Division on display in fascinating Roe at Berkeley Rep

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Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner, left) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) engage in a discussion about the landmark 1973 Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade in Roe by Lisa Loomer at Berkeley Rep. Below: Catherine Castellanos is Connie Gonzalez, the supportive and sympathetic companion to Bruner’s McCorvey. Photos by Jenny Graham

There is so much event and detail in Lisa Loomer’s Roe – a brisk re-telling of the events and people involved in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade – that it feels like the world’s speediest documentary, something you could only do on a mostly open stage, with actors making their costume quick changes in full view of the audience just so they can keep up. And by attempting to cover the (still unfolding) arc of the case, so much happens that, if it wasn’t actually true, you’d never believe it.

Originating from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s impressive new play generator, American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, Roe debuted last year at the OSF in Ashland, Oregon before the election, then headed to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., just after the inauguration. Now this docudrama has landed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and we’re in a changed world, a charged world. Fear of losing rights, fear of losing immigrants, fear of environmental catastrophe, fear of detrimental change to core functions of the government (education, health care, you name it) – so much fear fuels anger and protest and anxiety. All of that to say that the nearly 50 years covered by the play feel familiar and even prescient. It seems we’ve been repeating ourselves for decades.

One immediate impression in the aftermath of Roe is that we talk a lot about what a divided nation we are today, but watching all the fights surrounding the issue of abortion make it clear we have been a deeply divided nation for a very long time, and there are few issues that expose the painful division more than abortion. Are we, as some of the anti-choice demonstrators claim, founded as a Christian nation and therefore all subject to the demands of a Christian God? Or are we a nation founded in liberty in which a woman, regardless of of religion, is free to make choices about her own body herself?

Even after the Supreme Court sided with choice in 1973, the battle has waged – on the streets as groups like Operation Rescue resort to violence and bullying and in the courts as states make “legal” abortion almost impossible to attain. As Loomer’s timely play points out, the saga continues as the next four years could see history reversed where Roe v. Wade is concerned. Loomer was even able to adjust the play to reflect McCorvey’s death last month (at age 69), just as the run was ending at the Arena.

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Is Roe a vital, fascinating, beautifully produced history lesson with immediate impact? Absolutely. Loomer’s attempts to tell a reasonably objective version of the story is not only admirable, it’s heroic. Her two main characters, Norma McCorvey (who was re-named Jane Roe to protect her anonymity in the case) and lawyer Sarah Weddington, both wrote books about their decades-long involvement in the famous case, and their facts don’t always agree. So Loomer, using a loose, highly presentational style, frequently breaks the fourth wall to point that out. This style, executed with efficient gusto by director Bill Rauch and his strong ensemble, also allows for speed in the storytelling and the efficient manipulation of time. Characters are able to tell us about what happens to them in the future (often by relating details from their obituaries), and characters who never met in real life are able to acknowledge that but have a stage interaction anyway.

From the time Weddington and McCorvey meet in the early 1970s until their last personal encounter in the mid-’90s, Roe tracks their predictable/unpredictable arcs. Weddington is a dedicated lawyer, politician, teacher and activist who continually fights for her most famous case. McCorvey, on the other hand, begins in a rough place and continually encounters difficulty. Married young to an abusive husband, she eventually comes out as a lesbian and loses her daughter to her disapproving drunk of a mother. Norma lives a freewheeling, free-love lifestyle that involves drugs and drink and living in the park with the hippies, and when she meets with young lawyer Weddington, what she really wants is an actual abortion and not a landmark case that will go from Texas to the Supreme Court.

Weddington, a feminist activist and ambitious lawyer, was looking for a way to fight the abortion ban, and McCorvey was the right pregnant woman at the right place at the right time. Loomer works hard to keep a balance between the political/moral debate and the human cost of the fight on the choice/anti-choice battlefield. There’s not a lot of time for rich character development, so this isn’t a deeply emotion experience, but what it lacks in that area it more than makes up for in the way it offers clarity amid complicated history and reveals, amid the specific details, how being human will always hinge on fear and its progeny: anger, righteousness and gargantuan need.

As Norma, Sara Bruner beautifully conveys instability, spark and a survivor’s strength that belies tremendous emotional fragility. When Norma becomes an abortion-renouncing born-again Christian later in her life, that change, while somewhat startling, is understandable. Her journey is full of life events, while Weddington (played with intelligence and hauteur by Sarah Jane Agnew) is on hand to provide a more academic perspective and, as she keeps saying, context.

