This Month: Three Al Fresco Comedies

by Jean Schiffman

Three high-profile comedies play on outdoor stages in three Bay Area counties in August.

Comedy matters, says director Jonathan Moscone as rehearsals are about to begin for Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” at California Shakespeare Theater, which presents summer seasons at its custom-built amphitheater in the Orinda hills. “You can’t treat [it] as fluffy,” he theorizes. “You have to die for it. You have to play the edge of precipice in all theater, but especially in comedy.”

The play is one of three high-profile comedies on outdoor stages in three Bay Area counties in August. In Marin County, Marin Shakespeare Company presents the United States premiere of a new adaptation of “Don Quixote,” at the bucolic outdoor venue on the Dominican College campus in San Rafael; and the venerable San Francisco Mime Troupe, touring Northern California with its latest musical comedy, plays several gigs at San Francisco parks.

“Irma Vep,” a wacky, 1984 satire in which a woman is haunted by the spirit of her husband’s ex-wife, Irma Vep (the name is an anagram for “vampire”), spoofs genres from farce to the penny dreadful. It is Moscone’s final show as artistic director of the prestigious company—he’s already immersed in his new job as chief of civic engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco—although it’s certainly not the last show he’ll direct here.

Moscone chose “Irma Vep” partly to provide a vehicle for the inimitable Danny Scheie, a veteran of Cal Shakes, and also because the blend of genres is so much fun for all concerned. Scheie and Liam Vincent, two of San Francisco’s best comic actors, play eight characters of both sexes (including mummies, werewolves and other supernatural creatures) and change costumes dozens of times, in a matter of seconds each time.

“Charles Ludlam represents an American voice that we need more of in the mainstream, on the regional theater level,” says Moscone, of the New York playwright who died in 1987. He loves Ludlam’s “clear aesthetic”—his trademark blend of high and low art; he’s as smart a writer as Tom Stoppard or Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde, declares Moscone. “What’s a big challenge for me,” he adds, “is in elevating low art . . . which he demands you do. I tend to go toward Shavian wit or Wilde comedy of manners. But a melodrama like this—I love it. Everything is life and death.”

“I think maybe the most difficult thing about the play,” muses Scheie, who teaches acting at U.C. Santa Cruz, “is that to me every word is a double entendre. It’s a melodrama-horror-movie spoof, and there’s a layer under that that’s literature—the great Western canon is being exploited—and usually underneath that there’s a reference to men in drag or to something meta-theatrical or post-modern. As an actor, you never take for granted that what is on the surface is all that’s there.” Scheie appeared in the play years ago, in a production that went from the Aurora Theatre to the Magic Theatre, but jumped at the chance to revisit it in order to “be locked in a room together” with Moscone and his close friend Vincent during the rehearsal period; the three of them may qualify as the funniest and, as Scheie says, the most impatient trio of gay men in town.

August 15-September 6

The Mystery of Irma Vep

California Shakespeare Theater

100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda


For brilliant comic talent Ron Campbell, finding the new adaptation of “Don Quixote,” by Canadian theater artists Peter Anderson and Colin Heath, and being invited to bring the project to Marin Shakes (his first appearance on that stage), was the realization of what might have been an impossible dream. He’d been transported when, at the age of eight, he saw Richard Kiley at the Old Vic in “Man of La Mancha”; that experience led him to a life in theater. More recently, touring with Cirque du Soleil (Campbell is a veteran actor and circus performer), he took two weeks out to walk one of the itineraries of the Don Quixote Route in Spain, from Bilbao to Siguenza, staying in different villages and castle keeps and feeling “inside Don Quixote,” as he says.

