Cal Shakes ends season with a moody Hamlet

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Julie Eccles is Queen Gertrude and Leroy McClain is the title character in Hamlet, the California Shakespeare Theater’s final show of the 2012 season. Below: McClain’s Hamlet meets the remains of poor Yorrick in the graveyard. Photos by Kevin Berne

On exactly the kind of temperate night for which they invented outdoor theater, California Shakespeare Theater opened the final show of the summer season. Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy (best known for her direction of Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in spring of last year) clocks in at about 3 hours and 10 minutes, and there are some glorious things in it. But on the whole, this Hamlet left me curiously unmoved.

But first here’s what’s good. Leroy McClain as Hamlet delivers a fascinating performance, pouring his heart and mind into the torrent of words that continuously pours out of the moody Dane’s mouth. You don’t have much of a Hamlet if you’re not riveted by the title character, and McClain certainly puts on a good show, especially when he’s affecting madness to upset the court. Director Tommy does some interesting things with the text, the most intriguing of which involves the famous “To be or not to be” speech, which Hamlet now delivers to Ophelia (Zainab Jah) as he clutches her in his arms. Given Ophelia’s fate in the second half of the play, having her hear this speech is a bold choice.

McClain is a nimble actor with charisma to spare, all of which he needs for a marathon like this. He (and the production) really springs to life with the arrival of the Players (Danny Scheie, Nichoals Pelczar and Mia Tagano). In addition to being a showcase moment for the comic heights and dramatic depths of Scheie, the Player scenes crackled with energy, perhaps because they were so overtly theatrical, when the production as a whole seems somehow strangely untheatrical.

But more of that in a minute.

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The other scene that pulsed with life and passion was the bedroom scene between McClain’s Hamlet and Julie Eccles as his mother, Queen Gertrude. The emotional honesty and intensity of this confrontation, simply played out on and around the queen’s bed, told the story of a disintegrating family better than any other in the production.

Dan Hiatt as a pompous but likeable Polonius wrings laughs and poignancy (except when he has to join the ghost parade with a bloody gut), and because it’s always good to see Hiatt do anything, it’s nice to have him back toward the end as an unsentimental gravedigger.

I liked that the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played by Adrian Roberts, who also plays newly crowned King Claudius) was turned into a jittery zombie with gore peeling off his face, but I found Jake Rodriguez’s eerie sound design much scarier than the ghost himself.

So with all these strong performances, why did this Hamlet only come alive in fits and starts for me? I think it has mainly to do with the concept behind the production – or maybe lack of a clear concept. Clint Ramos’ set is like a post-apocalyptic Holiday Inn, a dreary cement bunker and an empty swimming pool littered with junk ranging from chairs, tattered pink lawn flamingoes, thrift store lamps, stacks of books, children’s toys and the kind of heavy-duty lights you see on construction sites. But then Ramos’ costumes are slick and stylish, beautifully tailored modern gowns and suits. I just plain didn’t get it and never felt the production did anything to clarify the characters, their stories or their landscape, emotional or otherwise.

For this reason, I would say that to enjoy this Hamlet you should be fairly well versed in Hamlet before you get to the theater. It’s pretty apparent something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but just what that something is remains more cloudy than clear.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet continues through Oct. 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Othello: not a fan but a grudging admirer

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Craig Marker (left) is Iago and Aldo Billingslea is Othello in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. Below: Billingslea with Mairin Lee as Desdemona. Photos by David Allen.

When faced with the prospect of seeing another production of Othello, I usually gird my loins, wipe my nose with a strawberry-embroidered hanky and settle in for a show I know I’m not going to like much. As a theater critic, I suppose I’m not supposed to have a bias for or against certain plays, but that’s really nonsensical when you think about it, especially plays you’ve seen over and over and over again. I’ve been doing the theatrical criticism thing for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen Desdemona choked (and choked and choked again) a number of times, in good productions and bad. And I’ve never really been moved by the play. Certain performances made an impact, but more on an intellectual than emotional level.

Perhaps I should have skipped the latest Othello at Marin Theatre Company, but the prospect of seeing two actors I admire greatly, Aldo Billingslea and Craig Marker as Othello and Iago respectively, was too much to resist. I have to say I’m glad I saw the production because these two formidable local talents do not disappoint. Watching Billingslea transform from noble warrior to blushing groom to murderous, jealousy-enraged monster is captivating. And Marker’s boyish earnestness somehow makes Iago even more coldhearted than usual. Even from behind a scruffy beard, Marker can’t escape a look of innocence that contrasts sharply with the evil spewing from his lips.

