Tossing a Bit of Magic Into the Caldron

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

On a recent afternoon, in a borrowed rehearsal space at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza in Hollywood, cast members from the latest production from Shakespeare Festival/LA waved arms and bare tree branches, toiling and troubling their way through that popular Shakespeare scene that is part weird magic, part cooking show: the witches stirring the caldron in “Macbeth.”

Just add eye of newt, tongue of frog and bring to a boil; serves three.

This Halloween season, Shakespeare Festival/LA, now in its 15th season, is testing a brand-new recipe--its first Halloween show: “Hauntings--A Shakespearean Seance,” which instead of marrying newt with frog combines a popular style of theater from the 1940s and ‘50s called the “spook show” with ghost scenes from “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “Richard III” and other Shakespeare plays. The show continues through Oct. 31 at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center.

And to make the concoction even more peculiar--it’s a musical, with Shakespeare’s words set to an original score by Kirk Nurock. The production also entertains the ghost of the age of Aquarius: It has reunited director Tom O’Horgan with lighting designer Jules Fisher, who both count among their many distinguished credits the original Broadway production of “Hair” in 1968. O’Horgan’s flowing ponytail still suggests the flower-child spirit. Magician Eugene Burger serves as the show’s “spirit guide,” providing informational narration and performing his best tricks.


Shakespeare Festival/LA artistic director Ben Donenberg--somewhat dazed by the magic of parenthood during an interview that took place two days after the birth of his first child, Sheldon--said he hopes that this latest experiment will become a yearly franchise for the theater company, which presents an annual “Free for All” summer festival of site-specific Shakespeare performances, with a donation of canned food for the needy as the admission price.

Recent productions include “Julius Caesar,” performed last summer on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, and 1997’s “The Tempest,” staged in the middle of the Watercourt at downtown L.A.'s California Plaza. The shows also tour to other nearby sites in the company’s only permanent home: a 30-foot semitruck dubbed “Will’s Wheels,” which deploys into a 40-by-50-foot stage.

“I’ve been doing one show every summer for 15 years, and I’ve been yearning to expand the festival to other seasons--it’s been my vision to create seasonal traditions for the community,” said Donenberg, 41. “For a long time, I thought about ‘A Christmas Carol,’ or what I could do with ‘Twelfth Night’ or something like that, but that started to seem derivative, uninventive.”

Donenberg said he started thinking about a Halloween show in 1996, when he was taking a magic class at Hollywood’s Magic Castle. There, he became aware of magician Burger. He read some of Burger’s books, including one about a nightly seance that Burger conducted over several years in an old Victorian house in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago where Burger lives. The story led Donenberg to begin toying with the notion of a Shakespearean seance.


Because this is its first Halloween show, Donenberg said Shakespeare Festival/LA will break with tradition and charge $22.50 per adult ticket (less for students), in the hope that a success will draw enough backers to provide free admission in future years. The $200,000 production was financed by the theater company’s reserve account.

In 1997, Donenberg hired Burger to help with magic effects for “Tempest,” so bringing him back for “Hauntings” seemed like a natural. So did approaching composer Nurock, one of Donenberg’s fellow Juilliard graduates.

About 25 years ago, Donenberg worked at Nurock’s nonprofit Natural Sound Center, which at the time was developing a series of events called Communications Across Species--among which was “Sonata for Piano and Dog,” performed at Carnegie Hall. With Nurock, Donenberg worked on a Halloween event at New York’s Bronx Zoo, which involved choral performers roving through the various animal exhibits, howling with wolves, barking with sea lions and engaging in whatever sounds are appropriate for communicating with bats.

On Nurock’s advice, Donenberg approached O’Horgan, who was equally intrigued by the seance idea, and insisted that the production be a musical, with Nurock composing the music. Lighting designer Fisher also was easily persuaded to participate--both he and O’Horgan said the innovative seance concept appealed to their roots in experimental theater in New York in the 1960s. And Fisher is not only an amateur magician and “magic groupie,” but also a big fan of Burger.

“That’s why I’m doing it--I like the people, and I like the idea,” Fisher said by phone from New York of his decision to find a break in his schedule to help with a smaller show such as “Seance.” “I see a mix of Shakespearean magic with real-world magic, magic that we do today in the parlor, or on the vaudeville stage. The way we are mixing them together is to make you see the magic in Shakespeare, and then question your own belief in magic.”

Is it scary? “Well, I don’t think there’s anything . . . well, I shouldn’t say that--there are some things that, due to your own psychology, may scare you,” Fisher offered. “I think there are some very Halloween things in the show, particularly near the end, that, depending on what you believe in, may actually frighten you. In a good way.

“For instance, if someone can predict your future, does that scare you? Or if someone can tell you something you don’t believe anyone else could know, like where your car is parked in the parking lot, that could be scary as well.”

Burger--who usually spends January performing in L.A. and Las Vegas, and was voted 1998’s close-up magician of the year at the Magic Castle--said the scariest thing about “Seance” was finding out that he was expected to sing--which he learned only after committing to perform. “If they had told me at the beginning I was going to be singing, I would have just freaked out,” Burger said cheerfully. “Yet they got me into this in a really nice way, and now I am enjoying it.”


Audiences should not expect razzle-dazzle Vegas-style magic in this show, Burger cautioned. There is no “box magic” or major explosions. “The first piece I do is a card piece. . . . The second piece is about restoration, where I burn a piece of thread and put it back together again. And the third piece is the spirits, writing messages on large slates,” he said. “We are doing very intimate pieces.”

Donenberg said that “Seance” represents another attempt on the part of the company to reinvent Shakespeare for today’s Los Angeles. “We are really committed to finding ways to make Shakespeare speak to our community,” Donenberg said.

“Shakespeare said, 500 years ago, that the purpose of playing is to hold the mirror up to nature. . . . We try very hard to find ways to not mess with the text, but to contextualize it in such a way that the texts are illuminated. That is the first question we ask ourselves: Why are we doing this play in Los Angeles, this year? And our search for a venue comes out of what the play means today.” In this case, the Pacific Design Center was chosen because of West Hollywood’s tradition of going all-out on Halloween.

“We are trying to take the pulse of the community and let that be reflected in our productions, so it’s really different,” Donenberg added. “Otherwise, you are just doing museum theater.”

Much of the business of taking the community’s pulse happens in the company’s extensive youth programs, including Will Power, which takes Shakespeare into the classroom. This year, Donenberg said, Shakespeare/LA will prepare a documentary that tracks a high school student from South-Central L.A. as he prepares to play the role of Hamlet one year from now. The young man will interview Mayor Richard Richard Riordan, the pastor of his church, several homeless people who have become followers and fans of Shakespeare/LA, and actors who have played Hamlet, including Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson.

“I always say, it takes 10 minutes,” Donenberg said. “If people sit down for 10 minutes and watch the play, the rhythm of their brain and the rhythm of the verse will synchronize. All of a sudden, the plays open up to you.”


“HAUNTINGS--A SHAKESPEAREAN SEANCE,” Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave. Dates: Thursdays to Sundays, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 31. Prices: $16.50-$25. Phone: (213) 489-4127.