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Stanford troupe performs Moliere with powdered wigs and grit

STANFORD -- Say "Moliere" and many watch theatergoers freeze.

"They think powdered wigs, pumps, garters, and speaking in rhyming couplets with bad Ralph Richardson accents," said Winter Mead, a visiting lecturer in drama, founder of Stanford's irreverent Red Hoop Players and director of the troupe's new Moliere production. "Our students, on the other hand, are very gritty. They wear high-tops with their powdered wigs."

The Red Hoop Players will present Scapin in the well outside the Cummings Art Building at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, April 12-16. Admission is free, pillows are provided for the brick-step seating, families with 12-year-olds and coolers are encouraged, and caution is advised.

"If you want to be safe, sit in the back," said Mead, noting that his unpredictable cast has been known to haul audience members onstage and make fun of anyone they can reach. "It's not for the weak of heart."

The Red Hoop Players will not be speaking in rhyming couplets, thanks to the contemporary translation/adaptation of Scapin wrought by playwrights Shelley Berc and Andrei Belgrader. Berc, playwright-in-residence and professor of playwrighting at the University of Iowa's renowned creative writing program, will be on campus for an informal discussion with students and faculty at 3 p.m. Friday, April 14, in Room 125 of Memorial Hall.

"The cast will probably be fawning all over her, but we're hoping that people from the French and Italian departments, from the creative writing program and English department -- in fact, everyone we can think of -- will join the discussion," Mead said.

Berc's work has been applauded on both coasts, with the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe citing her adaptation of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew as one of the top 10 plays of the 1990 season. San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater (ACT) commissioned her last year to do King Stag, and her latest work, a musical based on Jarry's Ubu Roi, titled Ubu Rock, will premier at Harvard's American Repertory Theater in June.

"It's not for the politically correct and hopefully should offend every minority, from white males to trisexuals, dolphins, smokers and clean-air purists," Berc said in a recent telephone interview. "Basically, we're saying that things have gotten out of hand."

Although she hates to travel, Berc is coming to campus out of admiration for Mead's work, and because she believes that teachers also ought to be working artists.

"I'm thoroughly against all these people in academia who haven't written or worked for years in art, and who want to fix everybody else's work -- it's very dangerous," she said. "Would you want a doctor to teach you how to do surgery who had not practiced for 10 years? Well, we need the same kind of scrutiny."

Berc has been writer-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and has received writing fellowships and awards from the Rockefeller, McKnight, Camargo and Comte du Nuoy foundations, among others. Next fall will bring publication of her first novel, The Shape of Wilderness (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press). Although the novel took five years to complete, much of her playwriting and adaptation is done on the spot -- in rehearsal, when the actors' adrenaline is up and pumping.

"Theater managers will hire Andrei [Belgrader] and me, but they don't quite get what it is that we do," she said. "They often look terrified when we arrive, and ask, 'Where's the rest of the script?' So we show them our reviews and tell them to shut up and let us get to work."

Known for both her adaptations of classics and her experimental work, Berc came to translating out of love for the tradition of commedia dell'arte, the street theater of the 16th and 17th centuries. Moliere's Scapin was her second adaptation in collaboration with Belgrader, her former professor at Yale School of Drama, who now teaches at the University of California-San Diego. Scapin was most recently performed by ACT in its 1993-94 season.

"I read French, of course, and when I was asked to turn Scapin into a musical, it seemed like the most fun yet. I was intrigued by the wily servant character who preyed on everyone's basest needs, who could be a Puck figure and could also turn on you in a moment.

"I think Moliere, at the end of his life, had finally come to marry the primitive, visceral, peasant comedy of the commedia with the intricacies of a drama of manners. He'd found a way to synthesize them, and the possibilities for adaptation were wide open," Berc said.

The music in the Red Hoop Players production of Scapin is provided by cabaret virtuoso Rusty Magee, and Berc describes it as a mish-mash of rock 'n' roll, rap and "Al Jolson 'Mammy' stuff." Theater critics have noted the influence of Elvis, the Beach Boys, gospel, doo-wop and bubblegum pop, as well.

"We've practiced with Magee's tapes and sheet music, but we'll be performing it a cappella," said director Mead. "Not all of the cast members are singers, but they are very good actors who can mimic good singing -- sort of like Meryl Streep, who's never been trained but sings well."

In rehearsal, the Red Hoop Players have worked to perfect the timing of various sight gags, and have tried to prepare for worst-case scenarios in which audience members refuse to stand and be taunted. The production will probably end up 90 percent Berc and 10 percent improvisation, with a number of references to topical local happenings. A lot depends on how far Matt Seidman, cast in the title role, dares to go.

The senior human biology major "had an epiphany and saw the light last winter," and has consequently been taking drama classes ever since, Mead said. Many of the other cast members were recruited from the advanced performance class Mead taught last spring, and he said that the students have been immersed in the "very bold, very physical, very spontaneous" style of acting that commedia dell'arte requires.


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