Looking at the stars: Cal Shakes fans flames of Wilde’s Winderemere

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The central trio of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan includes (from left) Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Lord Windermere (Aldo Billingslea) and Lady Windermere (Emily Kitchens). The California Shakespeare Theater production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore. Below: Kitchens and Billingslea work through the first big challenge of the Windermeres’ two-year marriage. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you want, as Oscar Wilde did, to make cogent and funny points about men and women, husbands and wives and the notion of good people vs. bad people, what better way to do that than by putting Danny Scheie in a dress and letting him unleash his inner Dame Maggie Smith?

Scheie’s performance as the Duchess of Berwick in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s first major theatrical it, is one of many pleasures in director Christopher Liam Moore’s beguiling production. The play itself remains fascinating and relevant, but oh the visual delights of a period piece!

Set designer Annie Smart has fashioned a spacious London townhouse complete with crystal chandeliers on a terrace with draperies blowing in the cool breezes of Saturday’s beautiful opening-night performance. York Kennedy’s lights add elegance and shadows when appropriate to suit the melodrama. And costumer Meg Neville brings a sly sense of humor to the Victorian costumes, especially for leading lady Emily Kitchens as the young, self-righteous Lady Windermere. Neville makes her look like various slices of cake, with floppy bows and layers of plush stuffing. She’s a little like a little girl playing dress-up, which seems only appropriate given that the play takes her from naive, entitled girl to more worldly woman of experience. For the scandal-plagued Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Neville cleverly puts in her in a gorgeous black-and-white gown to underscore the extreme ways the character is perceived — no gray area where she’s concerned.

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And then there’s Scheie, doing a captivating riff on Wilde’s Lady Bracknell as the society matron who pronounces all women good and all men bad. Scheie conquers that tricky territory of high comedy and more serious intent that Wilde explores in Windermere. He lets the audience in on the joke, allows the laughs to come in regular waves but never relinquishes the satirical barbs and their sharp, wounding points.

At this point in the 21st century, Wilde’s late 19th-century play seems so clearly to be about the folly of conservatism, which is really nothing more than closed-mindedness (willful or naturally occurring) or utter denial of human beings’ capacity for complexity and inability to fit neatly into boxes like “good” or “bad.” It makes for delicious theater as Wilde sets up Lady Windermere to believe her husband (the stalwart Aldo Billingslea) is having an affair with the much-gossiped-about Mrs. Erlynne. The whole of London society is buzzing about the seemingly flagrant affair Winderemere and Erlynne are conducting, but appearances are rarely what they seem.

The one complication in Wilde’s formula is that the Lord and his supposed mistress are completely oblivious that their interactions might be construed as adulterous by gossip-minded outside observers. That doesn’t seem quite plausible for two such intelligent characters, but then again, if they’d taken pains to conceal their interactions, we wouldn’t have much of a melodrama, and the melodrama here is such juicy fun.

But again, the fun is constantly tempered by something real. One Wildean character can toss off an aphorism like, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” But later comes an observation like, “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely — or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” And sometimes the wit and the sting come packaged neatly together: “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

There are many levels on which to enjoy Moore’s sturdy production, and the performances allow insight into all of them. Kitchens is a slightly annoying Lady Windermere, a young mother so impressed by her righteousness that she all but collapses when she’s exposed to the real world outside the walls of her comfy cozy ideals. But Ross is a revelation as Mrs. Erlynne, a hardened, bitter woman who discovers she has a heart after all (and she doesn’t like it: “Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old,” she says).

Lady Windermere’s Fan has a lot to say to a country divided by politics, religion and combinations thereof. “Do you know that I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world? Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance.”

How nice it is to see badness of such goodness on the Cal Shakes stage.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Liam Moore for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan continues through Sept. 8 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72 (subject to change). Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Cal Shakes runs a free shuttle to and from the Oridna BART station and the theater.