Billingslea and Marker perform a beautifully calibrated duet of provocation and victimization that erupts into a finale can’t help but satisfy when Othello realizes what a tool he’s been and Iago is exposed for the inveterate villain he really is.

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What gets me about Othello is that until that final section when all the plot machinations start to take hold and the bodies start to drop, I really couldn’t care less about any of it. The motivations, the exposition, the supposed justifications for the coming blood bath – it’s all just so much rumbling to me, and none of it really adds to the final act, which would still have a visceral impact without any of it.

So while I’m slogging through the first two-plus hours of the nearly three-hour MTC production directed by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, I have time to notice the set by J.B. Wilson. It’s two towers of a battlement connected by a wooden walkway with half of a big stone sphere visible between the two towers. The more I looked at the set, the more I realized what it reminded me of: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the sphere is like that giant boulder that nearly steamrollers over Indy in the opening sequence. And the lighting by Kurt Landisman is distinctive as well – very dark and shadowy like Shakespeare noir…or a really moody new restaurant in a hip Cypress neighborhood.

Fight director Dave Maier gets some vigorous sword fighting out of the cast, who hold swords in one hand and mini-shields in the other, so there’s lots of satisfying clanging going on. Speaking of the cast, the supporting players who impressed me most were Liz Sklar as Aemilia, Desdemona’s lady in waiting. Aemilia is such an impressive woman – so powerful, loyal and forthright. You have to wonder what she’s doing with a slime bag like Iago. Anyway, also good in the supporting cast are Nicholas Pelczar as Rodorigo and an underused Dan Hiatt as Desdemona’s pissed-off father. The other players were uneven and often seemed out of their depth with the Shakespearean language.

In spite of all the good things, this is still Othello, a play that tests my patience. In the end, this Othello left me wanting, as so many other productions have, wanting ever so much (you should pardon the expression) Moor.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Shakespeare’s Othello continues through April 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

TheatreWorks’ Pitmen paints poignant arts ed picture

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The titular painters in TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters are (from left) James Carpenter, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Jones, Jackson Davis (sitting) and Dan Hiatt as they respond to seeing the work of Vincent VanGogh for the first time. Photo by Tracy Martin


Seeing some of the Bay Area’s best actors collected on one stage is a pleasure in and of itself. But Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters has other things to recommend it like its unapologetic championing of the arts as an essential part of being a fully formed human being.

Bringing this true story to life are James Carpenter, Dan Hiatt, Jackson Davis, Nicholas Pelczar and, in perhaps the most revealing performance, Patrick Jones. They’re all wonderful actors, and to see them interacting and playing off of one another is worth the ticket price alone.

I reviewed the production for the Palo Alto Weekly. You can read the review by clicking here.

Here’s the gist of the review:

To Hall’s credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There’s no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there’s still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in “The Pitmen Painters” is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Cal Shakes’ Shrew anything but tame

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Kissed and cursed: Erica Sullivan is Katherine and Slate Holmgren is Petruchio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Taming of the Shrew. Below: The excellent supporting cast includes (from left) Liam Vincent, Dan Clegg, Danny Scheie and Nicholas Pelczar as suitors to the lovely Bianca. Photos by Kevin Berne.Photos by Kevin Berne

If you think you’ve seen The Taming of the Shrew, you might want to think again. Director Shana Cooper’s production – the season-closer for the California Shakespeare Theater – is fresh, feisty and full of insight. Many a Shrew can make you cringe, but very few, like this one, can actually make you lose yourself in the comedy, the provocation and the genuine emotion underneath it all.

Cooper brings a sense of contemporary flash and fun to the production, from the bright yellow accents in Scott Dougan’s double-decker set (backed by a colorful billboard-like ad for a product called “Tame”) to the zippy song mash-ups in the sound design by Jake Rodriguez. The music is especially fun. You can hear strains of Madonna’s “Material Girl” followed by a flash of the “Wonder Woman” theme song one minute and revel in almost an entire number (“Tom, Dick or Harry”) from Kiss Me Kate, the next. In this tale of love that is purchased, battled over and maybe even deeply felt, the song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” takes on intriguing textures, both comic and dramatic. Even the lighting by York Kennedy has a crystal-clear energy all its own.

