Used to be a few things in Orange County theater were as reliable as right-wing nut jobs winning re-election: the Crystal Cathedral’s Glory of Christmas leading even Jesus to say, “Fuck this overwrought mess”; Hal Landon Jr. starring in South Coast Repertory’s A Christmas Carol (this December marks his final turn in an incredible 40-year-tenure); and Matt Walker and his Troubadour Theater Co. staging an annual invasion of the county. The troupe was a perennial highlight, displaying the organized chaos of a highly skilled ensemble pushing comedy at such a breakneck pace that the audience was helpless to resist its onslaught.
But after mounting its hyper-kinetic fusions of classic rock and Shakespeare locally every year from 1995 to 2005, the Troubies fell mostly silent. Other than a 2014 Laguna Playhouse run of its A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, the company has kept closer to home, holding court mostly at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.
But the road show returns this week to Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente with The Odd-Essy, the troupe’s anarchic spin on the epic Greek poem The Odyssey. “This show will really be a throwback to our roots,” says Walker, the company’s artistic director and ringmaster, alluding to when the Troubies rolled into towns from Idaho to Australia and, with little to no rehearsal in the space, mounted a show. “We won’t be rehearsing at the venue and won’t even see it until we show up and set up. . . . And then we’ll throw this crazy, zany show at the audience, and some things are bound to go off the rails.”
Old-timers may remember the Troubies as exclusively Shakespearean, merging (let’s call it jackhammering) the Bard’s tales with much of the catalog of one recording artist to get Romeo Hall & Juliet Oates, Fleetwood Macbeth, and Hamlet, the Artist Formerly Known as the Prince of Denmark, among others. The troupe has even expanded into the realms of annual holiday shows (A Christmas West-Side Story, Frosty the Snow Manilow, A Charlie James Brown Christmas) and Greek classics (Abbamemnon; Oedipus the King, Mama!, featuring the music of Elvis).
The Greek twist results from the work the Troubies have done with the Getty Villa, including booking 27 weekends of performance in 2017. Why the tony art museum with the beautiful grounds ever reached out to such a raucous troupe is anybody’s guess (maybe it has something to do with the venue’s classic Roman architecture, or perhaps talent is talent), but the pairing caught the attention of Casa Romantica. The 92-year-old, 2.5-acre Spanish Colonial Revival house and grounds, built by San Clemente founder Ole Hanson, was privately owned until a nonprofit took it over in 2001. In the past six years, under the leadership of executive director Berenika Palys, it has catapulted into an award-winning arts institution, averaging about 100 shows per year, including dance, music and art exhibits. Looking for a third summer theatrical production in four years, and wanting something with a hint of the classical, Casa Romantica approached the Troubies.
But there was one problem: The venue wanted a full evening in its 100-seat amphitheater, and the company’s current Odyssey reworking was a sharply truncated, “20-minute, slam-bam kind of thing,” according to Walker, adding it was heavy on the improv and staged on the grounds for passersby
“We basically had to extrapolate from this very condensed, CliffsNotes version we did and weave it into a more realized experience,” Walker says. “Which is a fun experiment in form for us because usually we have a big fat piece and whittle it down, but now we have the entry and exit points and have to fill in the middle. So it’s really an exercise in commedia [dell’arte].”
Another difference is the material. Rather than choosing songs from one artist, the soundtrack for The Odd-Essy is a hodgepodge, chosen by how well each one advances the story, whether it’s “Under the Sea” when the Sirens make their entrance or “Chain of Fools” when another bad decision by Odysseus decimates even more of his crew. “It’s all over the map, but they’re great songs that people know, but they’ll also help tell the story,” Walker says. “And if we can hit the main points that help to make the tale more accessible to those who don’t know it, that’s always a bonus.”
But don’t fret, Shakespeare and artist-specific fans: Walker and company aren’t done with the Bard yet. A few of the working titles yet to be explored include King Elton John; The Merry Wives of Earth, Wind and Fire; and, of course, The Taming of the Who.
The Odd-Essy at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente, (949) 498-2139; www.casaromantica.org. Thurs-Fri., June 6-7, 7 p.m. $25. For other Troubadour Theater Co. events, visit www.troubie.com.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???