Earnest delights at Stanford Summer Theater

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Stanford undergrads Austin Caldwell as Algernon (right) and David Raymond as Jack are part of director Lynne Soffer’s crack cast in Stanford Summer Theater’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Below: Courtney Walsh steals the show as Lady Bracknell. Photos courtesy of Stanford Summer Theater.

How nice to report that Stanford Summer Theater launches its 15th anniversary season with a crackling good production of Oscar Wilde’s masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Lynne Soffer.

I reviewed the show for the Palo Alto Weekly. Here are a few excerpts.

Perhaps Soffer’s great accomplishment here is casting actors with mostly crackling good chemistry. Of course there are the two central romantic couples, but where the chemistry really energizes the play is between friends Algernon and Jack and rivals/besties Gwendolen and Cecily.

Stanford undergrads Austin Caldwell as Algernon and David Raymond as Jack bring a robust energy to their scenes, and each fairly drips with British upper-class privilege. If they’re a few years too young to be completely believable as men in their late 20s, it hardly matters when they’re able to wring laughs from exchanges like this:

Jack: You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about 150 years, do you, Algy?

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

It’s a perfect set-up and delivery, but then Wilde takes it one level further, as Jack becomes an even more perfect straight man, positioning Algernon for the proverbial slam dunk.

Jack: Is that clever?

Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.

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Played by Courtney Walsh, this Lady Bracknell is a tower — literally, as this is a tall actor made taller by costumer Connie Strayer’s divine hats — of societal propriety. With her booming voice and ever-arching eyebrows, she is not only a scene stealer but also a play stealer, and all without chewing the scenery as some Lady Bracknells are prone to do.

You could forgive her for taking bites of the scenery because the designs by Erik Flatmo are, in a word, delicious. “Earnest” is very much a period piece (which is why TheatreWorks’ updating of it to the ’60s fizzled), and Flatmo goes all out to create sumptuous settings for Algernon’s London townhouse, drowning in rich fabrics and bachelor excess, and the light, airy gardens and manor house of Jack’s Hertfordshire estate (the lovely lighting is by Michael Ramsaur).

Read the full review here.

Stanford Summer Theater’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde continues through Aug. 11 at the Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 650-725-5838 or visit sst.stanford.edu.

TheatreWorks’ musical Earnest fun but unnecessary

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The cast of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Being Earnest includes, from left, Mindy Lym, Hayden Tee, Euan Morton and Riley Krull. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is now set in 1965 and includes an original score by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: The Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” pays tribute to Wilde. The complete cast includes, from left, Lym, Krull, Diana Torres Koss, Tee, Morton, Brian Herndon and Maureen McVerry. Photo by Tracy Martin

In addition to some terrific songs and a perennial reason to scream at Dover to “move yer bloomin’ ass,” My Fair Lady has left an interesting legacy in the form a highly raised bar to which all classic plays turned into musicals must aspire. Most composers have all but given up trying to transform an already great play into an even better musical and instead turn to movies as grist for the musical mill.

But Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska are still aiming toward the Shavian/Lerner and Loeweian heights. Quite courageously, they have turned Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical. Being Earnest, their transformed work, is having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Taken from its late 18th-century time period and transported to London’s fashionable and swinging Carnaby Street circa 1965, this admirable attempt to musicalize Wilde takes some risks, but, it turns out, none of them are quite big enough.

Being Earnest is a perfectly pleasant two-plus hours. Wilde’s ever-reliable play, still largely intact, offers wit and crisp comedy, and the score, with music by Gruska and Gordon and lyrics by Gordon, feels repetitive, but at least what’s repeated has a sturdy melodic hook. But there’s no fizz in the score to match the carbonation of Wilde’s farce. The sound of the mid-’60s in England is evoked but without the go-go energy and ebullience that the play aches for.

The basic fact is that Earnest the play did not need to be a musical at all. The play, though brilliantly written, requires a delicate comic touch, a careful approach to tone and performance that relies heavily on timing and tempo. The songs simply gum up the comic works and make the actors, under the direction of Robert Kelley, work too hard to connect the dots between the original text, the songs and a time period shift that ultimately feels way out of whack with the stolid society that Wilde was satirizing.