In Cervantes’ two novels, written during the Spanish Golden Age in the early 1600s, the idealistic dreamer Quixote sets out, with his witty sidekick Sancho Panza, to reinvent himself as a knight, with all of knighthood’s de rigueur chivalry and justice-seeking. This adaptation, in which seven actors play about 50 characters, is staged as masked theater; each actor has multiple custom-made masks (by David Poznanter)—more than 30 in the show. “The mask raises the bar,” observes Campbell, who has studied the craft of masked performance in Greece, Italy and Japan and now teaches it (and teaches clowning as well). “David’s masks reveal an inner psychology . . . In a mask, you look out with your whole body, but you’re not exaggerating—it’s amazing how subtle you can be . . . If you overplay, the mask goes dead.” Commented Peter Anderson in an interview on YouTube, “You put on a mask and it hides your face, yet a truer face comes out . . . Somehow that parallels Don Quixote creating this character of a knight. He becomes more alive.”

The play is an intricate adventure story that deals with myths, and the world of illusion—“more meta and more fascinating than just a story about a dreamer,” Campbell says. “I’ve tried in other pieces to find that depth of intricacy in a main character, but Don Quixote was waiting, waiting . . . and I’m glad to finally get a crack at him.”

“Shakespeare and Cervantes died within 24 hours of each other,” points out director Lesley Schisgall Currier, managing director of the summer company. “The Golden Age in Spain was right around the time when theater was taking off as an art form in England. It was all inspired by the Italian commedia troupes who were touring Europe.” She speculates that ‘Don Quixote’ is the inspiration for Shakespeare’s later romances.

“The story is about the imagination,” she continues, “about what is real and what is fantasy. There’s magical realism, a tradition so strong among Spanish writers in particular, and I think it starts with ‘Don Quixote.’”

August 7-30

Don Quixote

Marin Shakespeare Company

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre

890 Belle Ave., Dominican University of California, San Rafael


“This year, we knew right away what the play would be about: the war upon black men by the forces of law and order,” says Michael Gene Sullivan, of “Freedomland,” this year’s original political musical comedy presented free in parks by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It is written by and features the witty and politically provocative Sullivan, who, as a black man himself, has been harassed by the police for no reason (and written about it, in a comic theatrical format, on the Huffington Post).

He also researched the topic, with the support of his artistic team at the half-century-old Troupe, reading “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman, who embedded herself in South Philly to witness the relationship between young black men and the police, and “Rise of the Warrior Cop” by Radley Balko, a history of the militarization of the police. Once he had the characters and the theatrical premise, Sullivan had to choose a genre and ultimately decided the play should be more realistic than many of the Troupe’s past shows: no masks (well, one, in a brief scene), “grittier while still musical comedy, the music less circus, no dream sequences, all pretty straightforward,” he explains. “This issue is pretty immediate. It’s life or death.” It goes without saying that “Freedomland” is, like all Troupe shows, funny. Directed by Andrea Snow, it includes original songs by Ira Marlowe.

A hip-hop-era grandson, Nathaniel (played by George P. Scott), returns home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan to his funky-era grandfather (Sullivan) only to discover that life is just as dangerous here if you’re an African-American man. When marijuana is legalized, the police chief (Hugo E. Carbajal) and mayor (Sullivan again) realize they can no longer count on drug arrest fines for income. Luckily, there’s a new drug on the market, Snorf—and the police force is sent, naturally, to the black side of town to arrest as many suspected drug dealers as possible. Due to bureaucratic error, the Keystone-like cops keep busting into Grandpa’s house yelling “Freeze!” “Frozen,” sighs a resigned Grandpa. A proud ex-Black Panther, he wants Nathaniel to re-enlist for his own safety. Nathaniel, confused and frustrated, instead joins the police force. There’s also an illegal immigrant Latino neighbor (Carbajal again) who evades the law by disguising his ethnic identity.

“I tend to write about community,” says Sullivan. “I like to write about how things like this are affecting different people.” The “good cop” (Lisa Hori-Garcia) tends to focus on order before law. “It’s about how everybody is struggling,” says Sullivan. “It’s the system that tells the police department the more arrests you make, the more money you’ll get from the government.” He adds, “It’s a complex economic situation. . . . We can only do so much in a musical comedy!” But, like Jonathan Moscone, Sullivan understands the power of laughter. As Moscone declares, in comedy, theater artists have the opportunity to actually change the air you breathe: “The laughter will break something open and make you feel braver,” he says.

August 2-September 5


San Francisco Mime Troupe

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