Not long after George Flint folded his Renaissance Theatre Co., he remarked that he'd hit one of local performance art's dead ends. Renaissance was all about the modern classics, like A View from the Bridge and Long Day's Journey into Night and Waiting for Godot, brawny situational pieces whose characters are metaphors for the best and the worst of the human experience. But as Flint told CityBeat in March of 2006, “There are no venues that would be suitable, from my point of view, for rentals or productions. [That predicament] doesn't afford me the opportunity to do the kind of theater that I like to do. I find myself between shows with, pretty much, time on my hands.”
Flint might have added that local theater is marked by a vague, creeping stagnation (almost nobody has any money; a popular summer theater festival was recently reportedly in jeopardy for lack of funds; and five San Diego venues have closed in the last two-and-a-half years without replacement). That's why this week's news is so uncommonly welcome. It's brought to you by the peeps at The Theatre Inc., which in four months and on one shoestring has gone from brainchild to brain trust and the genesis of a full-fledged season.
This group's take on classic presentation runs far afoul of Flint's. In the first place, it works out of The Ark Center for the Performing Arts, an unassuming little corner of the Hotel Churchill off downtown's beaten paths; the venue can accommodate only 80 at maximum capacity, and on folding chairs at that. But for this ragtag nonprofit, classic theater transcends the very traditions it upholds. While the classics may rely on lofty production values for audience appeal, the best also live and die amid the urgency of their universal messages to the marketplace.
“We're in a time of great sadness in this country,” producing director Melissa Hamilton said. “We're in turmoil because of the [American incursion into Iraq]. People want something they can relate to, and our classics show that what's going on today has been happening in the [past]. We need to know our history to make a better future.”
Maybe ancient Greek funnyman Aristophanes was thinking the same thing when he wrote The Frogs, The TheatreInc.'s inaugural piece. It was first performed in 405 B.C., on the heels of a huge Athenian naval victory over archrival Sparta. Athens was looking for its missing pieces, and it found them in this tale about theater god Dionysus (played by artistic director Douglas Lay), his slave Xanthias (Fred Harlow) and their trip to hell in search of the perfect playwright. It comes down to a contest between scribes Euripides (Michael Nieto) and Aeschylus (Harlow again)—the winner's carted back to Athens, where its people will live another day to laugh in the face of godly authority. For all the world, The Frogs could have been done by Crosby and Hope—such is the extent of its “Road” picture temperament. Lay and Harlow make the most of that popular love-hate relationship; the Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton translation is smooth and bright; and the choruses are nicely spirited, although a tad overbearing in the tiny Ark. But what's really important is that The Frogs (co-directed by Lay and Hamilton) has debuted at all, by a company that's thrown caution to the wind in these iffy local theater times. George Flint was wonderful for San Diego—but whereas he was driven by the proper demographic and conventional staging, The Theatre Inc. defines itself by the scent of the greasepaint and the seat of its pants. And that's a beautiful thing to behold.
“It's a passion,” Hamilton said. “You have so much passion, and you want to develop it in an environment that's beautiful and fun and happy. Sometimes, you have to kind of create that yourself. It's a passion, and that means you have to do it. If it succeeds, then wonderful—but you have to at least try.”
Three more Theatre Inc. productions are on tap this season, all of which are legitimate classics by one score or another. The classics, after all, didn't get that way just because they're old, or even because they're revered. They got that way because they're profoundly affecting commentary on the human condition, the stuff of our most monumental achievements and cataclysmic failures. Their ranks will inevitably swell as long as people tell stories. At least by that measure, The Theatre Inc. will stay in business as long as it likes. The review portion of this article is based on the opening-night performance of Nov. 1. The Frogs runs through Nov. 18 at The Ark Center for the Performing Arts, 899 C St., Downtown. $18-$22. 619-216-3016. www.thetheatreinc.com.