Cal Shakes’ lukewarm take on Winter’s Tale

Oct 03

Cal Shakes’ lukewarm take on <i>Winter’s Tale</i>

On a refreshingly brisk autumn night, California Shakespeare Theater's A Winter's Tale aimed to tell a sad story with a happy ending. "A sad story is best for winter," or so we're told by a young boy not long for this earth.

Even by Shakespearean standards, this is a strange play, with its jarring shifts in tone, unexplained fits of jealousy, interference by the gods and living statuary. In other words, it's a director's dream – here's a wacky play that needs lots of interpretation and massaging to make it work for a modern audience.

Cal Shakes previously closed the season with A Winter's Tale in 2002 with a massive production in which the audience moved around to accommodate the shift in action from Sicilia to Bohemia. Director Lisa Peterson hauled out screaming teenagers, a school bus and an all-out rave before audience members headed back into the theater proper for the moving, if fantastical, finale.

This time around, we get a wildly different Tale directed by Patricia McGregor, who returns after the triumph of last season's Spunk.

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A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

Jun 02

A <i>Night</i> to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

Spring and early summer 2013 may well be remembered as the Great Montoya Surge.

In April, Richard Montoya – one third of the legendary San Francisco-born comedy trio Culture Clash – premiered a play with Campo Santo called The River (read the review here), and it was funny and brash and heartfelt and messy and pretty wonderful. It had to do with, among other things, death and immigration, and it made you crave more Montoya work.

We didn't have to wait long. Montoya's American Night: The Ballad of Juan José opened the California Shakespeare Theater season Saturday on a night so warm and beautiful under the stars in Orinda you wonder why every play can't be done outdoors (how quickly we forget those freezing cold, windy, foggy nights when nary a star is visible).

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Yo, Mofo! SF Playhouse tips a mighty fine Hat

Feb 06

Yo, Mofo! SF Playhouse tips a mighty fine <i>Hat</i>

[warning: this review does not hide or disguise the word "motherfucker" in the title of the play at hand]

The comedy, the intensity and all that rough language keeps things skittering right along in the San Francisco Playhouse production of The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The play is this rush of plot and character and language, then the sadness and despair lands. It takes Lionel Richie and the Commodores to underscore it, but man oh man is it there.

In so many ways, Gurigis' Hat is about growing up, about taking yourself and the world you live in seriously enough to find purpose and pursue it with as much discipline as you can muster. The grown-ups in the play, let it be said, don't do such a good job on the discipline part, although most of them have (or find) some degree of purpose.

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Gettin’ to the git in Cal Shakes’ glorious Spunk

Jul 14

Gettin’ to the git in Cal Shakes’ glorious <i>Spunk</i>

Zora Neale Hurston writes with zest and zeal. She can move from joy to anguish in a second and still find her way back to hope. All of this is readily apparent in California Shakespeare Company's production of Spunk at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Sharp and spirited and brimming with talent, these three Hurston stories, adapted for the stage by George C. Wolfe, are poetry and drama and jubilation and as much stirring music as you're likely to hear in 90 minutes in the foggy Orinda Hills.

Wolfe honors Hurston by making sure the audience knows these are short stories – not plays – being brought to life so that we, as a group, can appreciate Hurston's rich, beautiful and musical language. Each of the three stories includes narration of some kind, so the evening never strays from its literary roots. But this is no storytime theater. This is theater that moves. And sings. Boy, does it sing.

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Seven Guitars, ably played

Aug 21

<i>Seven Guitars</i>, ably played

Marin Theatre Company's beautiful production of August Wilson's Seven Guitars is the third I've seen, and it amazes me how similar and how different those productions have been. The first was in 1995 when American Conservatory Theater hosted the Broadway-bound version of the show as part of its season. The distinctive thing about that night of theater was the overwhelming wash of lyrical language that poured from the stage. For 3 ½ hours. I called it "indulgent" and "overly long" in my review for the Bay Area Reporter, but I also called the writing "lucid and full of gorgeous natural rhythms." Of Viola Davis' performance as Vera, of whom I wrote, "One of the play's best scenes occurs early in the first act when Vera gives Floyd every reason she can think of why she won't take him back. She does take him back, of course, but her aching, shattering litany – brilliantly delivered by Davis – is probably the truest torch song that was never sung on stage."

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Seven Guitars in 2003 under the direction of the late Stanley Williams, and by then the show had been trimmed to a more manageable three hours, and in my review for the Oakand Tribune, I commended the ensemble (seven characters, hence the title) when they were able to "revel in the beats and rhythms of Wilson's almost-musical writing."

And now Marin Theatre Company, tackling its first August Wilson play, enters the fray with special attention to the music.

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Undine undone or finding fabulous in Fabulation

Mar 20

Undine undone or finding fabulous in <i>Fabulation</i>

Though unplanned, we have something of a Lynn Nottage festival happening in the Bay Area right now.

Berkeley Rep is showing Nottage's most serious side with her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined, a tale of hope amid brutality, and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre showcases a more lighthearted (though not exactly comic) side of Nottage with Fabulation, the story of a modern woman's relationship to her roots.

The really good news here is the story of the Lorraine Hansberry itself. After losing both of its founders last year – the subsequent deaths of Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter is still difficult to fathom – the Hansberry could have foundered and disappeared. That would have meant a huge loss to Bay Area theater. How would you compensate for the loss of one of the nation's most prominent African-American theater companies as it's just about to celebrate its 30th anniversary? You couldn't. And thankfully, we don't have to.

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