Oddly, the real emotional heart of the story belongs to a peripheral character, Connie Gonzalez, Norma’s longtime girlfriend. Played by Catherine Castellanos, one of the Bay Area’s finest actors, Connie is understated but solid, and she, more than any other character here, represents the emotional cost of the story behind Roe v. Wade. When Norma renounces her past life to embrace Jesus, she’s essentially rejecting her lesbian past as well. Connie’s broken heart, so powerfully rendered by Castellanos, is shattering.

Other memorable turns come from Jim Abele as charismatic Operation Rescue head Flip Benham, Amy Newman as, among others, Gloria Allred and a compassionate anti-abortion worker and Susan Lynskey as attorney Linda Coffee, a reliable source for wry observations.

There’s a great sense of living history to Roe, an illumination of lives and laws and liberties that cannot be taken for granted. It’s also a play whose ending feels like it may never come.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lisa Loomer’s Roe continues through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$100 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Cal Shakes gets terrifically Tempest tossed

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Catherine Castellanos (left) is Prospero and Amy Lizardo is Ariel in California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest. Below: Patrick Kelly Jones (lower left) is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban. Photos by Jay Yamada

On a day when terrible things were happening in the world, being immersed in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was sweet balm, especially as performed by the fine actors of California Shakespeare Theater’s “All the World’s a Stage” tour of the show, which, in classic traveling players mode, is being performed in senior centers, homeless shelters, federal prison, rehab centers and the like. It’s hard not to agree with Caliban when he says, “Hell is empty. All the devils are here.” But dark notions of revenge, which so inform the play itself, are soothed by virtue, and Prospero’s exquisite speech, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” is practically heartbreaking in its beauty.

Director Rebecca Novick’s fine-tuned production has a handful of public performances at the Oakland Museum of California in a space generally used as the museum’s cafe. There’s not lighting, save what’s already in the ceiling. The audience is cozily set up in four sections around a central performance space, and the two-hour production unfurls at a spritely pace, outfitted in lovely designs by Naomi Arnst that assist in differentiating the double-, sometimes triple-cast actors.

What set there is by Nina Ball is clever. A ship-shaped crescent is instrumental in conveying the play-opening storm that leads to a violent shipwreck. Then, as the action shifts to the island home of the wizardly Prospero, that crescent is turned upright, set in a cradle and serves as a throne of sorts, a point of power for the island’s master, or, in this case, mistress as Propsero is played by the commanding Catherine Castellanos. The pole that had served as the ship’s mast, is relocated to a tuft of grass and is climbed upon by the fairy Ariel (Amy Lizardo), or serves as a doorway through which we glimpse the newly smitten lovers Miranda (Tristan Cunningham) and Ferdinand (Rafael Jordan) staring googly-eyed at each other and arm wrestling.

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This is stripped-down theater at its best: words and performance, story and emotion. What I will take away from this enlivened production, aside from yet another reminder of how profound Shakespeare can be at acknowledging the darkness in the world while holding on to hope and faith in love and our better nature, are the magic of Castellanos in performance, the thrill of watching Cunningham and and Jordan convincingly fall in love in an instant and the genuine comic inspiration of the show’s clowns.

Cunningham doffs her maiden’s weeds to become Trinculo, a buffoonish steward from the wrecked ship, Patrick Kelly Jones is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban, and the three of them, as they pass the tippling gourd, are outright hilarious. Sometimes the shift from the revenge plot (Prospero lands all her enemies on the island to wreak revenge) to the clowning makes me cringe. But in this production I actively looked forward to it. At one point, Cunningham came into the audience, plopped into the chair next to me and put her arm around me for much of one scene. Now that’s audience interaction I can get behind.

The revenge plot is also quite satisfying thanks to Liam Vincent as Antonio, Prospero’s dastardly, throne-stealing brother, Jones as the ruthlessly ambitious Sebastian and Lewis as the grieving king (he believes his son was drowned in the storm). Also in their company but not part of any murderous plots is Gonzalo, here played as pregnant woman by Carla Pantoja. There’s lots of strong female power on this island, and Pantoja’s Gonzalo is a powerful part of it.

