Mark Rucker comes in from the rain for yet another day of rehearsing Shakespeare. But the Panavision logo on his taupe baseball cap advertises that the veteran stage director has gone Hollywood after 20 years of monogamous professional devotion to the theater.
Yes, Rucker is back at South Coast Repertory for “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” -- about the 20th Shakespeare production of his career, he figures, and his 17th directorial turn at South Coast since 1993. As he burrows into another play, his first film is also in play.Rucker directed “Die Mommie, Die,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival last month and won its writer and star, Charles Busch, a special dramatic jury prize for outstanding acting. The low-budget film lovingly spoofs ‘60s horror pictures, such as “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
While its producers began fielding bids from distributors, Rucker had to cut short his Sundance stay to get cracking on “Two Gentlemen.” It’s an early Shakespeare comedy, often dismissed as proof that even a Bard has to learn by trial and error. It’s the sort of “problem play” that Rucker loves to grapple with -- a chance, he says, to find in alleged Shakespearean weaknesses and incongruities the taking-off points for imaginative new insights. After the play opens on Friday, he’ll be free to start taking his first round of meetings with talent hawks from film studios.
Rucker, 43, grew up in Newport Beach and fell for Busch’s oeuvre in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s while a grad student at the Yale School of Drama. Although best known as the writer of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a straightforward Manhattan comedy of manners, Busch first made his name as a cross-dressing comic playwright-actor who loves the great ladies of Hollywood so much that he writes parts patterned after them -- and plays them himself.
About 10 years ago, Rucker and Dante Diloreto, his domestic partner of nearly 20 years, saw a screening of the Bette Davis vehicle “Now, Voyager” at the American Film Institute.
“He leaned across to me and said, ‘Someday I want to do a movie like this starring Charles Busch,’ ” Diloreto recalls. And since Diloreto is now a principal in the production company Aviator Films, he was able to help make it happen, starting with an approach in 1999, while Busch was starring in the world premiere of “Die Mommie, Die” at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood.
Busch had played small film parts -- including one in the screen version of his play “Psycho Beach Party.” In “Die Mommie, Die” he graduates to the leading role, playing Angela Arden, an aging diva whose children are out to get her. On Rucker’s advice, Busch says, he played each scene in three gears, “subtle, flamboyant and pure hambone,” which allowed the director to choose different takes to achieve the modulated performance hailed by the Sundance jurors.
“In the wrong directorial hands and the wrong actor it could be like a thumb in your soup,” Busch says. “You’d never get into the story if you couldn’t get past ‘Why is that lady played by a man?’ ”
In “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” many Shakespeareans can’t get past the story’s apparent absurdity: How can one of the gents, Proteus, sell out his best buddy, Valentine; betray his first love, Julia; threaten to rape Silvia, the new object of his affection; and then be instantly forgiven and embraced by all?
Rucker aims to answer them in a production evocative of 1950s America, all youthful innocence and exuberance, where a small-town kid can go to the big city, get in over his head, behave very badly, but still in the end be loved for the good-hearted fellow his homeboys and homegirls know him to be.
The director says it hadn’t crossed his mind that moving from the theater into films might be a bit like taking that leap from the safety of the ‘burbs to a place of bright lights and big temptations.
He says he’ll remain grounded at SCR, where as an associate artist he directs at least one show a year and helps with new-play development. But after a fun first exposure to movie directing, Rucker is eager for more. “I’m getting all these calls from people who have seen the film and are interested in me. I will be doing meetings, and it’s very Hollywood.”
‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’
Where: South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Ends: March 30
Contact: (714) 708-5555