The real miracle of Cooper’s production is that there are interesting characters in it other than feral lovers Kate (Erica Sullivan) and Petruchio (Slate Holmgren). Credit this to successful direction and a superb cast full of some of the Bay Area’s most versatile comedians. Of particular note are the suitors to Kate’s beauty queen little sister, Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson): the tailor Gremio (Danny Scheie), dapper dan Hortensio (Liam Vincent) and intellectual Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar). When the action shifts away from the central taming story, it doesn’t feel like we’re just biding time until we get back. Even the servants – Dan Clegg as Tranio, Dan Hiatt as Grumio, Joan Mankin in a trio of nicely etched roles – feel richer than usual. Rod Gnapp in the thankless role of Kate and Bianca’s father, even emerges more fully fleshed out than usual.

Scheie, as usual, gets away with comic murder. Even the way he says the name of his beloved, Bee-ANK-uh, gets a laugh to say nothing of what he does with the phrase “turkey cushions.” Pelczar, Clegg and Theo Black as Biondello have an inspired bit of shtick in the first act involving the exchange of hats. The Marx Brothers would be proud. Almost as good is the timing of Clegg and Pelczar exchanging clothes, undressed to their matching skivvies for the line beginning, “In brief…”

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There are so many wonderful details in this production that its 2 1/2 hours zip by. When Petruchio is late for his wedding, a description of his wild attire precedes his arrival, building up certain expectations that costumer Katherine O’Neill more than meets when he actually steps on stage. The outfit should be savored as a surprise, but let’s just say that amid the Saran Wrap there’s a starring role for Holmgren’s left butt cheek. Hilarious.

There is particular satisfaction in the richness of the Kate and Petruchio scenes. Their first scene together, which received a well-earned round of applause at Saturday’s autumnally temperate opening-night performance, is a prolonged seduction as much as it is an intense fight. Cooper, with the help of movement coach Erika Chong Shuch and fight director Dave Maier, turns it into a memorably acrobatic dance that infuses every line of dialogue with meaning. And it’s sexy as hell, thanks to Sullivan and Holmgren’s expert execution.

The trajectory of Kate and Petruchio’s love story – and that’s really what it is here – is clear from the first time they see each other, and each, almost in spite of themselves, likes what they see. Sullivan and Holmgren have red-hot chemistry from the very first, and they’re so good together you really do want them together. Kate’s got emotional troubles and Petruchio’s actually terrified by her, a state incompatible with his alpha-male bravado. But they both dive in, each a little crazed and carried away until they reach an understanding about how deeply they are willing to invest in their union and in each other. The taming here is mutual, and in the end it isn’t taming so much as maturing. Theirs will not be a shallow marriage of arrangement, though that’s how it begins. Unlike Bianca’s meet-cute relationship with her groom, Kate and Petruchio will likely still love on another tomorrow.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed director Shana Cooper and Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s The Taming of the Shrew continues through Oct. 16 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Taking Steps toward a lively evening

EXTENDED THROUGH FEB. 20!
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The stellar cast of TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps comprises (from left) Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. Below: Dines and Phillips take a step closer to romance. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Whatever will we do when the British have thoroughly unstuffed themselves? That stiff-upper-lip stuff and famous British reserve have long been targets for comedy – especially by the British themselves.

We love to lampoon the stalwart Brit character – the rigid veneer that provided such fodder for Kneehigh Theatre Company’s brilliant adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which we saw here at American Conservatory Theater. British frigidity was practically its own character in that show, which threw two placid lovers – a doctor and a housewife – into an ocean of romantic emotion and took incredible glee in the destruction of their noble facades.

I couldn’t help thinking about Brief Encounter during The 39 Steps, the rollicking stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

Both Coward and Hitchcock (working on an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel) enjoy throwing prim-and-proper Brits into tumultuous events and watching their reserve knock against passion and danger.

Stage adaptor Patrick Barlow goes Hitchcock one better. He turns the tumult into a farcical fracas that allows four adept actors to play 140 different characters.

A hit on London’s West End in 2006, the play became Broadway’s longest-running comedy two years later. The touring production played San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in December of 2009, and now Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has cast it with a quartet of local favorites.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening of mystery mayhem and slapstick espionage. Kelley has cast an irresistible quartet of actors to create the whirlwind, and the result is two hours of constant laughs.

39 Steps 2Mark Anderson Phillips is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Bored, he craves something mindless and trivial, so he goes to the theater. Naturally. There he meets a classic femme fatale, a German named Annabella Schmidt played by Rebecca Dines with an accent think as strudel.

When Annabella comes home with Richard and ends up with a knife in her back, the adventure begins. In true Hitchcock style, Richard becomes an innocent man on the run, and his journey takes him to Scotland, where invaluable comedians Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown chew the accent as if it were haggis-flavored taffy.