Lizardo’s Ariel sings like an angel (accompanied by composer/musical director Olive Mitra on upright bass and a variety of percussion), and Kelly’s Stephano sings scurvy tunes like a natural-born sailor.

Castellanos ends the show with a powerful, emotional reading of Prospero’s famous speech, but the way she delivers it to the audience, all seemingly delighted by the two hours they’ve just spent together, feels intimate and personal, like she’s talking just to us and not over hundreds of years and thousands of productions of The Tempest. Again, on this day when more terror was causing more mayhem and pain in the world, it was impossible not to be moved by the words.
     “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
     As I foretold you, were all spirits and
     Are melted into air, into thin air:
     And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
     The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
     The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
     Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
     And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
     Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
     As dreams are made on, and our little life
     Is rounded with a sleep.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest has a limited number of public performances through Nov. 22 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. Tickets are $20. Call 510-548l-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Crazy about Guirgis’ Riverside at ACT

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Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy, Between Riverside and Crazy, at American Conservatory Theater. Below: Lieutenant Caro (Gabriel Marin) chats with Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown). Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s a crackling vitality on stage the Geary Theater as American Conservatory Theater opens its 49th season with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. The play is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be an interesting play, but if you’ve seen any of Guirgis’ previous work – produced locally by San Francisco Playhouse and Custom Made Theatre Company – you know that this is a muscular, compassionate and deeply interesting writer.

If Riverside isn’t as gritty as some of his other work, it more than makes up for that with its fresh approach to the classic American dream-type play. This is Guirgis leaning heavily into Miller and O’Neill territory and staking his claim as a great chronicler of the contemporary American family and the state of that elusive but collectively held dream.

Between Riverside and Crazy is a surprising play in that it deals head on with powerful emotion – between father and son, connected co-workers, lost young man and surrogate father figure – and doesn’t flinch. There are teases of melodrama but then swift left turns that add suspense and keep the edges sharp. And there’s a whole lot of humor, dark humor that elicits satisfying and frequent laughter.

Director Irene Lewis navigates the barbs and the jokes and the shadows expertly with the help of a superb cast that knows exactly how to scale what is essentially a living room drama for the grand space of the Geary. The set by Christopher Barreca adds a touch of cinematic fluidity as the entire apartment set (hints of former Riverside Drive grandeur remain) slides back and forth to signal scene changes to the building’s roof and back again.

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Powering a whole lot of the play’s electric charge is Carl Lumbly as Walter Washington, a former New York City cop who caught a “bad break” years ago in an off-duty incident that may or may not have been racially motivated and left Walter with six bullet holes and an ongoing lawsuit against the city.

Walter is a heavy drinker – the play begins at breakfast and he’s already into his cups – with a lot weighing on him. He lost his wife after a long illness about a year prior, and his grown son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates) has moved back home with his girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown). Walter is also providing shelter for one of Junior’s wayward felon friends, Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), as he works through his newfound sobriety.

Lumbly’s Walter is cantankerous and acerbic, funny and lively even as he bemoans his fate. He shows true compassion for Oswaldo, and the two of them, as different as they are in age and experience, share a real chemistry. That spark turns out to be one of many. We see it between Lulu and just about everybody she deals with and after a dinner party attended by Walter’s former partner, Audrey (Stacy Ross) and her fiancé, Lt. Dave Caro (Gabriel Marin). And then there’s the Church Lady. Walter receives regular visits from the Church Lady, but he gets a surprise when a new lady shows up, a Brazilian spiritualist played by the always extraordinary Catherine Castellanos, who makes a decidedly non-church-like impact on Walter.

There’s all kinds of tension and affection coursing through this two-hour and 15-minute drama/comedy. So many of the details feel right out of the news: white cop shoots unarmed black man, family threatened with eviction from rent-controlled apartment. But the heart of the play is all about race and power, interesting topics to explore among cops and felons, and the drama comes less from headlines and more from the details and ongoing challenges of everyday life.

There’s a whole lot of game playing going on here, within the family unit and within the larger system. The players here are pretty smart and experienced, and watching them make their moves is the source of abundant pleasure.

This cast is, to put it mildly, beyond belief. Under Lewis’ direction, their performances are perfectly calibrated and able to veer between comedy and drama with aplomb.

