Save up to 90% on a Hartford Courant subscription. Click here to sign up now!
CT Now

The drama down coast

Times Staff Writer

Bigger isn't always better.

But there is something exciting — at least in the anticipation stage — about tackling a two-part epic or a whole weekend of theater at one location, as Los Angeles theatergoers discovered during such landmark productions as "Nicholas Nickleby," "The Mahabharata," "The Kentucky Cycle" and "Angels in America."

This summer, San Diego is the place to go for that kind of super-size experience.

The Old Globe, in San Diego's Balboa Park, is returning Shakespearean repertory to its summer lineup at the alfresco Lowell Davies Festival Theatre after a 20-year absence. Three plays — "Antony and Cleopatra," "As You Like It" and "The Two Noble Kinsmen" — will open in rapid succession between July 7 and 11. Meanwhile, the Old Globe's indoor stages will be busy with new work: "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" in the arena-style Cassius Carter Centre Stage, and the musical "Lucky Duck" on the Old Globe's main stage.

On one extended weekend in mid-July, theatergoers could catch all five shows (beginning with "As You Like It" on Thursday, July 15, and ending with the "Lucky Duck" matinee on Sunday, July 18). Three subsequent weekends offer the opportunity to see four shows, and the Old Globe has scheduled 22 itineraries that provide three Shakespeares in three days.

This is the kind of concentrated theatergoing that attracts thousands of people to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland every summer — and to the Broadway theater district throughout the year.

In Ashland and New York, more than in San Diego, there's plentiful lodging within easy walking distance of the theaters, but a few hotels and motels west or southwest of Balboa Park might serve the same purpose, for those who would welcome a little exercise to break up all that sitting.

The promise of these productions, however, goes beyond the logistics of theatergoing. Two of the three Shakespearean titles are relatively unfamiliar, compared with the recent glut of "Othellos" and "Twelfth Nights." There hasn't been a major production of "Antony and Cleopatra" in the Southland since the year of "Fatal Attraction" — which could have been the title of "Antony and Cleopatra." And "The Two Noble Kinsmen," which was co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is rarely produced anywhere.

Darko Tresnjak, a touted young director who staged "Kinsmen" for the New York Public Theater last fall, is overseeing the whole Shakespeare festival and will direct both "Kinsmen" and "Antony."

The new plays are tantalizing too. Rolin Jones' "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow," which premiered at South Coast Repertory a year ago, was one of the funniest yet most poignant plays of 2003. It's a tale of an agoraphobic but brilliant Calabasas teenager who was adopted from China and resolves to find her birth parents with the help of a robot. It offers a chance for a creative director to work wonders. The Old Globe production will be staged by Kirsten Brandt, of San Diego's more outré Sledgehammer Theatre.

"Lucky Duck" is a new — and presumably improved — version of a witty "Ugly Duckling" musical that appeared in La Mirada in 2000 under the title "Everything's Ducky." The show's creators' credits include "Dreamgirls" and "Side Show." It will be directed by John Rando of "Urinetown" fame.

A few miles north of the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse is offering its own big event, the two-part "Continental Divide," June 6 to Aug. 1. David Edgar's work consists of two full-length plays that are structured around a contemporary gubernatorial election in an unnamed state that is presumed to be California. "Mothers Against" looks at Republicans and "Daughters of the Revolution" at Democrats, with some characters crossing over between plays.

When I saw the premiere of "Continental Divide" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, I felt it still needed work. But it was revised for productions in Berkeley and England, so maybe it has blossomed. At any rate, for anyone with dovetailing interests in theater and California politics, the chance to see this big-deal play in a professional production, so close to home, isn't likely to come around again in the near future.

The rest of Southern California offers a few chances to feast on a theatrical weekend. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, one of the area's long-running summertime pleasures, offers shifting bills of plays each weekend in its sylvan setting in Topanga. PCPA Theaterfest in Solvang also does limited repertory under the stars.

But these companies are not in the big leagues, in terms of budgets, as the Old Globe and La Jolla are. And the big-league theaters of Los Angeles and Orange counties aren't doing this vacation-destination kind of theater.

See you in San Diego.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now