Hats and Hamlet

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

In the last twelve months many shows have been cancelled due to the "unexpected financial climate." This week was supposed to have been a review of Elizabeth Meriwether's Heddatron at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Alas, it was indefinitely postponed. (Leaving Angelinos to forever ponder the intersection of Ibsen and robots.) What's more, some theaters and companies have cancelled seasons or even closed their doors completely, so it seems fitting to make mention of two local troupes that are expanding in these uncertain times.

The first is a company that opened shop last year called the Ebony Repertory Theatre. ERT boasts that it is the first African American Equity company in Los Angeles history. They staged their first production last fall: a revival of August Wilson's Two Trains Running. Their next full production was Crowns, a musical of sorts by Regina Taylor.

That show moved last month to the larger Pasadena Playhouse. I caught it shortly after it opened and was pleased to see the Playhouse packed on a Saturday matinee. Pasadena's grand, landmark of a theater is often too big for today's theater—both the plays and the crowds (or lack there of).

One could look for socio-economic reasons for the high attendance, but my own guess is that the diverse crowd showed up because Crowns offered something different. Crowns has some musical numbers, even though it's not really a traditional musical. It's based on a book about black women and their love of elaborate hats. Given that most of these hats are worn on Sundays, it makes sense that Crowns is structured around the different church services these hats (and their owners) attend. The music is a collection of spirituals; the spoken lines are mostly aphorisms and anecdotes, many of which end in Amen, or feel as if they should.

crowns125.jpgThere are a few good lines, my favorite was when one woman says: "I'd lend someone my children before I lend them my hats — my children know their way home, my hats don't." Crowns is not serious drama or even particularly artful theater. What it is though is lively…sort of like a summer, beach-read performed indoors, with singing and dancing. In England they have a word for something that's not quite a play and not quite a musical: it's called "an entertainment."

That gentile word is not quite right for this roof-raising show, but the sentiment is correct. Call Crowns an entertainment, but one with plenty of Hat-itude.

Eighty-five miles up the freeway from Crowns, another newly established Equity company recently opened its doors. In the coastal mountain enclave of Ojai, Theater 150 recently mounted its first professional production. In the middle of a recession, you might think a small theater would debut with something small: maybe a classic three-person drama like American Buffalo, or a one-act comedy like Art? . No, Theater 150 (named after the Highway that connects Ojai to the 101) made its Equity debut with a little thing known as Shakespeare's Hamlet.

polonius_ophelia.jpgWatching the staging, it seemed director Jessica Kubzansky wanted to rename the play Polonius. Most productions tend to paint Ophelia's father as ineffectual or at least ponderous. Tim Cummings plays Polonius as if he were Henry the VIII. He comes off as a brash womanizing lout, which is fine in theory, except that here he upstages both Paul Sulzman's nice-guy, neighborly Claudius, not to mention Leo Marks' Hamlet.

claud_gert_hamlet2.jpgMarks has been a fine ensemble actor in many LA productions, and if any director wants to set Hamlet in turn-of-the-century Vienna, he would be the perfect neurotic, tortured prince. Kubzansky's staging however is decidedly un-modern, with storybook costumes and a faux-Masterpiece Theater feel. Three hours of Hamlet is a challenge for even for the most established troupes, so sadly this production is more notable for its ambition than clarity.

Theater 150's Hamlet runs through Sunday; Crowns runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through August 16.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Craig Schwartz