Joe Ragey’s set creates a pretty but second-rate theater complete with elevated box seats on the sides, and the actors seem to be playing the theater’s company actors. Phillips is the vain leading man (the narration keeps emphasizing how handsome Richard is, what with his wavy brown hair and pencil moustache) and Dines is the beleaguered leading lady. Hiatt and Cassidy are the hammy scene-stealers who can’t help playing the show as if it were their own vaudevillian showcase.

The costumes by B. Modern add fuel to the comic fire, especially when Brown does drag. His buxom Scottish hotelier is hilarious, while Hiatt’s villainous Professor sports an impressive two-tone pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Josie and the Pussycats.

Act 2 of The 39 Steps loses some steam, especially in a long hotel room sequence, but most of the show is filled with deft physical comedy and cute allusions to other Hitchcock films (the Psycho reference is particularly funny).

What’s especially rewarding about a show like this is how spectacularly theatrical it is. With cargo trunks, ladders and a lot of stage smoke, four skilled actors create a world that sucks you in despite the inanity of it all. You’re laughing at the farce of it all, but the story exerts a certain pull because the characters are distinct, the locations are effectively evoked and you’re having a grand time enjoying it on a number of levels.

The 39 Steps isn’t exactly a stairway to paradise, but it’s definitely more than three dozen steps in the right direction.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$79. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

Marvelous Much Ado closes Cal Shakes season

Andy Murray (right) as Benedick re-thinks his bachelor ways, much to the amazement of (from left) Nicholas Pelczar, Dan Hiatt and Nick Childress in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Kevin Berne. Below: Danny Scheie as Dogberry. Photo by Jay Yamada

Much Ado About Nothing can be one of Shakespeare’s trickier romantic comedies. It’s full of sparring lovers, great lines and thoroughly entertaining comic bits. But it also contains some harsh drama, faked death and edgy mischief making. Capturing just the right tone can help ease the audience through all those shifts, and that’s what eludes so many directors of the play.

Thankfully, California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone finds fresh ways to meld all of Shakespeare’s fragments into a seamless and captivating whole. The darker hues seem perfectly comfortable alongside the bright comedy, and the romance bursts with charm and appeal. If you’re looking for a late-summer fling, head straight for the beautiful Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

There’s a warm autumnal hue surrounding Moscone’s production. Russell H. Champa’s lights lend a burnished glow to the Italian escapades on stage, and Daniel Ostling’s set, with its copper piping and airy construction, is alive with greenery, both real (the potted flowers and landscaping are courtesy of Will’s Weeders, the Bruns’ resident gardeners) and artificial. At the center of the stage is shimmering, manmade red-leafed tree, whose leaves occasionally flutter to the ground.

Even the cello music in Andre Pluess’ sound design is festive with a tinge of melancholy, and that’s just perfect.

All these design elements create a world in which Beatrice, a woman who thinks love has passed her by, can turn her merry war of words with Benedick into a later-life love story. It’s a world where the nasty malcontent Don John can play a brutal trick on innocent people. And it’s a world where a word-mangling sheriff can nearly walk away with the play.

The villainous Don John and Dogberry, the master of malapropisms, are played by a single actor, Danny Scheie, and his virtuoso performances ignite sparks in the play where there are rarely sparks.

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Don John is so often played as simply a means to a plot-twisting end, but Scheie takes such joy in the man’s misanthropy and relishes each line so much that he becomes an irresistible baddie. It’s almost a shame that Don John disappears in the play’s second half, but that absence affords Scheie the opportunity to sink his teeth into Dogberry, a character frequently defined by his hilarious inability to use words correctly.

Scheie doesn’t go that route. Almost surprisingly, he lets the verbal comedy become secondary to the character’s personality. In Scheie’s expert hands, Dogberry is not a bumbler. He’s a professional working at the top of his game – or so he thinks. There’s a certain arrogance in the man that comes from the pride he takes in his work as well as an unmistakable passion to be the best constable imaginable.

The fact that we see how inept this man is heightens and deepens the comedy. It’s a masterful creation, and Scheie is a wonder.

In any Much Ado we expect Beatrice and Benedick to hurl insults at one another with comic aplomb. Dominique Lozano and Andy Murray do that and a whole lot more. Lozano shows us a strong, vivacious woman who is boldly attempting to buck the notion of a spinster, while Murray gives us a man’s man who is aching to find a soulmate. Both are utterly charming actors, so it’s no surprise they spend so much time beguiling the audience – especially Murray in his asides. At one point, his exuberance leads him to kiss an audience member.

