Smile, you’re on Candida camera

Aug 17

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Shavian romance: Julie Eccles is Candida Morell and Nick Gabriel is Eugene Marchbanks in the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. Below: Eccles’ Candida is caught between Gabriel as Marchbanks and Anthony Fusco as her husband, the Rev. James Morell. Photos by Kevin Berne

A beautiful night at the Bruns Amphitheater is made even more so by something marvelous on stage.

That would be George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, a sharp early play (1894) that is concise, funny and, in this incisive production directed by California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, surprisingly moving.

Moscone’s six actors inhabit the levels of Shaw’s play with dexterity. The broad, satirical comedy generates some hearty laughs as we delve into the emotional heart of London parsonage, home of the Rev. James Morell and his wife, Candida.

Shaw has everyone, from the main characters to the lively supporting crew of assistants and family members, tripping over their attitudes toward one another and the world at large. Some of the funniest exchanges involve Alexandra Henrikson as a stubborn secretary and Jarion Monroe as Candida’s profit-driven father (shades of Alfred P. Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion).

Morell (Anthony Fusco), a Christian Socialist pastor in the Church of England, is apparently a genius preacher, much in demand around town and never ever at a loss for words. He’s likeable but smug, especially on the subject of his domestic bliss.

He tells his assistant, the Rev. Lexy Mill (Liam Vincent): “Get married. Get married to a good woman; and then you’ll understand. That’s a foretaste of what will be best in the Kingdom of Heaven we are trying to establish on earth…We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it. Get a wife like my Candida; and you’ll always be in arrear with your repayment.”

Such happiness (and preachiness) cannot go unpunished, so Shaw brings trouble into the mix in the form of Eugene Marchbanks, an 18-year-old poet with a most curious nature. He’s terrified of the world and shrinks from it, yet he’s an acute, even aggressive observer with no tolerance for subterfuge or attitude.

At first, Marchbanks’ infatuation with the radiant Candida (Julie Eccles) is of the besotted puppy variety. But we quickly see that the young man means business, especially when he’s alone with the good reverend and the claws (attached to a powerful brain) come out.

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Marchbanks, played with intermittent fire and fear by the extraordinary Nick Gabriel, is completely fascinating, a simpering child one minute, a ferocious lover the next. And he’s so very frank. “That is what all poets do: they talk to themselves out loud; and the world overhears them. But it’s horribly lonely not to hear someone else talk sometimes.”

He longs to rescue Candida from her life of “sermons and scrubbing brushes,” as he puts it, but Candida needs no rescue. She presides over her modest but lovely home (cozy, cocoon-like set by Annie Smart) and is more in charge than anybody realizes.

Eccles, long one of the Bay Area’s most astute and consistently rewarding actors, is so incredibly alive in this meaty role. Candida’s default position is an “amused maternal indulgence,” as Shaw puts it, but this is a woman with enormous intellect and ability, a fact that becomes more apparent as Shaw concludes his three-act, two-intermission glimpse into the artifice and actual reward of marriage.

At only two hours, Candida is deceptively light and enjoyable, but in Moscone’s deft production, the stakes carry increasing emotional weight. The final act, which takes place in the romantic firelight (sharp lighting by York Kennedy), is a powerfully felt glimpse into how a marriage actually works – honest and harsh but resolute and, in the end, quite loving.

The trio of Eccles, Gabriel and Fusco works so perfectly, in such synchronicity by the final scenes that you don’t quite want these stories to end even though they must. Laughs and ideas spill over this delightful play, but what lingers from this Candida is the unquestionable honesty of passion.

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Take a look at scenes from Cal Shakes’ Candida:

FOR MORE INFORMATION
George Bernard Shaw’s Candida continues through Sept. 4 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel). Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

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