Lumbly and Marin are veterans of Guirgis’ work as produced by SF Playhouse. Both actors were in the 2013 production of The Motherfucker with the Hat (read my review here) and in 2007’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (review here). Marin was also in the Playhouse’s 2006 production of Our Lady of 121st Street. So to say these actors have a familiarity and comfort level with Guirgis’ work is an understatement, and boy does it work to the advantage of Riverside. Their interactions are pointed and tricky and full of intensity and humor.

Valdez as Oswaldo doesn’t get much stage time, but he makes the most of it. Oswaldo is a troubled young man, but a sensitive one, and he emerges as a character you love immediately and want to know more about. As Lulu, Monte-Brown turns what could be a sexpot role into something more complex and interesting. She’s a game player, just like all the others, and claiming her slice of the power pie.

Ross and Castellanos, two of our best local actors, shine as women at very different points in their lives, and Gates as Junior really comes to the fore in a touching scene with Walter as the two men, in their contentious ways, try to express what they mean to each other.

Guirgis has a tremendous ear for dialogue that feels real but better than real. Through his lens, the drama and comedy of life is heightened, and Between Riverside and Crazy feels at times desperate, real and sad and other times hilarious and hopeful.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy continues through Sept. 27 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Women rock the Night at Cal Shakes season opener

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Lisa Anne Porter (right) plays separated twins Viola and Sebastian in the California Shakesperae Theater season-opening production of Twelfth Night. The female-led cast also includes (from left) Rami Margron as Orsino, Julie Eccles as Olivia, Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Domenique Loazno as Maria. Below: Stacy Ross (left) as Malvolio is under the mistaken impression that his mistress has the hots for him, a ruse concocted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Photos by Kevin Berne

Last year, California Shakespeare Theater offered an off-season touring production of Twelfth Night that featured an all-women cast and made stops in prisons, homeless shelters, senior communities and the like. It was a stripped-down, wonderful production, and apparently its impact was strong enough that outgoing artistic director Jonathan Moscone (he bids adieu in August after he directs The Mystery of Irma Vep) decided to pull the play into the company’s 41st season.

With a different director (Christopher Liam Moore), this is a very different Twelfth Night but with two key returning players and one overriding concept. The actors reprising their roles are Rami Margron as Duke Orsino (she also played scheming lady in waiting Maria last year) and the invaluable Catherine Castellanos making an even deeper impression as boozy wastrel Sir Toby Belch. This is not an all-female production, but it is what you might call female led. Of the eight cast members, seven are women, and – the irony is not subtle here – the only man, Ted Deasy, plays Feste, the fool (and other roles including a sea captain, a priest, a police constable, Antonio and a member of Orsino’s court).

Director Moore’s production is so sure footed and satisfying that the whole idea of a gender-bending cast populating an already gender-bending play quickly becomes less of a gimmick and more about some really good storytelling. It’s great that companies like Cal Shakes are shifting the balance away from male domination of Shakespeare, but it’s even better that the company is giving the stage to some incredibly talented actors to tell a sad, romantic, occasionally very funny tale.

Deasy begins the show by climbing out of a coffin sitting center stage. If that sounds grim – this is a play largely about grief, after all – not to worry. In full court jester garb (costumes by Meg Neville, who mercifully makes this jester bell-less), he whips out his iPhone and samples a playlist to indicate a storm is brewing: “Riders on the Storm,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Stormy Weather” and one other that’s too fun to spoil.” We’ll see iPhones throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, mostly for cuing up music (Air Supply, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin make appearances) but also for photo taking and the inevitable selfie.

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This is the 150th time Cal Shakes has done Twelfth Night (actually the eighth counting last year’s tour), and every time it feels like a slightly different play. Moore is having fun to be sure, but with that coffin never leaving the stage, the specter is ever present. The coffin represents several deaths affecting various characters. The twins Viola and Sebastian (both played by the marvelous Lisa Anne Porter) each think the other perished in a shipwreck. And the Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles, whose transformation from grief to love addled is spectacular) lost her father and brother in a short space of time and is drowning in her loss. But that coffin, being front and center in Nina Ball’s simple set, which resembles either a mausoleum or an elegant resort, also finds itself being used as various pieces of furniture, an ice chest for beer and as a dark, dank prison for the most notoriously wronged Malvolio.