I saw Murray play Benedick at Lake Tahoe’s Sand Harbor about 14 years ago, and though he was good then, he’s great now. He finds nuance in each line, and the character feels lived in.

This Much Ado is nearly three hours but feels much shorter. That’s a testament to Moscone’s beautifully calibrated production and the excellent work of the ensemble, which also includes a fiery Andrew Hurteau as Friar Francis, Dan Hiatt as Leonato, Emily Kitchens as Hero and Nick Childress as Claudio.

It’s a spectacularly lovely production (the gorgeous late-summer weather on opening night sure didn’t hurt) and a sumptuous end to another great Cal Shakes season.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing continues through Oct. 15 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $34-$70. Call 510 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Entering heavenly Pastures

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The ensemble of Cal Shakes and Word for Word’s The Pastures of Heaven, an adaptation of the John Steinbeck book by Octavio Solis. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

Spectacular things are happening at the Bruns Amphitheater – on stage and off.

At long last, California Shakespeare Theater is getting a performance venue worthy of its status as one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater companies. Improvements to the Bruns include a new box office, new landscaping and, most importantly, a beautiful new 7,850-square-foot building to house its food operations and some spectacular bathrooms (if you ever used the bathrooms in the old endlessly “temporary” facility, you’ll appreciate just how spectacular these new facilities really are).

The improvements aren’t quite done yet, but they’re already upping the ante on the Cal Shakes experience – and just in time for Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone’s 10-year anniversary with the company.

So many things to celebrate ̶ not the least of which is the world-premiere production on the Bruns stage.

There’s a palpable sense of the new at Cal Shakes, and that extends to Octavio Solis’ adaptation of the 1932 John Steinbeck novel The Pastures of Heaven, which is the first world premiere to take place at the Bruns. In translating this book for the stage, Cal Shakes turned to the one of the nation’s greatest literary and theatrical resources, which just happens to be across the bay in San Francisco: Word for Word Performing Arts Company. There’s no better company when it comes to adapting fiction for the stage.

But in keeping with the whole idea of making things new, Word for Word’s collaboration with Cal Shakes involves, for the first time, a playwright. Usually, the wizards at Word for Word adapt short works of fiction for the stage without changing a word of the author’s original text. That’s why they’re every writer’s favorite theater company. This time out, they’re working with a playwright, and it’s inevitable that the playwright will place his own literary and theatrical stamp on Steinbeck’s work.

So you end up with an extraordinary quartet of collaborators: Cal Shakes, Word for Word, celebrated San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis and a silent but very present John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck’s Heaven, published when the author was only 30, is a novel told in 10 thematically linked short stories (with a prologue and epilogue), and Solis’ adaptation more or less follows the structure of the book with some dramatic rearrangement. The result is a play that feels more like a complete novel than the actual novel does. A deeply human story of dreams and destiny, of flaws, foibles and failure, Pastures of Heaven, both on the page and on the stage, is a compelling and beautiful story shot through with the sadness of fantasy clashing with reality.

Directed with the emotional acuity and elegance we’ve come to expect from Moscone, these Pastures are rich with nearly three hours’ worth of fascinating stories and characters enlivened by a marvelous cast of blended Word for Word company members, Cal Shakes company members and newcomers.
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Set in a picturesque valley outside of Salinas, Las Pasturas del Cielo (“pastures of heaven”) was settled by a disenchanted 49er fleeing gold greed seeking an ideal home for many future generations, and though his vast family never quite materialized (he and his wife had only one son, and that son only had one son), the area grew into a thriving little farming community.

And where there’s community there’s drama, as we find out in Steinbeck’s pithy portraits of the valley’s inhabitants. There are so many vivid moments in this production that it’s impossible to catalogue them without simply reprinting Solis’ script. But some of the stand-outs include Rod Gnapp (seen at right with Charles Shaw Robinson) as Shark Wicks, a financial whiz with a big secret whose world collapses just as his wife’s world (so insightfully illuminated by Joanne Winter) expands into bold new emotional places. It’s also impossible to forget Amy Kossow’s portrayal of Hilda Van Deventer, a terrifying child whose mother (the invaluable Julie Eccles) has an unfortunate penchant for grief and endurance.