In a reversal of most musicals, Act 2 is actually much better than Act 1 because Wilde’s comic machinations are grinding away at full steam and a song finally lands solidly. The cat fight between Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) and Cecily (Riley Krull), who mistakenly believe they’re engaged to the same man, is actually sharpened by the musical thrust and parry. The only song in Act 1 that comes close to matching the play’s comedy and serving a real purpose is Lym’s reverie about men named Ernest, “Age of Ideals.”

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A good example of tone and setting working against the play is veteran Bay Area comic actor Maureen McVerry as Lady Bracknell. The role’s comedy stems from dowager stuffiness and blatant greed masquerading as propriety. McVerry is, as expected, quite funny, but she looks so chic and gorgeous in Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes that it’s hard to get a bead on where the character is coming from and why, in 1965, she is being so creakily old-fashioned.

The opening number attempts to set the scene, and while that song, along with the snazzy mod costumes on parade, should do the trick, the annoying video screen at the back of Joe Ragey’s set design goes into overdrive with photos of Twiggy and the Rolling Stones to ensure there’s no mistaking when and where we are. But if the score can’t do it, then it’s not really getting done.

Leading men Euan Morton as Algernon and Hayden Tee as Jack, who don’t fare nearly as well as the women on the fashion front, are never very likable, and it seems they keep singing the same song at each other for most of the show. Brian Herndon as butlers Lane (in the city) and Merriman (in the country) and as the Rev. Chasuble feels much more in tune with Wilde and seems to be laboring much less feverishly. Diana Torres Koss as Miss Prism also has some nice moments, though the notion of a spinster teacher/companion employed by a guardian for his 20-year-old ward seems much more 1895 than 1965.

What you don’t want in a production of Earnest, musical or not, is for the play to seem like an endless string of Wildean epigrams strung together by an ineffectual plot enacted by brittle caricatures resembling people. Too many scenes come off that way here, and the Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” is actually a string of Wilde epigrams performed in front of a photo of the author on the big video screen. It is, in effect, what “Seasons of Love” is in Rent: a direct address to the audience welcoming them back from intermission and attempting to re-immerse them in the world of the show. In theory, it works, but in practice it does not.

Even while you can admire the attempt to improve upon The Importance of Being Earnest, it comes down to this: Wilde’s is a comedy for the ages, touched with brilliance. Being Earnest has been created with intelligence and some charm, but it tames Wilde and adds weight where there should be lightness.

[bonus interview]
I talked to composers Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

TheatreWorks’ Being Earnest continues through April 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Just Wilde over Aurora’s Salomania

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Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen

If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.

Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.

What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.

Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.

This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.

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But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.

Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.

That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.

Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.

Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.

Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.

Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).

Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).

If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining


Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Review: `Vera Wilde’

Opened Sept. 19, 2008 at the Ashby Stage


Sean Owens (center) is Ocar Wilde in Shotgun Players’ production of Vera Wilde, a musical play by Chris Jeffries. Owens is flanked by (from left) Danielle Levin, Edward Brauer and Tyler Kent. Photos by Jessica Palopoli


Shotgun’s revolution in Russian, Irish, musical stripes

Oscar Wilde’s first play, you may be surprised to know, was not some clever, quippy piece of comic fluff. The aspiring young playwright tackled as his subject a young Russian woman named Vera Zasulich, who, in a fit of revolutionary pique, shot the St. Petersburg chief of police in protest of his treatment of her comrades in prison.

Vera freely admitted to the crime and wanted to go on trial to spread the word about why she committed an act of violence and raise awareness about the government’s shady dealings with outspoken citizens and the use of torture in prison.

The strategy worked. Vera’s case received national attention, and the jury acquitted her of the crime she actually committed.

Inspired by the young woman’s revolutionary verve, and holding the opinion that “agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent, (which is) why agitators are so absolutely necessary,” Wilde wrote a play called Vera; or, The Nihilists. Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann describes “Vera” as “a wretched play.”

