Shakespeare Sonnets Spark an Uneven ‘Love’s Fire’


“The universe is just a sketch, a doodle,” declares God, in one of the seven short works that make up “Love’s Fire.”

That also describes these brief pieces, which were commissioned by the New York-based Acting Company from seven prominent playwrights. The “Love’s Fire” package, subtitled “Fresh Numbers by Seven American Playwrights,” is on a tour that came to Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday and will play Palm Desert and Escondido next week.

Each of the playwrights used a Shakespeare sonnet as inspiration for a contemporary scene. Following most of the scenes, actors recite the relevant sonnets, sometimes twice. (Copies of the sonnets are in the program, too.) Under Mark Lamos’ direction, the cast speaks Shakespeare’s lines with clarity and eloquence. The Acting Company has a sterling group of young classical actors.


The commissioned plays, however, are not so sterling.

Eric Bogosian’s “Bitter Sauce” is a sketch that wouldn’t be out of place--except for some of the language--on the old “Love, American Style” TV series. On the eve of her wedding, a drunken woman (Heather Robison) is forced to tell her nerdy fiance (Daniel Pearce) that she’s also been seeing a rough biker (James Farmer), who’s on his way over. See, she was concerned that her relationship with her betrothed was too intense, so she sought some casual sex as an antidote, which she now regrets. Can the nerd outwit the biker--and then forgive the girl?

“Hydraulics Phat Like Mean” shows off Dyane Harvey’s choreography and the sensuous steps of Lisa Tharps more than Ntozake Shange’s text. Tharps is disdainful of her love-struck suitor (Jason Alan Carvell), but the dancing expresses this better than the words do.

Marsha Norman’s “140” is a roundelay of people berating ex-lovers for being unfaithful; the ex-lovers’ new loves then find someone else, and the world goes ‘round. It’s done so fast that it’s like an acting exercise, not far removed from an improvisational game. This is the most sexually graphic of the pieces, though the mood is more grim than erotic.

Tony Kushner wrote the cleverest dialogue and the most ambivalent title for his “Terminating, or Lass Meine Schmertzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or Ambivalence.” This is an encounter between a lesbian therapist (Erika Rolfsrud) and a gay man (Stephen DeRosa), a patient who wants to sleep with her, despite their sexual orientations. Off to the sidelines are their respective lovers (Tharps and Hamish Linklater). It’s an amusing, if inconsequential, commentary on the indecisiveness of urban neurotics.

Following intermission is William Finn’s “Painting You,” a song about an artist (DeRosa) who’s frustrated because his portraits of his lover (Carvell) get worse as their love grows stronger. This resembles a number, or maybe just half a number--the lover remains silent--from a much larger musical.

Wendy Wasserstein’s “Waiting for Philip Glass” is a facile scene set at a party in the Hamptons. It’s too dependent on celebrity names for punch lines, and on the belief that the rich and famous are surely unhappy--and that this is fascinating. It does, however, contain the production’s funniest joke, when the hostess (Rolfsrud) reveals what her children are doing this summer.


In contrast to the slightness of most of the pieces, John Guare bit off more than he could chew in the time available for his “The General of Hot Desire.” He depicts the Acting Company studying sonnets 153 and 154, trying to work up a play based on them. They finally concoct an elaborate trip that follows the eponymous love’s fire from the Garden of Eden through later biblical times (though the chronology oddly has Mohammed preceding Christ), at one point breaking into reggae-based song and dance. It’s back to the drawing board for this one.

* “Love’s Fire,” Wednesday: McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. (760) 340-2787. May 9: California Center for the Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido. (800) 988-4253. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. The company is presenting “Romeo and Juliet” tonight at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts; (562) 916-8500.