Madness and mental challenges play a surprisingly large role in the stories Steinbeck chooses to tell. Tobie Windham plays Tularecito, a somewhat deformed young man whose mental grasp of the world is tenuous but whose artistic talent is undeniable. The young man is forced to go to school, but his teacher (an animated Emily Kitchens) reveals an unbridled enthusiasm for the boy’s artwork and his grasp of the more supernatural elements of valley nights.
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Amid much serious subjects that includes curses, ghosts, religious fervor, death by snakebites, filicide, financial ruin, and the depression of dashed dreams, the play takes a break for a chapter told completely in song. With music by Obadiah Eaves and musical direction by Julie Wolf, actors Winter and Catherine Castellanos (seen at right) play the Lopez sisters, who fail at farming and at running a diner. They finally find success in a centuries-old profession, and they do it singing and dancing (movement by Erika Chong Shuch) all the way.

Aside from wonderful guitar playing at the top of Act 2 by Richard Theiriot, there are no more musical interludes, alas. But we continue to delve into the stories of people – among them are those played by Dan Hiatt, Andy Murray and Charles Shaw Robinson – coming to California with a dream and inevitably having to reconfigure their lives when too much reality interferes.

This is an ambitious, abundantly rewarding new work that combines delicious theatricality (just watch the way 11 actors populate an entire valley and the way Annie Smart’s amazingly precise dollhouse set gives them room to do just that) with a literary pedigree that fuses Steinbeck’s muscular yet poetic prose with Solis’ lyrical, humor-tinged script.

The Pastures of Heaven tills fertile ground. Notions of destiny and legacy weigh heavily in these stories, but so do undercurrents of hope, community and determination. And this powerhouse collaboration yields a new dramatic work that should grow into a long, distinguished life on stage.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cal Shakes/Word for Word’s The Pastures of Heaven continues through June 27 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $34 to $70. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

A happy ending for Happy Days

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Patty Gallagher is a gun-toting Winnie in the Cal Shakes production of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. Photo by Kevin Berne

In the world of live theater, you never know from where the drama will come.

For California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone and his production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, there was already a certain amount of drama in the choice of the play – the first time Moscone had tackled Beckett and the first time Beckett would be performed in all the outdoor glory of the Bruns Amphitheater.

As a way to counteract the risk of doing an essentially one person play (one person who, by the way, is stuck in a mound of muck for the entire play), Moscone cast Oscar-nominee Marsha Mason, one of those comforting and familiar actors we’ve watched, admired and enjoyed for years. Add a little celebrity pizzazz to a play potential patrons might not know much about and you have a theatrical event.

But oh, the drama. Deep into the rehearsal period, Mason had to exit the production for, as the theater company put it, “personal reasons.” Suddenly the event is now back to the red zone of risk.

In steps Patty Gallagher, an associate professor of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz. Where patrons might have said, “Marsha Mason, how wonderful,” they now say, “Patty who?”

Well Patty Gallagher is a hero for stepping into a difficult role in a difficult play (a role she’d done before and a play she teaches) and even more of a hero for a performance that is full of life and a kind of joy you don’t expect in a Beckett musing on mortality. The valiant effort is applause-worthy enough. But what she does with the role goes beyond heroic. She’s a revelation.

Moscone and his company embraced the drama in a way that actually enhances the experience of watching the play. More specifically, Moscone began blogging about directing the show, about Mason’s departure and about working with Gallagher and her co-star, Dan Hiatt, who appears intermittently but is essential to the power of the play. In a frank and open way, Moscone exposes the stress of the experience but also the support he received and the depth he was able to reach with Gallagher and Hiatt. Here’s a sample of Moscone writing on Aug. 3 in an entry titled “I’m nervous but I’m in love”:

“Have frankly been quite exhausted, physically that is, not mentally or spiritually, from this week’s work. But I have to say, I am in a place I thought I’d never be. I cherish this project in a way that surpasses any other piece I have worked on in my life. Partly it’s the events of the week that make me feel more connected to this piece than perhaps to other plays that haven’t seen themselves through a real crisis-turned-opportunity. And a great part is this play. Patty (Gallagher) makes me love this work and have a deep emotional connection to Beckett, something I thought would never happen.”

Knowing what went on behind the scenes adds an extra layer of excitement to the play, and that layer underscores what Beckett already seems to be driving at: amid all the garbage, mud, dirt and pain of life, we can choose to view all of it with gratitude, through our connection to others and with the simple joy of being alive. That’s what I took away from Gallagher’s ebullient Winnie, a formally dressed woman stuck up to her waist in a dirt mound (Todd Rosenthal’s set pours right off the Bruns stage and into the audience).

