This Glass Slipper Fits Three

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Cinderella didn't have it so bad.

Granted, her stepmother was mean, but at least she was no murderer. Cinderella should be grateful that her stepmother wasn't Medea. Or that Macbeth wasn't a friend of her father's.

Thoughts like these are likely to skitter through the brains of theatergoers who see "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," a collaboration between the Actors' Gang and Cornerstone Theater, at the Gang's theater in Hollywood.

The production offers three plays for the price of one. The catch is, you'll see them at the same performance, in the same room.

During part of the evening, scenes from Euripides' "Medea," Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" will be performed separately, so everyone's attention can focus on one play. At other moments, lines from one play are intercut with lines from one or two others. Then there are simultaneous scenes, when action in more than one play goes on at the same time--"a three-ring circus," said the project's co-director and Cornerstone artistic director Bill Rauch.

Finally, at nine points in the master script, "an event in one play is significant enough that casts of the other two drop what they're doing and join in," Rauch said. "We call them production numbers, though they don't all have songs."

For example, when Cinderella and her stepfamily hear the announcement of the Prince's ball, so do the Macbeths and the three witches and Medea, and they take some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein lines. The famous banquet scene from "Macbeth" is another opportunity for the characters to mingle. During the feminist choral odes in "Medea," the women from all three plays join in.

Not that women actors appear in all three. "Medea" has an all-female cast, including the men's roles, while "Macbeth" has an all-male cast, including the women's roles. "Medea" is "an extraordinary feminist play," said Rauch, while "Macbeth" is "so much about male energy. Even Lady Macbeth says 'Unsex me.' " However, "Cinderella" follows traditional gender assignments.

The idea for this theatrical collage began 14 years ago, when Rauch was a senior at Harvard University. He and a group of friends, including some who are doing the L.A. production, "played with the idea in a workshop format," Rauch said, using the same texts that will be used here.

"There were three times in Western theater history when theater reached large audiences, in what were populist movements," Rauch said. "Greek theater, Elizabethan drama, and the American musical. What would we learn by setting them next to each other?"

"Medea" and "Macbeth" might appear to be more obvious candidates for this experiment than "Cinderella." But Rauch said that the musical was the first of the three to be selected. He had seen reruns of the 1965 TV version of "Cinderella," and a friend's cast album had recently "transported" him, he said.

All three are "title character plays," Rauch said. "In different ways, they all involve ambition, class and love." The musical is considerably more upbeat than the two earlier works, but Rauch wanted to juxtapose a romantic musical comedy against the tragedy of the other two, "as opposed to doing the tale of three monsters."

Cut to Los Angeles, 1997. Cornerstone Theater had just finished the final performance of its updated "Candide," called "Candude," at spaces within the downtown Los Angeles library, directed by Tracy Young of the Actors' Gang. While striking the set, Cornerstone actor (and Rauch mate) Christopher Liam Moore described to Young the "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella" workshop that he and Rauch did in college.

Young was intrigued. She got together with Rauch, and the two of them spent six weeks "taking the three texts apart, going over them with a fine-toothed comb, digging for connective tissues, mutual resonance," Young said. "The texts really do have this mutual rhythmic structure."

The Gang and Cornerstone had been looking for a joint project, and for this one, each group obtained $15,000 grants from the Flintridge Foundation. Young and Rauch are co-directing. Rauch got the crucial permission to use "Cinderella" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

This was not easy. After Rauch's first proposal, in which he implored the Rodgers and Hammerstein's representatives not to make a snap decision, a response indicated the organization was dubious about the idea.

Charlie Scatamacchia, director of professional licensing for Rodgers and Hammerstein, acknowledged that the idea sounded "odd." But someone in his office was aware of Cornerstone, and after Scatamacchia and Rauch met over a meal, permission was given, including the right to omit one number, "Your Majesties."

Rauch "was articulate and passionate," Scatamacchia said, "and he had a great respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein. He wasn't interested in improving 'Cinderella.' He thought it was interesting to juxtapose it with these others. He's putting us in excellent company. Euripides and Shakespeare--it's hard to argue with that."

Also, it helped that "there was a precedent for looking at 'Cinderella' in new and innovative ways"--the multiculturally cast TV movie of last fall.

Young has her own history with "Cinderella." While she was growing up, reruns of the 1965 TV version "indelibly imprinted it in my brain, like 'The Wizard of Oz,' " Young said. She played one of the stepsisters in a production at Los Angeles Valley College in 1980, before she went on to study with Angela Davis, among others, at San Francisco State. A decade later, Young became known for her provocative original musicals with the Actors' Gang, "Hysteria" and "Euphoria."

"For a long time," Young said, "musicals got marginalized. They became thought of as silly or as Broadway cotton candy. But the use of music to convey ideas is really potent. I'm a musical maniac, and I'm obsessed with how to bust the genre open, how to make it meaningful to the people who go see a Quentin Tarentino movie."

No, gunfire won't erupt in this version of "Cinderella." Young believes that "the moments when the three plays meet on a common plane" will provide enough new insights--and mysteries. She described a kind of "alchemy," and she also called the project "a celebration of many things, including theater itself. We're trying to celebrate what's powerful and moving about these plays, find out why they keep resonating, what is the thread in them that runs through Western culture."

The uniting of the three plays also required the uniting of two disparate companies, as well as two directors.

"On the play itself, we've uncannily seen eye to eye," Young said about her work with Rauch. "On the few occasions when we haven't, we state our case and see if we can win the other one over."

The differences between the two groups were greater. The Gang is four to five times larger than the resident company of Cornerstone. Cornerstone actors are on company salaries, while Gang members simply receive the token payments required by Actors' Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan. This means that Cornerstone actors are generally available for daytime rehearsals, while Gang members often hold down day jobs (or evening jobs--Young caters).

However, the groups have "a mutual appreciation for the way each other works," Young said. "On the whole, there have been no friction points. My only regret is that we didn't have more time to do the kind of exploratory, trust-developing work that really strengthens an ensemble."

They did some of this kind of work. "It was important to work outside the text, which could have engulfed the process. It was important to emphasize the actors' shared physicality. We've ended up with a hybrid of both styles. In fact, this piece has its own style. Everyone uses the tools they already have, but everyone has also had to learn a new language, to reinvent the wheel."

The switching from play to play and the scenes where simultaneous events happen will be "demanding for an audience," Young acknowledged. "This play requires a certain focus that's not necessarily for everyone." Yet she urged those who are interested in connections (perhaps the same people who thrived on compare-and-contrast essay questions in school?) to "go on the ride with us. If you do, you'll get something back in return for forgoing your conventional expectations of these plays."

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"MEDEA / MACBETH / CINDERELLA," Actors' Gang Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Opens April 10. Regular schedule: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends May 9. Price: $15. Phone: (213) 660-8587.

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