July 10, 2002

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Bard times
Once again, the Shakespeare season is upon us.

By J.H. Tompkins

AS FAR AS Bay Area Shakespeare fans are concerned, Jonathan Moscone, now in his third year as artistic director of the California Shakespeare Festival, is the best thing that's happened around here in some time. The company, which currently operates from the beautiful if sometimes chilly (OK, freezing) 545-seat Bruns Amphitheater in the hills between Berkeley and Orinda, has been the flagship of local Shakespeare companies since its days in John Hinckel Park as Berkeley Shakespeare Festival.

But during the mid and late '90s, the company had fallen into a rut; its work was often plodding and predictable, sometimes managing to bury the talents of even its best actors. So when Moscone was hired to take over, there was a "try anything" feeling among Cal Shakes regulars. In fact, Moscone has done considerably more than just try a few things: he's managed to bring new life to the company. His casts have boasted some of the best actors available, including visiting outsiders such as Mhari and Triney Sandoval, who starred in Cal Shakes's 2000 Taming of the Shrew, the inaugural production of Moscone's stewardship. He's also cast veterans of prominent Bay Area stages, such as James Carpenter and Nancy Carlin, and names previously less familiar to local Shakespeare audiences, such as L. Peter Calendar, Brian Russell, and Delia MacDougall. And he's brought in, and, it seems, increasingly given a loose leash to, directors from outside the company.

Moscone chose young, nationally touted Kate Whorisky to direct Macbeth, which opened July 6, and the results are good. She's put together a production in which the text is clearly articulated and in which there are some inventive and visually exhilarating moments. Andy Murray is particularly strong as Banquo, as are Russell as Porter, and Delia MacDougall, Isabelle Ortega, and Julia Eccles as the three witches – who hit the stage as the wind whips eerily through the valley behind the stage.

Part of the pleasure of the annual array of productions is, of course, seeing how companies will stage plays that audiences (not to mention actors and directors) have seen many times before. This year, for instance, Cal Shakes, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival will all stage The Winter's Tale. Another example can be found in the Macbeth mounted at the OSF.

Where Whorisky's vision is at times exciting and challenging – she brings the witches onstage with cello-drenched rock music playing and has choreographed their scene with elements that owe a debt to music video as much as to traditional theater – it is relatively straight-laced compared with OSF artistic director Libby Appel's. Appel has staged the play in the round, stripped of any scenery save for a small rise in center stage, with a pool of liquid in the middle. She reduced the cast to six actors – some actors play as many as five roles – and uses only lighting to change mood. I saw it last month on a day when two actors were understudies, which no doubt robbed the production of the edge necessary to pull it off. Still, it struggled on its own merits – it lacked articulation, and even Macbeth, played by the reliable, sometimes inspired G. Valmont Thomas, seemed to be having an off day.

That said, I can't understate how worthwhile a summer (or spring or fall, for that matter) trip to the OSF's Ashland, Ore., home – it's a five- or six-hour drive from the Bay Area – is. If the three- or four-play seasons of companies like Cal Shakes and Shakespeare Santa Cruz are ambitious, the 11-play, three-theater, eight-month season at the OSF is overwhelming – it's amazing to find a town whose lifeblood is a Shakespeare festival.

To mount a season at the OSF is, simply put, a massive undertaking, one that's possible because of the hard work and expertise of theater professionals such as the company's production stage manager, Kimberly Jean Barry, now in her 24th year with the festival. In a recent phone conversation, she underscored the scope of the project.

"I'm the lead sled dog on an 11-person stage-management team," she said with a laugh. "We're the hub of the wheel as far as coordinating the action on each of 11 productions and all the other things we do, like school programs, tours, and other educational events. The team is meant to be the support system of the other 420 people who are the professional artists, artisans, and technicians. Our mantra is 'It's the rep,' because we are never working on one play at a time."

Barry enthused about working on this summer's Winter's Tale, a solid and, particularly in the delightful second half, occasionally inspired production directed by Michael Edwards, a familiar face in Bay Area theater circles. As artistic director at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the '80s, Edwards brought a high-spirited, risk-taking sensibility to the company that was evident in the OSF production. When the play leaps 16 years from the Royal Court, which Edwards set in the uptight 1950s, it lands in a Bohemia he has envisioned as a kind of Summer of Love, with delightful period costumes and music that amplify the change in time and sensibility. The result is a rollicking, fun piece of theater.

Edwards was a good fit for the Santa Cruz company, and in some ways you could say his legacy is still being felt – although at this date that's probably more a factor of that city's roots in the counterculture.

Currently under the stewardship of artistic director Risa Brainin, the company opens its season July 10 with a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor directed by Sari Ketter. It's set in post-World War II America, a time and place whose buoyancy and humor seemed particularly thin, shrouded as it was by the birth of the atomic age. America's middle class was mushrooming, and prewar class relations were being disrupted – a setting ripe for Falstaff's escapades.

It's difficult to top the beauty of SSC's Redwood Glen stage – located on the UC Santa Cruz campus in, well, a redwood glen. It's been the scene of terrific work over the years, from Danny Sheie's late-'80s Comedy of Errors to last season's terrific Tim Ocel-directed Midsummer Night's Dream (which starred the Sandovals). The memories of the past alone make SSC's opening afternoon worth attending.

In fact, all of the summer's productions are worth a look. The largely outdoor settings lend an informality and warmth – one has to assume the atmosphere was, once upon a time, an essential part of the experience – that is often missing from the theater. No matter how often you've seen the plays, they are never the same, which is why, every summer, there is so much to choose from.

Shakespeare: Summer 2002 (and beyond)


California Shakespeare Festival. Bruns Amphitheater, 1 Gateway Boulevard, Orinda. (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org. Macbeth, through July 28. The Seagull, Aug. 7-Sept. 1. The Winter's Tale, Sept. 11-Oct. 6.

Marin Shakespeare Company. Forest Meadows Outdoor Amphitheatre, Dominican University, 50 Acacia, San Rafael. (415) 499-4488, www.marinshakespeare.org. A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, July 12-Aug. 25. Much Ado about Nothing, July 19-Aug. 25. Macbeth, Sept. 6-28.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 15 South Pioneer, Ashland, Ore. (541) 482-4331, www.orshakes.org. Macbeth, Playboy of the West Indies, Julius Ceasar, Noises Off, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, through Nov. 3. The Winter's Tale, Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, The Green Show, through Oct. 13.

San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Various Bay Area parks. (415) 422-2222, www.sfshakes.org. The Winter's Tale, through Sept. 29. Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter, S.F. Romeo and Juliet, Sept. 20-Oct. 13. University of San Francisco Presentation Theater, 2350 Turk Boulevard, S.F. Aladdin, December.

Shakespeare at Stinson. Highway 1 and Calle Del Mar, Stinson Beach. (415) 868-1115, www.shakespeareatstinson.org. Measure for Measure, July 12-Aug. 18. Twelfth Night, Aug. 24-Sept. 29.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz. UC Santa Cruz, Festival Glen, Meyer Drive, Santa Cruz. (831) 459-2159, www.shakespearesantacruz.org. The Merry Wives of Windsor, July 13-Sept. 1. Coriolanus, July 20-Aug. 31. The Sea Gull, July 21-Aug. 31.

Shotgun Players. John Hinckel Park, Southampton, San Diego Road and Somerset Place, Berk. (510) 704-8210, www.shotgunplayers.org. Troilus and Cressida, July 21 (preview)-Sept. 1.

Woman's Will. Various Bay Area parks. (415) 567-1758, www.womanswill.org. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, July 13-Aug. 18.