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BACKSTAGE ‘THE MARRIAGE OF KING ARTHUR’ : Bard in Camelot : But dialogue in this retelling of the Arthur tale is constructed entirely of quotes from Shakespeare’s works.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“To be or not to be?” Perhaps the most famous line Shakespeare ever wrote. Instantly you associate it with Hamlet’s soliloquy, questioning the fundamentals of his existence.

But not so fast. For in this case the speaker on stage is not the melancholy Dane at all, but Merlin, the wizard tutor to young Arthur (of Round Table fame), pondering whether it’s nobler to dress in drag to conceal himself amid a host of courtly intrigues.

The diction is undeniably Elizabethan, the verse set to telltale iambic pentameter. The convoluted plot, heavily laden with disguises and mistaken identities, is straight out of Shakespeare’s comedies. Yet Shakespeare never wrote a play about King Arthur. Something is rotten in the state of Camelot.

What we’re witnessing, it turns out, is “The Marriage of King Arthur (or, Take it or Leave it),” in its world premiere engagement at Westmont College in Montecito. This “new” play--a William Shakespeare retelling of the Arthur myth--is in dialogue constructed entirely from single and half-line quotes from the Bard’s existing works.

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“The Marriage of King Arthur” is the brainchild of John W. Sider, a literature instructor at Westmont.

Sider said even his plot selection was based on deductive reasoning rather than any particular passion for the Arthurian legend.

“I started with questions about what Shakespeare would have written about if he’d written another play,” Sider said. “I thought about all the forms of the Arthur story that show up in the great writers and it seemed like this was the biggest single omission of traditional materials in Shakespeare.”

The next logical question for Sider was: Once Shakespeare had chosen Arthur, how would he have developed the plot? “The way he approached all his plots,” said Sider. “He would have read Mallory and Spenser--it’s typical of Shakespeare to combine sources wherever he could--and that gave me the main idea for the play.”

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Mallory, said Sider, like most everyone else agreed that Arthur married Guinevere, unlike Spenser who really didn’t care about Guinevere, but created a whole new set of stories for Arthur, in pursuit of the Fairie Queen.

That suggested a triangle to Sider--put the three principals together and you’ve got the makings of something like a Shakespearean love plot, where the young Arthur’s impending marriage to Guinevere is undermined by the jaded, seductive wiles of the Fairie Queen (a character Sider merged with Shakespeare’s own fairy queen Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”)

The only alterations Sider allowed himself were to make character names and personal pronouns consistent with his new plot. Otherwise, the words are exactly as Shakespeare penned them.

Yet thanks to the Bard’s farsighted vision, the new work sounds surprisingly contemporary. Who would have thought the careful distillation of “Measure for Measure,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Coriolanus,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “Lucrece” would yield the following exchange between a Gentleman of the Court and Sir Dinadan:

Gentleman: You know the lady that you talked withal/But Tuesday night? I never saw the like.

Sir Dinadan: Lady? No! She was my wife!

Some viewers will recognize Sir Dinadan as the incorrigible practical joker from Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” just one of the numerous allusions slyly incorporated by Sider.

Sider’s first folio found its way into the hands of John Blondell, Westmont’s director of theater, who selected the play for his department’s fall production. Blondell, who has established a reputation for innovative and often daring stage productions at the conservative Christian college, contends that the initial appeal came from the cleverness of the idea of doing a new play by Shakespeare. But he says he was surprised by the complexity and depth that he found in the piece.

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“When I started reading through it, the thing I found so compelling in it is the emotional lives of these characters,” he said. “It’s a rite of passage for a lot of them, and in that odyssey they are transformed psychologically and emotionally into more mature and complete people.

“All of Shakespeare’s comedies have that kind of transformation. And the sense that the tragic and the comic always coexist, and the one always illuminates the potential for the other. I think John’s caught that sense, even in an intended spoof. He makes it clear there are stakes involved, even a sense of loss, and we’re trying to play that honestly--showing that what these characters are experiencing is real.”

Blondell’s goal is to present the darker side of all the jokes as well. As King Lear loyalists might observe, this is not altogether fool.

* WHERE AND WHEN

“The Marriage of King Arthur.” Performed Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 7, 8, 9 and Wednesday through Saturday, Nov. 13, 14, 15 and 16 at Westmont College’s Porter Hall in Montecito. Ticket prices are $7 general and $5 for students and seniors. Call 565-6040 for reservations or further information.


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