Smile, you’re on Candida camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[bonus video]
Take a look at scenes from Cal Shakes’ Candida:

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

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

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The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Theater review: `At Home at the Zoo’

Opened June 10, 2990 at American Conservatory Theater

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René Augesen is Ann and Anthony Fusco is Peter in the “Homelife” half of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, the final show of the American Conservatory Theater season. Photos by

Human beasts, growl, purr, bark in Albee’s revised `Home/Zoo’
«««« (four stars for Act 1) ««« (three stars for Act 2)

There are two Edward Albees on display in American Conservatory Theater’s season-ending At Home at the Zoo. We have the 30-year-old writer staking his first major dramatic claim in a one-act play called The Zoo Story, written in 1958 and produced the following year in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Clearly the play marked the introduction of a major voice in American drama.

The other Albee on view here is the 76-year-old, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner with one of the most consistently surprising and long-lived careers on the American stage.

Guess which one trumps the other?

Albee’s The Zoo Story gained a companion play in 2004 at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Homelife took us into the private life of Peter, a publisher of, as he describes it, important but boring textbooks. He interacts with his wife, Ann, and after we delve into some sensitive marital waters, Zoo Story unfolds as we follow Peter to Central Park, where he encounters a somewhat off-balance younger man named Jerry.

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The complete evening, heretofore called Peter and Jerry, was renamed last year as At Home at the Zoo because Albee reportedly thought the other title conjured Ben & Jerry’s ice cream more than it did a drama about the difficulties inherent in living life to the fullest.

Director Rebecca Bayla Thompson’s production is beautifully directed, performed and designed. Set designer Robert Brill keeps the focus on the humans in Peter and Ann’s pristine beige apartment and then opens the stage up for the second-act move to Central Park, where Stephen Strawbridge’s lights cast a green hue on the back wall of the stage and sound designer Jake Rodriguez delicately weaves in the presence of man (cars, hubbub) and nature (birdsong).

Both acts, in their different ways, address one of Albee’s favorite topics: the monster that terrorizes and devours so many of us, which is to say the fear of life itself. And this is how the older Albee bests his younger self.

In the Zoo Story half, Albee gives us a study in contrasts with Peter (Anthony Fusco), the somewhat priggish, reasonably well-to-do executive interacting with the “permanent transient” Jerry (Manoel Felciano), a rooming house boarder with a desperate need to connect with a stranger. There’s a lot of talk, mostly by Jerry, in this 50-minute encounter about animals – a landlady’s aggressive hound, the caged animals in the zoo – and it’s clear that the beats somehow represent the life that we want to tame and cage.

This is Albee writing in large, metaphorical ways, and it’s fascinating, especially when you consider that this young writer was just beginning to unleash his talent. But the piece, even with certain updates, is dated. Jerry uses expressions (“hither and thither”?) that, safe to say, very few modern 30somethings would use. And are there really still rooming houses on New York’s Upper West Side?

The drama, though full of interesting writing and ideas, is grand and somewhat self-important. It’s interesting to watch expert actors like Fusco and Felciano grapple with the piece. Fusco mostly has to listen, but Felciano treads a delicate balance between Jerry’s compelling intellect and his threatening aggressiveness. He does so with a gathering sense of momentum that helps ground the play in something resembling reality even though it belongs more to the world of theatrical construction.

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That’s definitely not true of Homelife, which opens the evening. Fusco, playing opposite René Augesen as Ann, gets to reveal depths to Peter that we would never even guess at if we were only seeing the Zoo Story part of him. And Augesen gets to do some of her best work since last fall’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. The two actors find a natural, impeccable rhythm that makes it easy to relate to these middle-age marrieds who tacitly agreed at some point to a “smooth voyage on a safe ship.”

But now Ann is restless and dissatisfied – with her husband, with life, with herself – and has deep yearnings and misgivings. In the space of an extraordinary hour, she gets her husband to put down his book and engage in conversation with her that conjures that monster – the dark places we go in the small hours of the night. Husband and wife break through the politeness and habit of long-time marriage and hit on some sensitive, troublesome territory.

This is, in the best sense, theater for grown-ups.

Director Taichman orchestrates the body language and movement of the two actors with tremendous emphasis but virtually no artificiality. You can feel the audience hanging on every word, and it’s thrilling to experience dialogue that feels like action. The action of Act 2’s Zoo is more boisterous and dramatic, but you leave the theater still buzzing from the current generated in Act 1’s Home.


Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo continues through July 5 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

ACT casts `Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ partners up for `Phedre’

Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native who used to work at Recycled Records on Haight Street, plays Jan, the central character in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, an ACT production. Photo by Ashley Forrette Photography

With all this buzz about, there must be a new theater season about to start.

First up is news from American Conservatory Theater. Casting is complete for its season-opener, the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning Rock ‘n’ Roll, which begins performances Sept. 11 and continues through Oct. 12.