Speaking of Malvolio, the righteous prig who brings out the bully in Sir Toby and his cohorts, Maria (Dominique Lozano) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), a word on the broad comic performances in this production. As Malvolio, Stacy Ross so fully inhabits the character that it’s as easy to hate him (and understand why he gets so viciously pranked) as it is to love him (when the prank goes way too far). Ross is funny, especially taking smiling lessons from the audience or gingerly navigating a set of stairs, but she’s also heartbreaking as the character is humiliated, taunted and bereft of the love he thought he had won.

With Castellanos’ turn as Sir Toby, there is broad hilarity (the costume conjures a Depptonian Capt. Jack Sparrow feel) but also a beating heart under all the liquor and brio and bullying. You get the sense that Toby is performing for Maria, whom he loves, and for Sir Andrew (Hall is quite funny as the blundering idiot), his sycophantic money bags of a sidekick. He’s got a (squalid) reputation to protect, but it really registers when even he admits the Malvolio prank has gone too far.

The happy ending, when the separated twins reunite, is handled deftly, and Porter, who has delineated her male and female (and female pretending to be male) characters beautifully, comes as close as a single actor could to making that scene poignant and a little heartbreaking (Viola gets her brother back from the void, but that hope does not exist for Olivia’s brother).

That this production can be rambunctious (Feste’s songs have a delightful country-western lilt) and funny, romantic and lyrical, sad and shadowy is its ultimate triumph.

FOR MORE INFORMAITON
California Shakespeare Theater’s Twelfth Night continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

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Erika Chong Shuch (left) is Titania, queen of the fairies, and Margo Hall is Bottom, a transformed rude mechanical and Daisuke Tsuji (rear) is Oberon a mischievous king of the fairies in the California Shakespeare Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Below: Tsuji’s Oberon and Danny Scheie’s Puck figure out how to right all the wrongs they’ve made with their midsummer meddling. Photos by Kevin Berne.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a landmark play for California Shakespeare Theater. When the company really became the company, then known as Berkeley Shakespeare Company, the first show produced at John Hinkel Park was Midsummer. Since then, the play has been performed seven more times, and now Cal Shakes concludes its 40th anniversary season with a version of the play that feels unlike any other production of it I’ve seen.

The opening scene, a battle/rough seduction between Theseus (Daisuke Tsuji) and the conquered Hippolyta (Erica Chong Shuch), is a good example of director Shana Cooper’s unique approach to the production’s tone. It’s hard to know whether to credit Shuch, who choreographed the play’s movement, or fight director Dave Maier for this dazzling encounter. But that kind of blended work is a hallmark of the production.

There’s a vigorous physicality to this Dream, whether it’s in the more formal dance moments (music and sound design is by Paul James Prendergast) or the heightened sense of vibrancy that enlivens the work of the forest fairies or the quartet of Athenian lovers who get lost and mightily tangled in the night. Even if there were no dialogue, you’d get a sense of relationships and tensions and emotions just from the way the thoroughly vivacious cast attacks the play.

There is dialogue, of course, and these sturdy actors deliver it as well as they embody the choreography. Margo Hall, for instance completely owns the role of Nick Bottom, the amateur actor who thinks he (or she in this case) should probably play every role in the play he and his friends are preparing for the King’s wedding festivities. Bottom is a rich comic role, and Hall finds new laughs in the pompous but lovable thespian, but she also finds the sincerity and the heart. That moment when Bottom, in mid-performance, stops ego acting and starts actually acting is wondrous (there’s a similiar performance moment for Craig Marker’s Flute, and it’s just as sweet).

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As if Danny Scheie hadn’t impressed enough earlier in the season playing twins in The Comedy of Errors (read my review here) – now he’s breathing new life into Puck, chief fairy in charge of forest mischief. Outfitted by designer Katherine O’Neill in sort of a steam-punk ensemble of latex pantaloons, suspenders and sleeveless shirt, Scheie sports a mohawk and an attitude. This Puck still has a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also kind of over it and, as they say, can’t even. Scheie is hilarious and a little bit renegade – a good mix for Puck.

Audiences rarely leave Midsummer talking about the lovers (it’s usually Bottom and Puck), but Cooper’s quartet, especially the women, are really something. Hermia (Tristan Cunningham) and Helena (Lauren English) begin and end as friends, but in the middle, with the help of fairy trickery, things get rough. And that’s when things get fun. The befuddled men, Lysander (Dan Clegg) and Demetrius (Nicholas Pelczar), get major points for their all-out attack on the physical comedy, but the night belongs to the women, who lament and rage and struggle with all their mighty might. Cooper wants her lovers to get dirty, and boy do they. Set designer Nina Ball covers her forest floor with some sort of softy, dirty kind of material, and when that’s not enough, the lovers begin flinging actual mud.

