ZORRO Playwright James Rana Coming to East Lynne Theater Co.

Now that the world premier of "Zorro!" has opened and is enjoying ever-growing and receptive audiences of all ages, the adaptor of this famous swashbuckling tale, James Rana, had time to answer a few questions. This is the third world premiere in three years written by Rana, and produced by the Equity professional East Lynne Theater Company, with its artistic director, Gayle Stahlhuth, directing.

After auditioning for Stahlhuth for the company's 2011 season, Rana turned to Stahlhuth, and mentioned that he was writing a play based on the three mysteries written by Edgar Allan Poe, and would the company be interested in producing it. Stahlhuth read the first draft of his script, and put "The Poe Mysteries" into a summer time slot of the 2012 season. The newly formed Ocean Professional Theatre Company in Barnegat brought ELTC's production up to its Ocean County home a few weeks later in the fall.

Because of the success of "The Poe Mysteries," Stahlhuth asked him if he'd like to tackle "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Like the Poe stories, there is very little dialogue, which means the playwright must create it, while keeping to the tone and style of the original story. Also like Poe, the adaptation of the classic Washington Irving ghost story met with success and the production moved from Cape May to Ocean County.

While "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was on the boards in August, 2013, Stahlhuth asked Rana if he'd like to write a play about the famous - and first - masked avenger - Zorro. To Stahlhuth's surprise, he said, "I grew up with Zorro!"

By December, half of the first draft was written and Rana sent it to Stahlhuth, who made a few suggestions, including adding a thirteen-year-old boy to the cast. Johnston McCulley created Zorro as his hero in "The Curse of Capistrano" in 1919. In this, the original version, young Don Diego makes up his mind to begin to learn how to fight with a sword, so that ten years later, he can wear the mask and cape to fight tyranny in Old California in 1840.

As in "The Poe Mysteries" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," thirty different characters are portrayed by the seven-member cast in "Zorro!" Rana is also in the cast, playing Captain Ramon, who will do anything to capture Zorro. Since much skillful fencing is required, Rana, along with fellow actors Jed Peterson and Mark Lazar, took up foils and attended classes to brush up on their swordsmanship.

Rana's ancestry is far from the early Spanish settlement in Los Angeles, the setting for "Zorro!" Raised in Teaneck, NJ, Rana's father was born in India, and his mother is of German descent.

When asked how he became interested in theater, he answered, "Growing up, I lived in my imagination. I was a sick kid, so I watched movies on television late at night. Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin were huge influences. When I was older, my mother and aunt took me to plays in New York City, not far from our home."

The first show he saw was the Broadway revival of "Forty-Second Street" directed by Gower Champion, followed shortly after with the Off-Broadway production of "The Fantasticks."

At Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he received the Young Alumni Award, he majored in radio and television, while performing in plays. For graduate work, he majored in theater at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI.

"Between college and graduate school," Rana explained, "I landed my first Actors' Equity union job. It was "Comedy of Errors" at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA. I played three different characters and I had a ball. I love to play a variety of roles and multiple characters in one production."

Soon after leaving Trinity, James performed with the Classical Theatre of Harlem in "Marat/Sade," "Mother Courage," and "Macbeth."

"Classical Theatre of Harlem is known for its gritty productions," added Rana, "and their "Macbeth" was invited to perform in Germany at the Bonn Biennale Festival and at The Globe in Neuss. It was great. I had the good fortune to be in another production that traveled overseas: "Love's Labor's Lost," set in India, with The Shakespeare Festival in Washington D.C. We took it to Stratford, England at the request of the Royal Shakespeare Festival."

Rana's other theater credits include performing Off-Broadway with Ensemble Studio Theatre in "Serendib," and with Pan Asian Rep in the world premiere of "Rangoon" about an Indian family in the Midwest, and "Shogun Macbeth." Regionally, he's worked at Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Sheperdstown, WV, Actors Shakespeare Company in Jersey City, Princeton Rep, Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ, and with East Lynne Theater Company.

He was also the featured performer at ELTC's annual November fundraiser in 2011, greeting people on stilts as they entered the restaurant, and in 2013, as a co-host with Mark Edward Lang. ELTC has invited him back to help with the 2014 fundraiser at Aleathea's Restaurant. He taught juggling classes in Cape May and for Wildwood School District's After-School program, through ELTC.

When asked about how he became interested in these circus skills, he answered, "I studied juggling from someone who worked for Ringling Brothers, and then read books about clowning and magic," explained Rana. "I worked for Big Apple Circus, as a juggler and a stilt-walker, and have led the Coney Island Mermaid Parade for eight years as the stilt-walking "Uncle Sam." For my work with this parade, I was featured in the magazine 'Time Out New York.'"

His television work includes "Third Watch," a recurring role on "One Life to Live," and when Conan O'Brien was televised out of New York City, he was a regular sketch performer.

"One of the most interesting roles I've ever played was on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," he explained. "It was an episode called "Hate" about racial profiling. I played an Arabic journalist whose wife was murdered, and everyone assumed that my character had killed her. I hadn't. It was one of their most popular episodes with quite a few air dates."

Rana has performed in several films including a French-American short, "A Girl Like You With a Boy Like Me," where he plays a Sikh. It has been shown at festivals in Los Angeles, Tampa, and other cities throughout the country, as well as film festivals in Europe.

While performing, Rana began writing. His "So Long, Pluto" was produced by Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano, CA and "Harriett Benchley," at Shoestring Radio Theatre in San Francisco. "Cafeteria" won the Outstanding Radio Play Award at The Moondance International Film Festival, and his "Poe: A Celebration" was a nominee for Outstanding Radio Documentary at the same festival. "Poe: A Celebration" and another of his documentaries, "P.T. Barnum: Man of the People" both aired on National Public Radio. His "Has Been" was the Top Finalist in the Outstanding Television Pilot Script Category at the LA Comedy Short Film Festival and Los Angeles Screenplay Competition.

"Zorro!" runs every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. through August 30, at The First Presbyterian Church, 500 Hughes Street, Cape May, where ELTC is in residence. Tickets are $30 for general admission; $25 for seniors; and $15 for full-time students. To encourage whole families to attend, anyone age 12 and under is free. To make a reservation, call ELTC at 609-884-5898, or go online to www.eastlynnetheater.org.

Photo credit: Gayle Stahlhuth

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