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Theatre Review (San Diego): 2009 Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe Theatre

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One of the great pleasures of summer for the Southern California theatre lover is traveling down to San Diego to take in the Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe. For the last six years the Festival has been under the Artistic Directorship of that Yugoslavian-born but American-raised theatrical dynamo Darko Tresnjak. He has accomplished the extraordinary in the face of economic stress and audience lethargy.

In the time he was Artistic Director of the Festival, Tresnjak presented 17 Shakespeare plays, along with one non-Shakespeare (this year’s Cyrano De Bergerac). What a fitting play on which to exit the Festival, the story of the ultimate romantic character who gives voice to others' desires, exactly what a director does for playwrights. Bravo to Darko for his contributions.

Now to the plays this season: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Coriolanus, at least not yet. But what I did see were two beautifully rendered performances of Cyrano (directed by Darko) and a fresh and very funny Twelfth Night (directed by Paul Mullins).

Cyrano is, for me, one of the greatest works of dramatic literature, capturing the very nature of romance as selfless, brave, and poetic. The playwright Edmond Rostand based the play on an actual person who, like his fictional counterpart, was rumored to have fought off 100 men in a single skirmish.

Darko has put together a beautiful production with elegant staging and a mighty performance by Patrick Page, who must be considered one of America’s greatest living classical actors. Page has previously used his sense of the epic, his glorious imagination, and his beautiful voice as the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, as Scar in The Lion King, as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, as Decius Brutus in Julius Caesar (with Denzel Washington), and most recently as Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons. All of these were on Broadway, but he has also done scores of classical roles in regional theatre across America.

Page's Cyrano is breathtakingly brilliant and I felt privileged to witness it. I felt, however, that Darko shied away from the unabashed romanticism and necessary innocence of the two lovers. Roxanne was too knowing and a bit shrill, while Christian was a pathetic loser, though I did enjoy the Le Bret of Grant Goodman and the Ragueneau of Eric Hoffman. Still, Patrick Page’s performance made it all worthwhile.

Twelfth Night is one of those Shakespeare plays that I dread, mainly because I have seen it and indeed been in it too many times. But I found this Twelfth Night, as directed by Paul Mullins, utterly delightful. The show is extremely well cast, with a radiant Viola (Dana Green), the delightful James Newcomb as Feste, a very daffy Olivia (Katie MacNichol), a very funny Sir Toby (Eric Hoffman), an off-the-wall, hysterically funny Aguecheek (Bruce Turk), and a fantastic Malvolio, played by the aforementioned Patrick Page, who played the role like a constipated, uptight prude with a fiendishly lustful dark underbelly, but was at all times wonderfully and richly comic. Mullins is to be praised for bringing this often-stale show to exuberant life.

Next year is the Globe’s 75th anniversary season, and the former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Adrian Noble, will assume the leadership of the Summer Shakespeare Festival. He will have big shoes to fill following Craig Noel, Jack O’Brien, and Darko Tresnjak. The current Summer Shakespeare Festival runs in repertory until September 27th at the Old Globe Theatre.

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