When the hurricane of midsummer magic begins to dissipate, watching the lovers clean themselves up turns out to be one of the nearly 2 1/2-hour production’s nicest (and most thoroughly earned) moments.

This is not a colorful Midsummer so much as it is a moody one, but not so moody that it’s gloomy. The lights (by Burke Brown) are stark (to go along with Ball’s fragmented, woodpile of a forest set) and only occasionally festive. Only at the end, when the lovers end up together and the amateur theatricals begin does color infuse the world of the stage (and Brown lights the trees behind the stage to spectacular effect).

And a word about those amateur theatricals: Hall and Marker, along with Catherine Castellanos, James Carpenter, Liam Vincent and Scheie, deliver the funniest version of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe I’ve seen, and Castellanos is the funniest wall, perhaps, of all time.

Even the autumn chill of opening night couldn’t diminish the feverish heat generated by this Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s got the laughs, the sparks and the moves you only find in the most memorable of dreams.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through Sept. 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Cal Shakes sculpts a vital, vivacious Pygmalion

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Anthony Fusco (left) is Henry Higgins, Catherine Castellanos (center) is Mrs. Pearce and Irene Lucio is Eliza Doolittle in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Below: On the streets of Covent Garden – Nicholas Pelczar (on balcony) is Freddy Eynsford Hill, Lucio (center) is Eliza and Julie Eccles is Mrs. Eysnford Hill. Photos by Kevin Berne

When real life comes in and smacks Prof. Henry Higgins across the face, it’s a wonderful thing to see this brilliant yet stunted man consider, perhaps for the first time in his life, that kindness may have worth akin to genius.

The force representing the real world – a world of messiness and emotion and connection – takes the form of Eliza Doolittle, an extraordinary young woman who is the intellectual if not social equal of Higgins and his superior when it comes to living life as most of humanity experiences it.

One of the great things about the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is how balanced it is. You feel Shaw’s guiding hand in Jonathan Moscone’s approach in the way that nothing feels superfluous. Every character is there for a reason and a point of view. Moscone’s cast is filled with Bay Area all-stars plus a remarkable company debut from Irene Lucio as Eliza, the flower girl with brains, bravery and aspiration.

Lucio’s Eliza is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is how she is fully emotionally alive without ever over-playing it. The rough Eliza we meet on the cobblestones of Covent Garden is recognizable in the graceful, articulate, beautifully spoken Eliza we see at the end. There’s an emotional through-line in the character I haven’t felt before in other productions of the play or its musical sibling, My Fair Lady. That makes a big difference in the focus of the story, which comes down to Henry, the teacher (or sculptor), and Eliza, the student (or sculpture) and then zeroes even closer in on Eliza before allowing Henry a moment of reflection, realization and possible heartbreak (which is, in its own right, a triumph brought about by Eliza).

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The pleasures of this 2 1/2-hour play are many, from the elegant, florally accented set by Annie Smart to the classy costumes by Anna Oliver. But it’s the sterling cast that really makes it crackle. As the “pretty pair of babies playing with their live doll,” Anthony Fusco and L. Peter Callender essaying Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively, are delightfully crisp in their camaraderie and confirmed bachelorhood. They embark on their experiment turning Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe,” into a princess at a ball with the glee of boys building a fort in the woods. That Pickering is the warmer, more mannerly man is clear from the start, and Higgins, for all his selfish thoughtlessness, is always interesting and usually honest. He’s frank and even mean, but it doesn’t seem he intends to be. Callender’s charms are many here, and the masterful Fusco keeps Higgins from being a monster by virtue of his intelligence, enthusiasm and emotional complexity under all that scholarly folderol.

Catherine Castellanos is the epitome of British resolve as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. She’s strong and sensible and can’t for the life of her talk Higgins and Pickering into understanding that their “experiment” involves a real, live human being with feelings and attachments and a future growing more complicated by the day. Equally strong but with more humor and heart is Sharon Lockwood’s Mrs. Higgins, a mother continually frustrated by her rude, inconsiderate yet somehow adorable son. Lockwood and Castellanos are also very funny in the opening scene as squawking Cockneys.

