Director Louis Fantasia detects elements of Romeo and Juliet and even the Hatfields and McCoys within the play he’s staging for Classical Theatre Lab‘s annual alfresco production in West Hollywood. But no, this play isn’t by Shakespeare, and it wasn’t influenced by the story of America’s most famous feuding families.
It’s called Trouble in Chiozza, written by Carlo Goldoni and first performed at Teatro San Luca in Venice in 1762. Set in an Italian fishing village, its origins are in the commedia dell’arte tradition.
Fantasia, who edited Robert Hoyem’s translation of Goldoni’s play, says “we’re doing this play as a change from the traditional summertime Shakespeare in the Parks program. I’ve done this particular play twice in the past 30 years — once in Kansas City and once here in L.A. with students at USC.”
A Shakespeare maven, Fantasia has been a director of the Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance Institute at Shakespeare’s Globe Centre in London, and for the past eight years he has directed Shakespeare at the Huntington. On the grounds of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Fantasia teaches acting, directing, voice, and classroom pedagogy in two-week seminar sessions to gatherings of some two dozen English and drama teachers from around the country.
The library, a collection-based educational and research institution, has first folios and quartos of Shakespeare’s works (it’s the only library in the world with the first two quartos of Hamlet), and “we get an international faculty to teach these critical studies courses,” he says.
Simultaneously, he is dean of the faculty and chairman of the department of liberal arts and sciences at the Los Angeles campus of the New York Film Academy.
“The Academy has campuses in such diverse locations as Burbank, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing,” he notes, “and it will soon be moving its campus in New York from Union Square to Battery Park.”
Fantasia also has taught at Juilliard. And in 2007 he served briefly as president of Deep Springs College, a tiny all-male school on a 4500-acre cattle ranch in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Mammoth.
In 2005 Fantasia imported The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, a play that had opened at the Gate Theatre in London the previous year. He staged it at the Met Theatre in LA, introducing playwright Robin Soans’ concept that when people break bread together they can somehow engage in reasonable dialogue. Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to holler when your mouth is full.
Interspersed with personal tales of terrorism and war in the Middle East, the players actually cooked dishes onstage from Arab and Israeli recipes.
When I saw the production at the Met, I was disappointed that the players didn’t serve the food they cooked to the members of the audience. “Oh, we couldn’t do that,” Fantasia demurs in horror. “We threw it all away; it was only partially cooked. We would have given the whole audience salmonella if we’d served it!”
In his own acting career, Fantasia is proud of his role in Peter Turrini’s one-man drama Enough, in which an Austrian journalist decides to blow his brains out. “I had to count back from 1000 in the course of the play and then shoot myself in the head with a .38 Smith and Wesson,” he says.
“For the sake of authenticity, we used a real gun, and so they had to rig up a fake ear and other appurtenances that I could actually shoot into without deafening — or killing — myself. Meanwhile we’d kept the audience on tenterhooks wondering what I was going to do with the gun.”
In another dramatic outing with an Austrian playwright, he translated and directed the American premiere of Felix Mitterer’s Siberia, a one-person play that explored what society does to the elderly, at the Complex in Hollywood in 1993. “Warehousing the elderly intensifies their rate of decline,” Fantasia notes.
Fantasia, who studied double bass with Leslie Martin of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has starred around the world in Patrick Suskind’s award-winning one-man play Double Bass. (As an undergraduate student and musician at Georgetown University in 1967, he founded and became the conductor of the Georgetown University Symphony Orchestra. In 2002 it was renamed the Capital City Symphony.)
“Double Bass is about a man with a love-hate relationship with his instrument,” Fantasia continues, “and makes a statement about the emotional range of the double bass.” In 2010 Goethe Institut-Los Angeles presented the play as part of LA Opera’s Ring Cycle events — the play is set in a bassist’s apartment just before a performance of Das Rheingold.
As an author, Fantasia wrote Instant Shakespeare, based on how he taught Shakespeare at the Globe in London and his own essays from 30 years of talks on the subject.
“There’s a lot of nonsense and mythology about acting and directing Shakespeare,” he says. “It’s taught with all the baggage attached. Language is a function of impulse and the language is English, after all. If you burn your hand on a hot stove, you don’t say ‘ouch’ first and then act it out. The reaction and the language follow the event.”
Another of his books is Tragedy in the Age of Oprah, which compares classical tragedy with tales in today’s popular culture, and how you come to them as a director and as the audience. For his examples he discusses five plays: Medea, King Lear, Phaedra, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
“Each is about obsession and guilt,” he explains, ”but the contemporary playwrights want to make the plays relevant, to water them down, to eliminate responsibility, and turn the characters into victims.
“They want to reconfigure the classics. Medea, for example, refuses to claim victim status, but Andrea Yates, who also murdered her children, becomes a victim.
“The contemporary audience would say ‘Take a Prozac and get over it.’”
So why is this Shakespeare scholar doing a commedia dell’arte in Kings Road Park this summer?
“I don’t think Goldoni gets done enough,” he says. “There’s a lot of bad commedia being done, but Goldoni is more subtle. He’s like Chekhov — he loves his characters and he’s never mean-spirited. He has compassion for the people he’s creating.”
As for today’s actors, he says “they get used up, for a season, or look. It’s hard to say who might have a lengthy career. An actor needs depth and breadth, to be curious and well-read, with a wide range of cultural background. That will sustain a career — and it will sustain an individual. You need something else going on in your life.”
As for his own choice of actors he would like to work with, he says, “If it could be possible, I’d like to work with Liv Ullmann. That would be peachy. And with Brian Cox. He did King Lear 20 years ago, when he was a bit young for the part. I’d like him to do it again. That would be fun!”
Trouble in Chiozza, Kings Road Park, 1000 North Kings Road, West Hollywood. Opens July 6. Sat- Sun 4 pm. Through July 28. Free. www.classicaltheatrelab.org. 323-960-5691.
**All Trouble in Chiozza production photos by Garth Pillsbury.