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Robert Koehler’s Theater Picks

“True West,” (Laguna Playhouse, Moulton Theatre, Laguna Beach, January). Nothing on an Orange County stage seen by this writer in 1993 surpassed this Sam Shepard revival in January. Could it have been because Laguna artistic director Andrew Barnicle and his co-star, Peder Melhuse, played Shepard’s bad seed/good seed brothers in the original Off-Broadway production, and thus had a strong, personal history with this remarkably durable black comedy? Or could it have been the early indicator that Barnicle’s Laguna Playhouse--especially given its recent announcement of a new 250-seat professional house--is on course to becoming a major mid-size Southern California theater? Probably both.

“Monsieur Shaherazad,” (GroveShakespeare Festival, Garden Grove, April). The year’s worst news, arguably, was the ignominious death of GroveShakespeare. Could this--its very last show, with the superb performance of the chameleonic Ron Campbell--have been another sign of good things to come? We’ll never know.

Even worse, arguably, is how the two lovely former homes of GroveShakespeare--the indoor Gem Theatre and the outdoor Festival Amphitheatre--remain vacant and virtually unused because of factors both economic and artistic.

The big artistic factor is that the county is community-theater rich but professional-theater poor, and no professional company is out there to take on the Garden Grove challenge. The community theaters continue to trot out generally paltry revivals of safe plays and musicals, leaving the field open to the struggling group of “storefront” stages and interesting college companies.

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“Riders to the Sea,” (Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, Fullerton, November). The one memorable work in Storefrontland was the chilling, mystical staging (care of director Elizabeth Swenson) of this John Millington Synge play. But why mar it by billing it with fluff like Don Gordon’s “Normal Doesn’t Mean Perfect”?

“Dangerous Liaisons,” (UC Irvine Drama Dept., Irvine Barclay Theatre, April). The best and most interesting college work continues to emerge from UC Irvine’s drama program, now blessed by not only adventurous teachers, but by the elegant Irvine Barclay Theatre. Robert Cohen’s fine staging of Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (inexplicably retitled in English for this engagement) showed off both theater and students in top form.

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” (Golden West College, Huntington Beach, December). Golden West’s inconsistent theater program delivered pure collegiate fun in this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice revival, which hinted that this may be Webber’s most simply enjoyable musical.

“The Most Happy Fella,” (Fullerton Civic Light Opera, October). Civic light opera offerings were unremarkable, save this one--a glistening production of Frank Loesser’s masterpiece. The company smartly deployed the full orchestra arrangement of the original 1956 version rather than Xeroxing the recent duo-piano revival version. Good: Less Xeroxing, more hard work.

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