The Eynsford Hill family is often forgettable in Pygmalion, but not here. As members of the upper class who have very little money, their desperation masked with pretension is a powerful component of Shaw’s deconstruction of class and its illusions and debilitating demands. Julie Eccles as Mrs. Eynsford Hill keeps up appearances but clearly has suffered in life. She has compassion, unlike her daughter Clara (Elyse Price), while her son Freddy (Nicholas Pleczar) is simply a noodle.

Probably as Shaw intended it, Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, practically steals the show. James Carpenter’s performance bursts with charm and unfettered joy at being a proud member of the “undeserving poor.” Before he officially launches his crusade against middle-class morality, Alfred the dustman is a rouge and a ruffian touched with a gift for rhetoric. He brings discomfort and entertainment in equal measure, and there’s menace and merriment in Carpenter’s brilliant portrayal. It’s too bad Shaw never got around to writing a spin-off: Doolittle in America.

So often Pygmalion is presented as a play of ideas, which it certainly is. Shaw is never caught short on that score. But it’s also a play bursting with life. Eliza wants more and better for herself and does everything she can to get it, even if what she gets isn’t at all what she expected. But she’s undaunted, and she finds that she’s as smart as Higgins but even better equipped than he is to deal with the realities of modern life. She heads off into an uncertain future with confidence, and that’s absolutely thrilling.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Pygmalion dialect coach Lynne Soffer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw continues through Aug. 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free BART shuttle to and from the theater at Orinda BART station. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Campo Santo, Cal Shakes do some Califas dreaming

EXTENDED THROUGH NOV. 23
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Sean San José is Isaac in the Campo Santo/California Shakespeare Theater production of Alleluia, the Road by Luis Alfaro. The play is one part of the elaborate Califas Festival at Intersection for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Intersection for the Arts

There’s something extraordinary happening at Intersection for the Arts, and only part of it has to do with theater. Intersection, along with Campo Santo and California Shakespeare Theater have been partners for years, but their current collaboration is kind of staggering.

It began back last April with a production of Richard Montoya’s The River directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José (read my review here) and continued with Cal Shakes’ season opener, Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José in June starring San José and directed by Jonathan Moscone (read my review here).

Now we have the culmination of the collaboration in the Califas Festival, a multimedia exploration of what it means to be a Californian. There are filmed documentaries on display in the galleries alongside photo documentations and some really staggering art, not to mention a floor covered with letters written by theatergoers from the previous plays and notes they wrote for proverbial bottles. When you go to see the play, which is sort of the centerpiece art, you are completely immersed in this astonishing exhibition. The play takes place in one of the two installation rooms, and there’s no central stage. The action takes place all over the room, with different parts of the exhibition providing the backdrop.

The play, Alleluia the Road by Luis Alfaro, is one more part of this California mosaic. Moscone directs and San José stars, and though critics have been asked not to review the show itself, potential audience members should know that this experience – the art and the play – cannot be missed. As with every Campo Santo production, you are guaranteed intelligence and emotion and powerful writing and incredible performances. If all you knew about this play was that it was written by Alfaro (whose Oedipus El Rey and Bruja have been so powerfully engaging at the Magic Theatre) and that it stars San José and Catherine Castellanos and Nora el Samahy and Brian Rivera and Donald E. Lacy Jr. among others, you would know that is something you need to see. If you care at all about Bay Area theater.

Come early for the show or make time to stay after, but engage with the exhibition (I highly recommend the 10-minute documentary Aquadettes by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari). At a recent performance, it was heartening to see audience members writing letters and postcards during intermission to add to the exhibition. This isn’t one of those art things offering hollow jabber about interactivity. This really as interactive as you’d like it to be.

And just to be clear about Alleluia, the Road – this is not a performance piece in a gallery. It’s a full-on, two-act play (about two hours in length) that takes a figurative road trip through the Golden State. And when it comes right down to it, you can have all the art and photography and documentary films in the world to beguile viewers, but when the lights go down on a performance, what matters most is story, emotion, connection. That’s definitely the case here, but that level of engagement almost always happens when Campo Santo, Cal Shakes and Intersection engage in that thing we need so much more of in the Bay Area theater world: collaboration.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Califas Festival and Alleluia, the Road continues an extended run through Nov. 23 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets for the play are $30. Visit www.theintersection.org.