The play’s London premiere in 1881 was ultimately canceled because a play about the attempted assassination of the Russian Czar (Wilde elevated Vera’s target from police chief to big cheese) was not looked upon favorably in view of two actual assassinations: of Czar Alexander II and of U.S. President Garfield.

Still, Wilde did manage to get the play produced in New York, with a woman named Marie Prescott in the title role. Several newspapers proclaimed the play’s brilliance while the New York Times stated Wilde was “very much of a charlatan and wholly an amateur” and called the play “valueless.”

And so ends the chapter of Vera Zasulich in the life of Oscar Wilde…until now.

In 2002 Chris Jeffries premiered, of all things, a musical about the intersection of Vera Zasulich and Oscar Wilde at Seattle’s Empty Space Theatre called Vera Wilde, and now Shotgun Players is producing this “musical play” for which Jeffries wrote book, music and lyrics.

Jeffries seems hesitant to call Vera Wilde a musical because the word “musical” indicates frivolity, silliness and lack of credibility for serious subject matter. But he shouldn’t be so wary. His musical is intelligent, clever and bold with an appealing score and some standout songs.

The notion of mining the intersection between Vera and Oscar is an intriguing one, though their parallels dissipate after Act 1, which goes to some lengths to depict how their various trials – hers for attempted murder, his for “gross indecency” with young men – were sensational and, in their own ways, revolutionary.

Some confusion arises in director Maya Gurantz’s production as Vera’s timeline proceeds forward (from notoriety to obscurity) and Wilde’s proceeds backward (from post-prison shame and disgrace to talk of the town). Seemingly, when the two intersect the play should find its nexus of power, but that is not the case. The play is at its best during the parallel trial scenes of Act 1 and loses focus in Act 2 as Vera, in exile, becomes a forgotten revolutionary who, if we are to believe Jeffries, was eclipsed by her lover, Lenin, while Wilde emerges as London’s newest Irish toy – push a button on his overstuffed vest and a print-worthy epigram pops out. “I am the future come to laugh at your pretensions,” he says at one point.

Jeffries’ score (beautifully orchestrated by musical director Dave Malloy) is played by a superb quartet: Brendan West on banjo, Andre Nigoghossian on guitar, Hillary Overberg on violin and Simon Hanes on bass. The sound runs from Hot Club jazz to Jesus Christ Superstar anthem with many stops in between.

Two of the show’s best songs are the Russian peasant lament “Midnight in Russia” and a show-stopping glimpse into the disastrous American premiere of Wilde’s “Vera” called “That’s How a Show Should Go” expertly performed by Danielle Levin and Edward Brauer, members of the hard-working, three-person supporting cast (which also includes sweet-voiced Tyler Kent).

Alexandra Creighton as Vera and Sean Owens as Oscar both have moments of connection—especially in their trial scenes — but they struggle with the score, and there were significant pitch problems at Friday’s opening-night performance.

Vera Wilde is a wild idea, and the issues of an oppressive government vilifying the outspoken and taking advantage of terrorist acts to create a fear-driven police state are certainly resonant. This Shotgun production just needs to sing in a stronger voice.

Vera Wilde continues through Oct. 26 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for information.

BONUS SHOTGUN NEWS: At opening night of Vera Wilde Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley released four of the five plays he’ll be doing in the 2009 season: Mark Jackson’s Faust Part 1 (May-June); Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Animal Farm (August-September in John Hinkel Park); Marcus Gardley’s musical play This World in a Woman’s Hands about the Richmond Shipyard “Rosie the Riveter” workforce (September-October); and Susannah Martin’s production of The Three Penny Opera (December-January 2010).


Cal Shakes’ `Ideal’ hit

Word from the California Shakespeare Theater is that artistic director Jonathan Moscone’s production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde has become the company’s biggest box-office hit in its 35-year history.

This breaks the previous record held by Moscone’s production of Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw last summer.

