Shakespeare to Beckett

Locally, the Actor’s Theatre stages more classics than anyone

Five women in street clothes at a rehearsal for the Actor’s Theatre production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.

Five women in street clothes at a rehearsal for the Actor’s Theatre production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.

Classic plays? Ed Claudio’s been doing them at the Actor’s Theatre for years. In fact, he’s probably done more of them than anyone else in Sacramento during the last 15 years.

William Shakespeare? Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and more. Anton Chekhov? Three Sisters and The Seagull. John Steinbeck? Of Mice and Men. Eugene O’Neill? The theater on Del Paso Boulevard opened several years ago with Long Day’s Journey into Night, all four hours, without cuts. Samuel Beckett? Claudio was the only guy in town who marked the 50th anniversary of Waiting for Godot by staging it.

Claudio does big-cast classics, too, like the recent production of William Saroyan’s Pulitzer-winning The Time of Your Life, which featured upwards of two dozen actors.

“The script is what really drives the Actor’s Theatre,” Claudio said last week. The theater also stages contemporary plays, such as its well-received productions of Hurlyburly and Bash, both of which offered dark takes on modern life, and new work, including several original plays by local writer and actor Anthony D’Juan.

“Forty percent of our work is classic material,” Claudio said—a definition that extends to early work by an American playwright like Edward Albee, who’s still writing.

This near-majority of classics is uncommon: B Street Theatre defines itself as a “new-works theater,” Music Circus does musicals, and Sacramento Theatre Company occasionally stages a classic.

Claudio traces the emphasis to the three years he spent under renowned and famously demanding acting teacher Stella Adler in New York, from 1972 to 1974. Claudio wasn’t exactly a kid at the time: “I’d gone to grad school and had 30 plays under my belt by the time I studied with her,” he said. “But she really made me a good actor. She stripped me bare, started me all over again. She insisted that the most important thing about acting was to bring a sense of size to the theater. And you have to work with great texts to have size. That’s what I try to do with my own work and give to other actors, as well.”

Claudio’s route to Sacramento was circuitous. He’d grown up in New York and studied with Adler, but then he embarked on a 12-year career as an art dealer. “I worked with some high-level artists—traveled all over the world. But I was drinking and unhappy and miserable.”

Then Claudio hit “a lollapalooza of a midlife crisis.” Within 18 months, his mother died, he suffered a nearly fatal heart attack, he lost his art business, and his wife “took the kids and ran away to Wyoming.”

Claudio took a year to assess his direction. “The doctor said, ‘I don’t know if you should get back into the fast lane.’ I said, ‘I’m going to go back into the theater.’ The doctor almost freaked out over that one.”

So, Claudio hooked up with Tim Busfield, who was sizing up Sacramento as the site for a theater for children in the mid-1980s. Busfield induced Claudio to come here as a founding member of the Fantasy Theatre. “I asked Tim, ‘What am I going to do in a kids theater?’ ‘Play the straight man,’ he said. But I ended up playing all the women.”

When Busfield launched the B Street Theatre in the early 1990s, the first production was Mass Appeal, with Claudio playing opposite Busfield. Claudio, who augments his income by working as a voice-over man in local media, also started the Actor’s Workshop, where he works with an average of 50 students, ranging from kids to adults. He calls on workshop members to appear in Actor’s Theatre shows. “The terms ‘school’ or ‘student’ are pejorative,” Claudio said. “Even the best professional actors need to train. That’s why we call it a workshop, a place for people to come and work.”

By Claudio’s estimate, the Actor’s Theatre and Actor’s Workshop have staged 70 full-length plays and another 250 one-acts in 14 seasons. “The group survives because of volunteer effort by its members, covering everything from set construction to costumes and more,” Claudio said. Claudio’s role can range from directing productions to generating the low-key publicity that accompanies each show or to cleaning up after performances.

The group’s next production, opening June 27, is Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty. The story involves five identically dressed bridesmaids trying to avoid an ostentatious reception that is starting downstairs.

In September, Claudio and his son Michael will stage another Beckett landmark, End Game. Come November, Claudio will go against the tide of upbeat holiday shows with Shakespeare’s slash-fest Titus Andronicus, which has elaborate treachery, lopped-off limbs, cannibalism, madness and more.