Artistic director Carey Perloff, something of a Stoppard expert, is directing a cast that includes San Francisco native Manoel Felciano (Toby in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway) makes his Bay Area professional debut as Jan, the rock ‘n’ roll-obsessed Czech graduate student at the center of the play. The cast also includes ACT company members Rene Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Jud Williford and Jack Willis. The cast is rounded out by James Carpenter, Delia MacDougall, Marcia Pizzo, Summer Serafin and ACT MFA third-year students Nicholas Pelczar and Natalie Hegg.

Previews begin Sept. 11 and opening night is Sept. 17. Tickets are $17-$62 for previews, $20-$73 for regular performances. Call 415-749-2228or visit for information.

In other ACT news, the company will partner for the first time with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Perloff will direct Racine’s Phèdre in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who previously provided scripts for Perloff’s Hecuba and Antigone.

The production, which will bow in the 2009-10 season, will star 17-year Stratford veteran Seana McKenna in the title role.

“We are thrilled to be producing Racine for the first time in ACT’s history,” Perloff said in a statement. “Timberlake’s extraordinary and fresh translation pays homage to the gorgeous poetry of the original while sustaining this play’s explosive heat and visceral sexuality. I have admired Stratford’s work for many years an am excited to work at the theater, where Heather Kitchen, my partner at ACT, started her career.”




Review: “Hedda Gabler”

(opened Feb. 14, 2007)
ACT’s hip, sassy `Hedda’ starts strong, fades quickly
two stars Too cute ‘n’ casual

Theater, or so they say, is all about the communal experience. We breathe the same air as the actors and we commune with our fellow audience members.

On the way out of the theater after American Conservatory Theater’s Hedda Gabler on Wednesday night, a couple behind me compared notes on the production. “Tedious, tedious,” the woman said. “Well, it was better than A Doll’s House but they were both terrible,” the man said. “We should have watched `Infamous,’ ” the woman added.

I didn’t feel quite as strongly as my fellow audience members about this Hedda, but I was disappointed, especially because the show starts out so strongly.

Director Richard E.T. White reveals his stage in stages. First, we see a giant mural of a glacier on the back of the theater wall surrounded by scaffolding and a catwalk (set by Kent Dorsey). Then the walls of the Tesman home fly in, but, curiously, the walls of the house are made of rope — many thick strands of rope, which makes them rustic and see-through.

John Gromada’s original music — piano and a string or two — lends an unsettling air, and we jump right into Henrik Ibsen’s story of a most unpleasant woman making life a nightmare for just about everyone around her.

Hedda (played by ACT company member Rene Augesen) admits that one of her goals in life is to have power over someone’s destiny. Too bad that someone can’t be herself. This is a woman out of control.

Her new husband, Jorgen Tesman (Anthony Fusco) bores her silly, and his touch repulses her. She treats him with cold disdain, and he doesn’t even seem to notice.

He’s a scholar, and she’s the spoiled daughter of a celebrated general. She’s the upper crust, he the dusty crust. It’s a match made in heaven — if your idea of heaven is a play where everything that could go wrong does.

It doesn’t take long for intrigue to light a sinister spark in Hedda’s eye. Her old flame, Ejlert Lovborg (Stephen Barker Turner, left with Augesen), is back in town, and he is what Donna Summer used to call a “bad, bad, bad boy.” Apparently his new lady friend, Mrs. Elvsted (Finnerty Steeves), has helped him put his drinking and carousing days behind him.

Not for long. At least, not if Hedda has anything to say about it. This woman has pistols, and she’s not afraid to use them (or to get other people to use them on themselves).
If you’re going to see a play on Valentine’s Day, that play should be Hedda Gabler, the meanest and bloodiest romance around.

For a while, White’s production bubbles along in Paul Walsh’s recently revised translation. The language is hip, casual and extremely accessible. Maybe too accessible if such a thing is possible. This is, after all, a period drama from the late 19th century. Some formality might help define the rules by which these characters play.

But this Hedda comes across as quite the modern gal. She’s not about to be imprisoned by a loveless marriage, and if she can’t have her bad boy, then nobody can. At first Augesen’s Hedda is cold, contemptuous and sort of fun. But as her tension increases and her manipulations begin to tangle in themselves, Augesen retreats.

By Act 2 she has turned into Jennifer Aniston, all tics, mannerisms and cuteness. There’s no emotional pay-off to this Hedda. It’s not depressing, nor is it even upsetting. It’s nearly 2 1/2 hours of intermittently interesting drama.

Fusco’s Tesman is believably naive, and Sharon Lockwood as a fawning auntie dominates the stage whenever she’s on it.

Jack Willis as a booze-guzzling, lady-loving commissioner hits some resonant notes of corruption, but Turner seems miscast as the stormy Lovborg. He seems more bureaucrat than rake.

Who, ultimately, is the bad guy in Hedda Gabler? Is it a repressive society or is it a bored, petty woman with an inability to think of anyone other than herself? Based on this strangely bloodless production, I’d definitely go with the latter.

For information about ACT and “Hedda Gabler,” visit