close at hand, it is disappointing that John Houseman's production relies more on the verbal structure of Shakespeare than on the play's inherent drama. `London Assurance'

Executive producer Craig Noel's rethinking of Dion Boucicault's seldom-performed 19th-century comedy breathes life into what could have been a dated period piece. David Ogden Stiers has created a vain, pettifogging Sir Harcourt Courtly, and Tom Lacy is deliciously avaricious as the attorney Mr. Meddle. ``London Assurance'' is not a great play, but it is an important play in the development of dramatic literature, and it makes for an enjoyable evening. `Painting Churches'

This production, in the intimate Cassius Carter Centre Stage, is the only real disappointment in the season's repertoire. Julianna McCarthy and G. Wood are self-conscious in their attempts to make the inconsistencies of Tina Howe's family drama work. Although the play purports to explore family relationships, the result is more a daytime soap opera than a well-wrought play. Margaret Gibson has an affected manner of speech that works against what truth there is to be found in this bleak portrayal of agin g.

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