Says Cal Shakes’ outgoing managing director Debbie Chin: “We are so grateful that despite challenging economic times, we are part of a community that responds to, and frankly demands, great art.”

Ideal broke the previous record for gross sales, single tickets and group sales and performed to a 93 percent capacity during its 24-performance run July 2-27 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda.

The Cal Shakes season continues with Emily Mann’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya opening Aug. 9 and continuing through Aug. 31. The season closes with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night directed by Mark Rucker, Sept. 10-Oct. 5.

Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Review: `An Ideal Husband’

Opened July 5, Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Orinda

Julie Eccles is Gertrude Chiltern and Stacy Ross is Laura Chevely in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. Photos by Kevin Berne


Ferocity marries wit in Cal Shakes’ lively `Husband’

Nothing ages like happiness, or so Oscar Wilde tells us in An Ideal Husband. But you’ll be hard pressed to leave California Shakespeare Theater’s production without being happy for at least a few hours.

The combination of Wilde and director Jonathan Moscone, as we saw in the 2004 Cal Shakes production of The Importance of Being Earnest, is a potent one, and the marriage makes for an ideal Husband.

Moscone understands how to keep Wilde’s plates spinning. Over here, amid a swirl of “beautiful idiots,” as Wilde calls them, is broad, silly comedy with great comic one-liners dropping like rain at Wimbledon, and over here is a more serious drama about how the personal and political end up being the same thing.

It’s amazing that Moscone can get such big laughs and then delve so deeply into real-life emotions. Credit his superb cast for scaling the heights and depths so perfectly.

I have fond memories of Stephen Wadsworth’s production of An Ideal Husband at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1995. That production, if memory serves, was all elegance and sharp angles. The wit sliced and the venom was toxic on contact.

Moscone’s production is funnier and more deeply felt – an even greater accomplishment when you consider he’s doing it outside. On opening night, the weather was glorious: warm and clear, with a pair of hawks squawking and diving over the stage.

But it was not easy to be distracted from the production. Annie Smart’s set (lit with precision by Scott Zielinski) adheres to the drawing room conventions of Wilde’s play but manages to open it up to indicate life beyond the area of central focus.

Julie Eccles, as usual, commands the stage as the virtuous Gertrude Chiltern, a woman who has put her politician husband (Michael Butler, below left) so high on a pedestal he has no choice but to come crashing down on top of her. It’s interesting to note that in the Berkeley Rep production 13 years ago, Eccles charmed as Mabel, the sparky sister-in-law who’s too smart for her own good.

As Gertrude, Eccles plays beautifully opposite Butler’s conflicted Sir Robert, a noble, upright politico with a dirty secret in his past. She’s even better opposite Stacy Ross’ Laura Chevely, a character whose very name oozes danger.

Mrs. Chevely, fresh from Vienna (and costumed by Meg Neville as something out of a gorgeous Klimt painting), wants to accomplish several things: to blackmail Sir Robert (she has an incriminating letter in her possession) and she wants another husband after the first two failed her. She’s one of those smart, dreadful people whom Wilde describes “treating life as sordid speculation.”

To accomplish her blackmail, Sir Robert must either tell his wife about his dirty past and risk losing her love or admit publically his shame and face the loss of his fortunes and his future.

On the marriage front, Mrs. Chevely turns to an unlikely candidate: the Wilde-like Lord Goring (Elijah Alexander), a man she spurned years before. It turns out no bridge is ever too burned for Mrs. Chevely to trouble the waters. But Goring, for all his insouciance, has his eye on young Mabel (Sarah Nealis), whose gross self-awareness nearly trumps his own.

Ross takes such delight in her character’s nastiness that it’s a joy to watch her and root for her downfall. Alexander works himself into quite a sweat as the man caught in the middle of a possible government scandal, a ruptured marriage and an invented affair.

Moscone pumps up the farce in the play’s second half but then, with admirable control, brings the emotion fully into play when necessary. He even gooses the ending to make it more real, less happy.

