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Healthy Grove Festival Expands Horizons for ’91 : Theater: New financial vigor of the Shakespearean troupe and cooperation from the city mean more productions next season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid signs of new financial health after its worst cash crisis and buoyed by a turnabout in cooperation from the City Council, the Grove Shakespeare Festival announced Tuesday that it will present an enlarged 1991 season.

The classical troupe will offer six plays by subscription next year, one more than this year. They are Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Tom Lehrer’s “Tomfoolery,” Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice, “Measure for Measure” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the perennial holiday show, will be a non-subscription offering.

The season announcement followed the council’s unanimous agreement Monday night to extend the Grove’s current management contract for the indoor Gem and the outdoor Festival Amphitheatre--both city-owned facilities--for six months beyond its expiration date of June 30. Further, the council directed the city staff to accommodate a Grove request for a change in a clause of the contract that enables the city to order the troupe out of the facilities simply by giving 90 days’ written notice.

By extending the contract to Dec. 31, 1991, and seeking a mutually acceptable termination clause, the council allayed any fears by Grove officials that its 1991 schedule could be disrupted in mid-season by an arbitrary order to vacate.

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“Last year some members of the council made a point about the possibility of canceling our season,” Grove artistic director Thomas F. Bradac said Tuesday. “That point had never been made before, and we wanted to guarantee our 1991 subscribers that they could buy season tickets without any qualms.”

The city staff will meet with Grove officials and will make a recommendation to the council on Jan. 7 for “new language in the contract that protects both parties,” Deputy City Manager Michael D. Fenderson said. “The council said it agrees with what the theater is trying to do and wants to accommodate it but wasn’t sure about the exact language for mutual protection. Maybe we’ll put something in about the season or something that requires cause (to vacate). That will depend on what the lawyers advise.”

Whatever contractual language is decided upon for the termination clause, Fenderson added, it will probably be incorporated into a new five-year contract also currently under negotiation.

That contract would take effect after Dec. 31.

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Meanwhile, Bradac said the programming choices for next season were made with an eye toward “artistic challenge” and “commercial viability,” despite the fact that several of the selections are so familiar as to constitute a common diet for high school productions and community theaters.

“The Merchant of Venice,” one of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays to do well, was “the most requested” of the Bard’s works in an audience survey conducted by the Grove last January, Bradac said. “We’ve never done it,” he noted. “It will be our 13th season next year, and I think it’s time.”

“The Taming of the Shrew” also ranked high in the survey, Bradac said. Although the Grove did it once before--in 1985--he said the domestic comedy about arranged marriages should help widen the theater’s audience base because “it tends to draw people who do not usually attend Shakespeare plays.”

The riskiest of the three outdoor productions scheduled for the 550-seat amphitheater in terms of popular appeal, he said, is “Measure for Measure.” While it is a comedy, it is not light entertainment. “It is very political and has a lot of darkly sexual undercurrents,” he said.

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“Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which leads off the season at the 172-seat Gem, has been widely seen in two recent movie versions and in many local stage revivals. But, Bradac maintained, Hampton’s 1986 adaptation of the 18th-Century epistolary novel about sexual intrigue “takes a classical company to do well.” And, he added, “we chose it because it’s an intimate play--no pun intended--that will fit comfortably on the Gem’s (small) stage.”

As for Wilder’s “Our Town,” the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a New England village called Grover’s Corners, Bradac does not mind that it is frequently mounted by local amateur troupes (and recently had a major San Diego production). “I’ve been wanting to do an American classic for years,” he said. “This one is among the great plays of the 20th Century.”

“Tomfoolery,” a satirical musical revue of songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s by Tom Lehrer, was staged last season at the Gem. “That is the third most popular show we’ve ever done there,” Bradac said. Only this season’s offering of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the perennial “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” have done better.

If Bradac and the Grove board seem more conscious than ever of commercial considerations in choosing the programming, they have good reason. The worst cash crisis in the 12-year history of the nonprofit company, Orange County’s second-largest professional troupe, nearly forced it to shut down in October.

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The great irony of that trauma, Bradac said, is that “it looks like we’ll be ending in the black for the first time in at least three years because of new fund raising, cutbacks in expenditures and ‘Earnest,’ which earned about $7,000 more than we anticipated.”

Thus, the Grove expects to retire a $41,000 deficit carried over from last season, which caused the cash crisis in the first place.

“We’re in so much better shape than we were at this time 12 months ago, I can’t tell you,” Bradac said. “We won’t have that albatross when we begin next season.”


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