Winnie wakes in the morning at the sound of a piercing bell, performs the routine that sustains her, attempts to chat with her husband, Willie, who lives in another part of the dirt mound, and tries valiantly to find things to be cheerful about, whether it’s memories, a mumbled word from Wilie or the pleasure of language itself. She is quite literally being buried alive (in Act 2 she’s buried up to her neck) but she is more alive than many of the people we know.

I have often found Beckett intimidating – the gnawing sense of not getting it tends to destroy my ability to enjoy the play. But several Beckett productions stick in my mind as having helped me relax enough to really listen and experience Beckett – one was Cutting Ball Theatre’s Krapp’s Last Tape earlier this year. The other was years and years ago, in a small theater at the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Hiatt co-starred as Lucky in Waiting for Godot, and he was brilliant. Dennis Moyer directed the production for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred Joe Bellan and John Robb.

That hugely enjoyable production was the first time I realized that Beckett could be equal parts brilliance and boredom, entertainment and brain-stretching philosophy. That’s what Happy Days is, and it also feels like therapy for our world at this particular moment in history. May we all be as lucky or as resilient, as resourceful or as valiant as Winnie and, like her, go down singing.

Backstage drama, onstage drama – it’s all the same thing when it feeds the audience and gives us more to muse upon. There’s a happy ending for this production of Happy Days, but the ending of the play itself is a miraculous blend of the shattering, the beautiful and the inspirational. There’s no such thing as happiness as a destination – only moments, here and gone.

And can I add, one great moment of happiness in this production came from the intermission music mix. While the audience milled about the Bruns, an instrumental version of the theme song from the TV show “Happy Days” played, and I could think of nothing more appropriate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cal Shakes’ Happy Days continues through Sept. 6 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Call 510 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Theater review: `Romeo and Juliet’

Opened May 30, 2009 at the Bruns Amphitheater

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Alex Morf and Sarah Nealis are the star-crossed young lovers in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Romeo and Juliet. Photos by Kevin Berne

Youthful passion, ancient hate heat up Cal Shakes’ `R&J’
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An explosion of color, violence and surprising beauty, the giant splash of graffiti that dominates the cement-heavy set of California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Romeo and Juliet pretty much says it all.

Designer Neil Patel doesn’t bother with too many scenic flourishes. Two important pieces of furniture – a detailed sculpture of virgin and child and a heavy wooden bed – are on stage at all times, and except for a formal door, the only other opening in the imposing walls is a window platform just perfect for balcony romancing.

The colorful graffiti design, like something that Romeo and his compatriots might wear on a stylish T-shirt, is a youthful burst of energy amid the austerity and dark violence of Verona.

It’s a fitting stage for director Jonathan Moscone’s highly charged, deeply felt production, which opens Cal Shakes’ 35th anniversary season.

The first half of the show, as full of bloody battles as it is heart-melting courtship, is especially riveting. Dave Maier’s fight choreography (which makes great use of violently flung chairs) conveys the tension and drama of the age-old battle between the Capulets and Montagues, while MaryBeth Cavanaugh’s dance choreography – to the pop and dance tunes of Andre Pluess’ sound design – makes the Capulet’s masked ball a fizzy backdrop for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love at first sight.

What makes this production truly connect is Moscone’s choice to make Romeo and Juliet believable teenagers. From the first moments of the show, when we see young Montagues and Capulets with skateboards, iPods and cell phones (in everyday clothes by costumer Raquel M. Barreto), it’s clear that this is a fresh, youthful take on the story. When we meet Romeo (Alex Morf), he’s lovelorn and sappy, sick with love for a girl who has rebuffed him. He lays it on pretty thick, which is why it’s so fun to see his Vespa-driving compatriots Benvolio (Thomas Azar) and Mercutio (Jud Williford) having so much fun at his expense.

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Our first glimpse of Juliet (Sarah Nealis) has her staring out the window (awash in the pink light of Russell H. Champa’s expert design), lost in her iPod.

The two meet and fall in love as teenagers. From the famous balcony scene – as giddily romantic and as deadly serious as I’ve seen – up to the tragic chaos that ends their lives, these young people mature before our eyes, especially Juliet, whose resolve and emotional depth are beautifully conveyed by Nealis.

Catherine Castellanos as Juliet’s nurse nearly steals the show. From her fond, gushing remembrance of nursing Juliet as a baby to her soul-deep aching for her young mistress’ troubles, this nurse is as funny as she is moving. Wiliford’s fiery Mercutio leaves an equally strong impression. He and Castellanos have a memorable interaction, with Mercutio relentlessly teasing the nurse (he even bids adieu to her with a serenade of Styx’s “Lady”), but his best work is alongside his comrades.

