California's neophyte Shakespeare festival

The California Shakespearean Festival, the neophyte of professional Shakespearean theaters which gained nationwide recognition last year, is in its second season, offering imaginative productions of "Hamlet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Situated in Visalia, the heart of the vast agricultural San Joaquin Valley, the California Shakespearean Festival has again put together a company (many returning from last summer) that, some say, rivals the longstanding Shakespearean companies.

Nicolas Surovy is a dynamic Hamlet. He boldly interprets the character who, says Mark Lamos, the festival director, "thinks in such a refracted way that he can see every facet of a cut stone."

The production is set in the early 1900s, and Lamos says he "wants audiences simply to note how certain recent historical events mirror the action of a 400 -year-old play."

The effect is awesome, though troubling for some, even days later. Hamlet's torment in seeking to avenge his father's death is profound, as is the interaction of Surovy (son of opera singer Rise Stevens) with other powerful members of the cast.

G. Wood's resonant voice is an asset to his commanding characterization of Polonius. Judith Roberts is a sensuous Gertrude, queen of Denmark; her humanism is evident in unloosing the ties of the maddened Ophelia (Mary Layne, last season's Juliet) to set her free. Philip Kerr is a pompous Claudius and John-Frederick Jones the true and loyal friend of Hamlet, Horatio. As a gravedigger, Robert Cornthwaite makes the small role memorable.

One might wish the three-hour production (in two acts) were a bit shorter, but the action is fast and lively.

With a dramatic sword fight and clicking of heels, the tragedy ends as the kingdom is turned over to Fortinbras, prince of Norway.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," which satirizes the foolishness of humans in love, is said to be the most erotic of Shakespeare's plays and is no less so in this production, set in 400 BC in moonlit ruins in Athens.

Tremendously physical, it demands endless stamina of the performers, especially for the chase among the ruins and a gymnastic tug of war by Demetrius , Helena, Lysander, and Hermia (Arthur Hanket, Mary Layne, Jeffrey Combs, and Heather MacDonald).

The antics of the artisan players led by Cornthwaite make "Midsummer Night's Dream" a joyful experience. Joe DeSalvio is Bottom; Benjamin Stewart, an unforgettable Snug (the joiner) as a lion.

Marc Weishaus is a robust yet frolicking Puck. Sheridan Thomas (Titania) and Tony Plana (Oberon), as queen and king of the fairies, make their entrance "flying" through the air onoutstretched arms of a host of fairies, dressed in body and face suits, and at other times writhe and flinch at their feet, which is occasionally distracting. According to Lamos, it is intended to be "full of subconscious symbolism."

John Conklin, the award-winning designer, again did the sets, converting his elegant marble-pillared, two-tier Hamlet set into a "temple decayed by too much moonlight," as Lamos says, for "Midsummer Night's Dream."

For her second year in Visalia, Pat Collins designed the effective lighting. In September she will design a new productionof "Ballo in Maschera" for the Washington Opera at Kennedy Center.

Hiram Titus, who earlier this year collaborated with Dr. Seuss on a production of "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" at the Children's Theater in Minneapolis, again composed the music to fit the moods created by Shakespeare and Lamos. The festival

One man's dream, that of the founder and executive director, David Fox-Brenton, has become the ultimate goal of hundreds who now share his vsion. Fox-Brenton came to Visalia 3 1/2 years ago from Canada's Stratford Shakesperean Festival to establish another theater where fellow actors could perform.

Though beset by mountainous financial challenges, including a $125,000 debt from last year, the festival says it has remained determined to present the works of Shakespeare "second to none." Its benefactors are increasing and many foundations have doubled their 1979 contributions.

Acceptance in the community and contributions play a vital part in the success of the festival. Now, as last summer, a new theater on the campus of Visalia's College of the Sequoias is its temporary home. Even if 85 percent of the 396 seats were filled each performance (8 each week, including 2 matinees for a 7 1/2-week season), ticket sales would account for only about 40 percent of the budget.

To be more self-supporting, the festival board of governors is working toward establishing a permanent year-round site on 305 acres donated to the festival in the community of Three Rivers, 30 miles east of Visalia and near the entrance to Sequoia National Park. However Fresno, a city gaining in in popularity as a convention center, 60 miles to the north, is making overtures to woo the festival there.

Theatrical productions are not all the festival is offering. The Institute of Shakespearean Studies, headed by dr. Michael Flachmann of California State University, Bakersfield, 60 miles south, has several educational programs in operation.

New this season is the summer conservatory theater, cosponsored by the festival and College of the Sequoias. Divided into two groups, 16 college-age students, called journeymen, have roles in both plays with the professional company in addition to receiving classroom instruction. Students have come from throughout California, from Chicago, and Tucson, Ariz. The conservatory director is Libby Appel, head of the acting department at California State University, Long Beach. Yanci Bukovec, former partner to Marcel Marceau, is again on the staff, teaching mime and movement.

Forty-four students are apprentices in an eight-week workshop culminating with several performances of a Shakespeare comedy. All receive academic credit.

After the Tuesday night performances a symposium series is offered, with veteran actor Robert Cornthwaite as moderator. Topics include "Shakespeare's Comic World," "Hamlet and Madness," and "Perils and Rewards of Updating Shakespeare."

A summer seminar, entitled "Lovers and Madmen," is planned from July 28 to Aug. 1. Guest speakers expected include the festival director; David Rockefeller Jr., national consultant on the arts; Hugh Southern, a theater development expert from New York; and Homer Swander of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a professor of English and American director of the Royal Shakespeare Company's educational tour. College credit is offered for the seminar.

A "first" this year was the "Bard in a Box" program funded by a grant from the California Arts Council. Using a large wooden, hinged box for a stage, 50 -minute montages from Shakespeare tragedies and comedies were presented to 30 schools in the valley and were seen by more then 20,000 young people. Two programs, "Lovers and Clowns" and "Kings and Tyrants," were performed by a fully costumed troupe and were enthusiastically received.

Lamos, who developed the "Bard in a Box" series, was named artistic director of the festival after directing last season's artistically successful productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Taming of the Shrew."

He says Shakespeare provides "a release for ideas and dreams." His productions epitomize his beliefs.

Lamos wintered in Arizona as acting artistic director of the Arizona Theater Company in Tuczon and Phoenix. In the fall he will be artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. His credits include portraying Hamlet in the San Diego Festival in 1977.

The overall effect on those attending this California Shakespearean Festival seems to be a yearning for more Shakespeare in central California. The second season ends Aug. 17.

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