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THEATER : The Second Drama Quartet Follows in Famous Footsteps : It reprises a ‘Don Juan in Hell’ acclaimed when done by Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Agnes Moorehead.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the hell according to George Bernard Shaw, dialogue comes cheap and plentiful. Down there, they’ve got all the time in the afterworld. And so we find Don Juan and Beelzebub holding forth on a plethora of subjects, with interjections from characters out of Don Juan’s mortal life--a woman he seduced and a man he killed.

Such is the provocative thematic turf of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell,” extracted from the third act of his large-scale play “Man and Superman.” The work will be presented as a dramatic reading Saturday night at the Lobero Theater, directed by and starring Harris Yulin, along with Ed Asner, Rene Auberjonois and Mira Furlan, a well-known actress in the former Yugoslavia who has recently relocated here.

This production has come into being thanks to Yulin, actor of stage and screens large and small who has been--like many--fascinated with the material for many years. His interest was first piqued decades back after hearing a recording made by the First Drama Quartet, featuring such talents as Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Agnes Moorehead.

Resolved to fill Don Juan’s shoes for himself, Yulin enlisted the eager involvement of Asner and Auberjonois, and dubbed the loosely bound ensemble the Second Drama Quartet, “in homage to the first, if you will,” Yulin explained in a recent phone interview.

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Launching the production two seasons back, Yulin had qualified expectations. “It seemed to me that it would work. But I didn’t know what the feeling of audiences was today--if there was still interest in such a dialogue, such prose, such a piece of theater. But they are. We did it once for a benefit, and it was an enormously enthusiastic response, so that cheered me on.”

Now the show takes to the road. This weekend’s Santa Barbara stop comes between a show in Olympia, Wash., and upcoming shows in Los Angeles, Princeton, N. J., and New York.

Dramatic readings such as this, without the appurtenances and window dressing of fully staged theater, demand a special brand of audience appreciation. But Yulin commented that dramatic readings are “more common than we think, perhaps. The first group toured this play a long time ago, and then there was another group in the late ‘50s and ‘60s that did it, with Ricardo Montalban and Myrna Loy.”

In this pared-down context, do audiences appreciate readings as a kind of refuge from the more blatant sensory impact of film, television or even conventional theater?

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“It does have a different content,” Yulin said. “You can’t go to films like this. The only person I can think of who makes films at all like this is Eric Rohmer. There is no TV like this. An audience comes to this for a different kind of experience, an audio experience. It’s the experience of the ear more than of the eye.

“It’s not necessarily a richer experience, but it’s a different experience. It’s like listening to radio: People’s imaginations were engaged in a different way than with television. Perhaps because I was brought up on radio, I still have a feeling that it’s a livelier medium, in a way, than television. Television seems deader.”

Yulin even goes so far as to suggest that this form of theater, however unorthodox, can have advantages over more traditional staging.

“With a dramatic reading, you don’t have the problem of movement distracting because there is none, essentially. The movement is interior. It isn’t explicit. So it focuses the attention on what’s being said, automatically. It does that by definition. I think that’s helpful.

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“I think that if more Shakespeare was done in that way, people would start to hear the text more clearly. Wonderful things can happen. Most Shakespeare that one sees, or at least that I see, is not clear. It’s pointless. It’s only good if it’s clear. If it’s clear, then it can be something very good.

“I’m not here plumping for static theater, or reading everything. There’s a clarity obligation that’s paramount--to make everything understood. This form allows us to concentrate very much on the text and, I think, losing nothing. I don’t think we lose anything by not having the staging.”

It takes more than four actors to keep the Second Drama Quartet alive and kicking. Others involved in Yulin’s project, filling in when others can’t make it, are Gena Rowlands, Dianne Wiest, Harold Gould, David Warner, Martin Landau and Charles Durning.

Yulin has found that the reputation of the work precedes it and tends to attract actors hungry for a challenge. “Everybody wants to do it. This is a favorite piece of material with actors--those actors who are from theater. I don’t know of any actor who would take a pass on it, really. It’s wonderful, challenging, brilliant material.”

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Still, Yulin is realistic about what it takes to fill theater seats.

He shrugs, saying: “I would suppose that most people are coming to see Ed Asner, and then some other people are coming to hear ‘Don Juan in Hell,’ and a few people are coming to hear Rene, and three people are coming to hear me. Nobody’s coming to hear Mira.

“However they get in the theater is how they get in. Once they’re in the theater, then we have them and it’s up to us to provide them with something that seems worthwhile.”

Details

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* WHAT: “Don Juan in Hell,” a dramatic reading featuring Rene Auberjonois, Harris Yulin, Ed Asner and Mira Furlan.

* WHERE: Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

* COST: $20, $17 students, senior citizens.

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* ETC.: Call 963-0761.


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