There are multiple levels here to enjoy – the Wildean wit of the social comedy, the “what happens next” melodrama of the plot and the pithy observations about what Wilde calls “the modern mania for morality” and the “seven deadly virtues.”

Wilde’s Husband remains trenchant, perhaps because politicians and spouses have changed so little in the 100-plus years since the play’s debut. Wilde’s appeal for embracing human frailty rather than demonizing it still packs some punch.

“All I do know,” Lord Goring says to a stern Lady Chiltern, “is that life cannot be understood without much charity, cannot be lived without much charity.” It’s somewhat ironic and terribly sad that Wilde, in his troubled life following the premiere of An Ideal Husband, received so little charity himself.

In an ideal world, this brilliantly observed play, with so much substance under the froth, could have served as his defense.

An Ideal Husband continues through July 27 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information. Cal Shakes provides a free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater.


Elijah Alexander goes Wilde

Elijah Alexander starred as Jack Tanner in California Shakespeare Theater’s Man and Superman last summer. This year he’s starring in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Photo by Kevin Berne

He’s right on time for his interview – early even – and he’s in character.

Oscar Wilde said that punctuality is a thief of time, and I’m trying to grapple with that,” says the ever-on-time Elijah Alexander. “People say you should always be fashionably late, but that’s impossible for me. Don’t know why. I’m always early. But right now I’m turning over a new leaf. Being late could stir things up a bit.”

Alexander is preparing for his third summer in the Orinda hills as a cast member of a California Shakespeare Theater show. Two years ago we were introduced to him in Amy Freed’s Restoration Comedy. Last summer audiences fell in love with him in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. And this week he opens in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband playing a very Wilde-like Lord Goring.

After last summer’s Shaw marathon, which Alexander calls “to date, the greatest challenge of my career,” the actor is settling into his first-ever Wilde play. Like last summer, his director is Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes’ artistic director.

“Working with Jon last summer was the beginning of a very, for me, important working relationship,” Alexander says. “The Wilde is interesting because it is so unlike Shaw. I usually play the rogue. This guy is the mediator. He’s utterly honest but in an unassuming way. He’s less bold and less brash than the characters I usually play. He’s taking a backseat while others drive the action, speculating and commenting on a lot of it. He’s the one the other characters come to for support. It requires an ease…I mean, the guy is effete. Essentially, he’s the Oscar Wilde of the play.”

Born and raised in Michigan, Alexander set out to be in broadcast journalism with a side interest in criminal justice. Then, at the University of Michigan, an acting class changed the course of his life.

“I was a junior, and that class was a monumental moment for me,” Alexander says. “I decided to get trained and make acting my life. Got into Yale for grad school. It was all new to me. I came out of grad school having done 50 plays. I was so hungry for work I was constantly doing three plays at a time for three years. Then I moved to New York and got into the real world, where you’re lucky if you do maybe two plays a year.”

Busy most of the time – even in the real world – Alexander is between home bases. He has spent the last five years in Los Angeles doing the movie and TV thing. His biggest claim to fame is a small but juicy role in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the movie that brought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt together.

“My first movie involved me working with Angelina Jolie for a month,” Alexander recalls. “I had US Weekly calling me, trying to convince me that gossiping about those people would actually be good for my career.”

After the ups and downs of L.A., Alexander says he’s looking for a new artistic home base. After Ideal Husband closes he’s off to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. After that, he’s thinking about settling in the Bay Area or Ashland, Ore., home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the country’s largest resident company of actors.

“Earlier this year, the writers’ strike decimated L.A. because everyone was so desperate for work,” Alexander says. “There was such a sense of fear, even in the audition room. I realized I’m going to go where the meaningful work is. We attribute meaning to things, so if it means I’m have to go on the road again, I will. The road brought me to here and now.”

An Ideal Husband previews today (July 2) through Friday (July 4) and opens Saturday (July 5). The show continues through July 27 at the Bruns Amphitheater just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

For more of my interview with Elijah Alexander, visit my Examiner.com theater page here.

Watch Cal Shakes’ An Ideal Husband trailer here.