The second half of the play, with all its weeping and wailing, can’t match the highs of the first half, obviously. Dan Hiatt is terrific as the helpful Friar Lawrence, and the adult Capulets (James Carpenter and Julie Eccles) and Montagues (L. Peter Callender and Castellanos again) all have powerful moments, but the final tragedy, amid the flickering torchlight of the Capulet tomb, didn’t land as solidly (at least not on a chilly opening night) as the rest of the play.

Still, there are indelible images from this production: the flutter of rose petals through a window, the prodigious puddles of blood under slain Mercutio and Tybalt (Craig Marker) and the sweet, sweet flush of first love between teenagers, whose bond has the power to change the world.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Tickets are $20-$63. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station.

Cal Shakes maintains quite an interesting blog, taking readers behind the scenes of its productions. Check it out here.

Review: `Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’

Cast members of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone feel the spirit (from left): Barry Shabaka Henley as Seth, Kim Staunton as Bertha, Don Guillory as Jeremy and Brent Jennings as Bynum. Photos by kevinberne.com

 

Berkeley Rep delivers an extraordinary `Joe’
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At Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Wednesday night opening of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a powerful drama by the late August Wilson, it was hard not to think about the turning wheels of history.

The night before, election night, we elected our first African-American president, and on Wednesday, in the Roda Theatre, we were taken back to Pittsburgh circa 1911, when the scars of slavery were fresh and its legacy of pain keenly felt by generations attempting to move on.

Joe Turner, the second chapter in Wilson’s extraordinary cycle of plays depicting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, is set only 97 years in our nation’s past yet it seems like ancient history. But what is so extraordinary about Wilson’s work here is that his history is not dates and facts and events so much as emotion, spirit and the weight of humanity.

Director Delroy Lindo, who starred in the original 1988 Broadway production, pays close attention to the details that infuse Wilson’s play with so much intensity. There’s the play we see and hear, and then there’s the subtext, where chains of the past, religious beliefs and the supernatural are waging a mighty battle.

Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) is somewhat removed from the history that infuses the Pittsburgh boarding house he runs with his wife, Bertha (Kim Staunton). Seth was born in the north and has, as he puts it, never even seen cotton, which makes his experience vastly different from the hordes of men, women and children migrating north from the South.

An enterprising metalworker, Seth is a man ruled by common sense. He doesn’t have much tolerance for boarders’ nonsense such as the “heebie jeebie” spirit work of Bynum Walker (Brent Jennings) or the late-night carousing of young buck Jeremy Furlow (Don Guillory).

But Seth’s primary test comes in the form of an intensely wound stranger who arrives with his 11-year-old daughter. Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere in the role originated by director Lindo) is fresh from seven years hard labor on Joe Turner’s illegal chain gang, and he’s in search of the wife who abandoned him and his daughter, Zonia (Nia Reneé Warren, who shares the role with Inglish Amore Hills).

Herald hires Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), a former finder of runaway slaves who is now an itinerant metal goods salesman, to find his wife, and that’s about it for plot save for Jeremy’s adventures with the women boarders, Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson) and Molly Cunningham (Erica Peeples, above with Jennings). Jeremy is what will later be called a player, but he also represents a younger generation’s refusal to accept the secondary status of black people and is poised – with a woman on each arm and a come-hither line about his “ten-pound hammer” – to fight back.

Plot is secondary in this beautifully acted 2 ½-hour drama, which also features fine work from cast members Keanu Beausier (sharing the role with Victor McElhaney) and Kenya Brome. Wilson’s rich dialogue comes to vivid life in the hands of such remarkable actors as Jennings, who brings an otherworldly quality to the enigmatic Bynum, and Bougere, who elicits as much fear as he does compassion.

There’s a warmth and a camaraderie that emanates through the Holly boarding house (Scott Bradley’s set combines realistic detail with sketched-in flourishes), and there’s an extraordinary scene that involves Sunday dinner, music and unexpected rhythms of the spirit.

The search for identity – described in the play by Bynum as finding one’s song – is at the heart of Joe Turner. It’s no accident that the title comes from an old song about a terrible man just as most of the characters in the play are aching for something new to sing.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is graceful and deeply felt with surprising bursts of passion. With the skill of both poet and dramatist, August Wilson reminds us how close our past is and yet, on this day in November, 2008, how mercifully far away.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone continues through Dec. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.