Lust, lies and addiction fuel Shotgun’s Phaedra

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Catherine Castellanos is Catherine and Keith Burkland is Antonio in the world premiere of Adam Bock’s Phadera, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Patrick Alparone (left) is Paulie, a prodigal son returned to the home of his father (Burkland) and stepmother (Castellanos). Photos by Pak Han

The sensational zing of the Phaedra myth has always come from the incestuous relationship at the story’s heart: Phaedra is secretly in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. When that love becomes less of a secret, tragedy ensues.

Everyone loves a titillating love story, especially when there’s a taboo to be wrestled to the ground. Euripides apparently wrote two plays involving Phaedra, but only one, Hippolytus, survives. Then, in the late 17th century, Racine wrote a version of Phaedra that has aroused audience interest for more than 300 years. Eugene O’Neill had fun with the Phaedra story in his pulpy Desire Under the Elms, and now Adam Bock, one of North America’s most intriguing playwrights, puts his own stamp on the tale.

Bock reunites with Berkeley’s Shotgun Players for the world premiere of his Phaedra, and though Bock has a long history with Shotgun (his Swimming in the Shallows will always be a Shotgun highlight for me), this new drama finds him working in mature playwright mode, with echoes of Pinter and Albee bouncing through the silences and percolating under the familial tension.

A classical Greek story now resides in Connecticut, more specifically in the well-appointed home of Catherine and Antonio (the spectacular two-level set is by Nina Ball and its elegance is just a degree or two above chilly). He’s a judge and she’s a businesswoman (she goes to work but we never quite know what she does). He has a son from a previous marriage, and together they have a daughter whose off at boarding school.

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We learn from the opening narration, delivered by housekeeper Olibia (the precisely effective Trish Mulholland), that the marriage of Catherine and Antonio was one of convenience, with things like novelty and need being mistaken for passion and love. Many years on, the marriage is tense. He’s kind of an establishment blowhard with a penchant for knocking back scotch. And she’s an impeccably dressed (pricey-looking costumes are by Valera Coble) slab of granite, which is to say, she’s uptight and she’s never seen a coaster that didn’t need readjusting.

Catherine has built walls to barricade her loneliness and mask her regret at creating such an empty life for herself. It’s fascinating to see how Bock has created such an easily relatable modern version of Phaedra without having to apologize for her or make her a monster. It hardly comes as a surprise when we learn that Catherine has secret passions, especially when we see those passions ignited by someone who reminds her of the lost days when her husband – not to mention her future – was sexy and full of hope.

Director Rose Riordan exposes the danger and damage in this fine, upstanding family, and in addition to the gorgeous physical production (including sharp lighting and projections by Lucas Krech and white noise sound design by Hannah Birch Carl) she elicits some fine performances from her cast.

Keith Burkland as Antonio comes across as a violent man even if his lashing out is nothing more than verbal. There’s an exchange with his wayward son Paulie (the brooding, vulnerable Patrick Alparone) that makes the audience gasp as if there had been actual physical contact. Alparone’s Paulie, fresh out of rehab and working diligently to make his sobriety stick this time, is the real victim here, a child of parents so caught up in their own internal messes that they have no empathy for his.

Mulholland is an invaluable supporting player as the nattering housekeeper who cares for this family in ways well beyond her cooking and vacuuming. And Cindy Im is a bracing presence as Taylor, a friend of Paulie’s from rehab and a hopeful love interest.

Which brings us to Catherine Castellanos as Catherine, the complex motor of this story. Long one of the most powerful actors found on a Bay Area stage, Castellanos commands attention with the slightest movement or the loudest cry. Here, she is mostly restrained and absolutely heartbreaking. When emotions finally break through the carefully composed surface, there’s no escaping the intensity of lust, of sadness, of need. In many ways, she’s addicted to her secret love of Paulie because it’s the one connection that awakens feelings in her other than depression or boredom or swampy regret.

She can’t go to rehab to deal with this addiction, but she can spray it into the world like poison. Watching Castellanos do anything on stage is interesting, but this is rich, savage material, and her approach mixes elements of the damaged human, the compassionate woman and the unwitting monster to such effect that it’s hard not to love Catherine for all her flaws…until she goes far too far.

Bock’s Phaedra fascinates and compels. It titillates and terrorizes. It connects powerfully to the ancient and finds eloquent, emotional life in the here and now.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Adam Bock’s Phaedra continues through Oct. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$26. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

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.

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.