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

Aug 18

Looking at the stars: Cal Shakes fans flames of Wilde’s <i>Winderemere</i>

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.

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Haunting Ghost Sonata kicks off Strindberg cycle

Oct 21

Haunting <i>Ghost Sonata</i> kicks off Strindberg cycle

Watching August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata at Cutting Ball Theater, it becomes clear that without Strindberg, we probably would not have the wonderfully weird worlds of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter or Edward Albee or, in the film world, David Lynch or Spike Jonze. Strindberg, though famous for the naturalism of his Miss Julie, pushed into expressionism later in his career and helped redefine modern theater.

During this, the 100th anniversary year of Strindberg's death, Cutting Ball has launched an ambitious celebration of one of Sweden's greatest pre-Abba exports. The Strindberg Cycle collects all five of the chamber plays Strindberg wrote in 1907 that were performed in The Intimate Theater, which had about 150 seats, not unlike the EXIT on Taylor, where Cutting Ball is in residence. This cycle marks the first time all five of these plays have been performed together in an any language.

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High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

Aug 16

High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy <i>Spirit</i>

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn't dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she's not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

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Shadows fall on suburbia in Yockey’s beguiling Bellwether

Oct 12

Shadows fall on suburbia in Yockey’s beguiling <i>Bellwether</i>

Audacious, entertaining and chilling, Steve Yockey’s world-premiere Bellwether at Marin Theatre Company goes where few plays dare to tread.

What starts out as a satiric look at suburban living – Bellwether is a nice neighborhood, we’re told over and over again, a gated community commuter distance from an unnamed big city – quickly becomes a potent family drama. A husband and wife (Gabriel Marin and Arwen Anderson) have hit some rocky ground as they and their about-to-turn-7 daughter try adjusting to suburban living.

The show becomes a crime thriller when little Amy disappears from her bed while her mom was downstairs with a neighbor and a bottle of wine. And then it turns into something Stephen King might dream up in a novel or short story. Yockey delves into the underworld of suburbia, a dark, dangerous place that balances the shiny, happy existence up top. That Yockey – MTC’s playwright in residence for the 2009-10 season – anchors the fantastical aspects of the story with his exploration of family life in the suburbs does him credit. He and director Ryan Rilette manage something very tricky here with a tone that shifts from satirical comedy to high drama to horror.

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Cal Shakes’ Shrew anything but tame

Sep 25

Cal Shakes’ <i>Shrew</i> anything but tame

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.

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Smile, you’re on Candida camera

Aug 17

Smile, you’re on <i>Candida</i> camera

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

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

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

Shaw has everyone, from the main characters to the lively supporting crew of assistants and family members, tripping over their attitudes toward one another and the world at large.

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