Raw talent: Jereme Anglin and Jennifer Hirst star as Romeo and Juliet in The R&J Project at the Cinnabar Theater's Eclectic Theater Festival.
Eclectic Theater Festival offers wide range of talent
By Patrick Sullivan
SLAPSTICK MIMES, provocative new takes on Shakespeare, tragicomic vaudeville, and a confessional monologue about being a middle-aged heterosexual male: Just what the heck is going on at the Cinnabar Theater? The five productions about to hit the stage at the venerable Petaluma playhouse clearly aren't the sort you see every day.
But you can see them every year, thanks to the annual Eclectic Theater Festival, which begins its third installment on Nov. 5. The brainchild of Cinnabar's Lucas McClure, the festival has one overriding goal--to avoid the ordinary.
"My philosophy is that there's no real reason to do it here if it's already being done somewhere else," says McClure. "That's really my only stipulation: It needs to be an original work, or a classic presented in a new light, a reinterpreted work."
The wild ride began three years ago when McClure was looking for a place to perform a newly completed theater piece. He rented out the Cinnabar for a weekend, and then discovered that the physical comedy duo Evans and Gianotta were also interested in performing locally. McClure brought the duo on board, and the newly christened Eclectic Theater Festival was born to a small but enthusiastic reception. Year Two saw more acts and bigger crowds. Now the Cinnabar itself has gotten in on the act, co-producing this year's event with McClure, who has also become the theater's publicist.
More than mere diversity packs theater seats during the month-long event. The festival attracts a bevy of big-name talents who keep coming back for more. Repeat performers this year include such notables as Evans and Giannotta, off-the-wall "Kipper Kid" Brian Routh, and award-winning New York actor and monologist Jan Munroe. What brings these folks to Sonoma County? McClure says the Cinnabar's unique atmosphere plays a part.
"They love the theater," McClure says. "Virtually anyone who comes here feels this ambiance. It's hard to put your finger on it. There's an energy, a feeling that Cinnabar has that is magical."
According to the performers themselves, the festival is a good opportunity to test-drive new pieces. For some, it even serves as a creative kick in the pants.
"I'm always looking for a reason to do new work," says Jan Munroe, speaking in his made-for-the-stage gravelly voice from his mother's home in Florida. "But I'm the type of artist who really needs a date to complete something. ... The festival is a chance to kind of test things out."
Munroe's long career is a study in diversity: He trained with French mime artist Marcel Marceau, moved into off-the-wall performance art in Los Angeles with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (other members of which later formed the band Oingo Boingo), went on to win 11 L.A. Weekly and Drama-Logue awards, and has appeared in such films as The Grifters and A Few Good Men.
Of late, Munroe has been making his mark with personal monologues, such as his award-winning Nothing Human Disgusts Me, a piece about family dynamics that he performed last year at the Eclectic Theater Festival. He says one-person shows are a tricky but rewarding art form.
"Let's face it: There's no one out there but you, and you're the one who's going to look like a total idiot if it goes wrong," he says with a deep chuckle. "You don't have any fellow cast members to fall back on if you forget your lines or something. It can be a very frightening thing to have to do. I think most actors should do one, though, just to have gone through that experience."
Munroe will soon be winging his way back to Petaluma to give festival audiences the first look at the latest version of his new piece, a humorous take on the aging process called Confessions of a Middle-Aged, White, Heterosexual Male (Just the High Points).
"It's a joke title in a way," says Munroe. "Everybody's doing a confession of this and a confession of that, and I just wanted to play on that. Ultimately we're all dealing with the same human conditions, no matter what people's choices are as far as their lifestyle goes."
Of course, not all the acts at the Eclectic Theater Festival are from out of town. The local newcomer is The R&J Project, a new spin on Romeo and Juliet. Director Jennifer Hirst (who also plays Juliet) has seen dozens of productions of the famous Shakespearean tragedy. To Hirst, a former ballet dancer, there was something missing in many of them.
"Quite often I've seen this play staged and Romeo and Juliet barely look at each other--they never even touch," says Hirst. "I just said, 'Wait a minute, that's not right.'"
So she decided to bring a new focus to the classic love story by concentrating on the movement of the characters. Audiences shouldn't expect to see ballet; the production simply uses movement to highlight the character's emotions and interactions.
"I'm trying to get those relationships to become more clear, more solid," Hirst says. "Sometimes I feel we get lost in the words. They are very beautiful words, but we need to see the relationships too."
The play's cast includes both actors with no dance experience and professional dancers, and Hirst credits her players for their openness to this new take on the theatrical standard. But will audiences be as flexible? How will Shakespeare buffs respond to a one-hour version of the three-hour play?
"Gee, I would love to know that," Hirst says with a laugh. "I think if you're a traditional Shakespeare buff and you're waiting for this line or this character, you may be disappointed. But this is a new way of telling the story, of telling it efficiently, without a character delivering a page and a half of monologue. ... We get to know these people very briefly, and then the candle blows out."
If The R&J Project is provocative, then the other festival piece that focuses on the Bard is positively scandalous. In a last-minute addition to the event, English actor Rob Clare, formerly with the Royal Shakespeare Company, will perform his piece Aye, Shakespeare! The play is about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who some believe was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.
Festival organizer McClure says Clare's arrival this year in Sonoma County is a happy accident resulting from a nearby performance. But the festival's pull is strong, and the English actor has already agreed to return in '99 to do a Sam Shepard piece.
Those aren't the only plans McClure has for next year's festival. He also hopes to do Samuel Beckett's End Game, and he invites community participation as well. The appetite for challenging theater is strong, he says, and he thinks it's growing.
"It's a small but loyal crowd right now," McClure says. "But we're hoping to branch out and bring in new audiences and let people know that this is happening right here in their back yard. They don't have to go to the city--you can see world-class theater right here."
From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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