Reclaiming of the Shrew 

Susannah Schulman re-envisions Helena in Cal Shakes' Midsummer Night's Dream.

Last weekend was a theatrical embarrassment of riches, as the comedies of two great masters opened in very different venues in Berkeley and Orinda. One takes place largely in the moon-deep woods, the other in two rooms of the royal palace. One plumbs the mysteries of dreams and love, the other those of government and personality. One is madcap and full of fairies, the other mostly talk and ministers. But both are excellent productions, fair tribute both to the men who wrote them and the potential of language to enchant and seduce.

Cal Shakes hits the ground running, opening its 2002 season with an absolutely delightful A Midsummer Night's Dream. Theatrically, Dream is what you'd call a safe bet. It's one of the most accessible and amusing of the Bard's works; you can bring your whole family. But how often does a production manage to balance fairies and tomfoolery with a serious sense of physical and emotional danger the way this one does? Those kids aren't running around in the woods for fun, after all. Hermia is risking her life by running away with Lysander, and sword-toting Demetrius, her father's preferred suitor, is none too happy about it.

Director Jonathan Moscone makes Dream work on many levels, aided and abetted by such veterans as Andy Murray as Puck and L. Peter Callender as Theseus/Oberon (paired again with the stately Nancy Carlin as Titania). Word for Word's Delia MacDougall (recently so emotionally raw and present in Venture's Two Rooms) brings a headstrong Hermia, neatly balanced by Susannah Schulman's long-suffering Helena. Although Helena can be played as shrewish, Schulman brings out every bit of her disappointment at being the unwanted woman, especially after both Hermia's paramour (a volatile, often cruel turn from Colman Domingo as Lysander) and Hermia's intended (Sky Soleil, playing Demetrius as the soldier next door) have been dosed with magic flower juice and turned their attentions to her. Convinced that the men are toying with her, Helena's rages barely conceal her deep pain, which Schulman nails.

The fairy folk are an interesting bunch. Andy Murray finally gets to use his real British accent as an especially resourceful bowler-hatted Puck. Puck so often is represented as a young and androgynous Peter Pan-type character (heck, I've played Puck), that seeing him played another way is welcome. Making Puck a little older and more definitively male gives his mischief an edge. By contrast, Titania's pink-clad fairy attendants are played by little girls so sweet the audience can't resist a collective aaaw; the tallest barely reaches Puck's shoulder. Nothing against the worldly, super-sexy fairies of other productions, but using children in the fairy parts also gives some of the interactions more zing, such as when Titania, putting Nick Bottom to bed, covers little fairy ears against possibly racy talk.

And then there is Bottom, the "rude mechanical" trapped in fairy crossfire and given the head of an ass. Brian Keith Russell, who was so bawdily perfect as Sir Toby Belch in last season's Twelfth Night, doesn't disappoint here either, as he tries to convince Peter Quince to let him play all the roles in the inane "Pyramus and Thisbe," or after his hee-hawing "translation" by Puck. In fact, the play-within-a-play works so well in this production it feels like a fully-rounded entertainment in its own right.

Since Moscone has taken the helm, Cal Shakes shows have been consistently well-conceived and visually exciting. The sets, costumes, lights, and blocking always appear to be of a whole. Here, scenic designer Riccardo Hernández revisits the territory John Coyne staked out last year in Twelfth Night. Once again, there's a giant picture frame, a pool-table-green raked stage, geometric topiaries. This time, though, the actors race up and down a crescent moon, wash at Oberon's fountain, and make a rather severe space seem as magical as any moss-dripping forest design might have done. There's a particularly arresting moment in the scene where Hermia is brought in judgment before Theseus. Scowling Hippolyta in her severe black dress is seated above supine Hermia in her frilly white dress, and the men, also in black and white, circle around them like animated chess pieces. It's just one of several striking images that illustrate the care Moscone and choreographer MaryBeth Cavanaugh take in shaping Shakespeare's works to beguile modern audiences. Combined with fine acting, design, and the stunning views unique to the Bruns, it adds up to a wonderful Dream that bodes well for the rest of the season.

While we get a Dream just about every year from one area company or another, this year is unusual in the amount of Shaw on order -- St. Joan at the Aurora last November, and now The Apple Cart at the Berkeley City Club, under the aegis of Women in Time. Directed by Jennifer Wagner, this take on Shaw's 1926 political comedy is so witty, fast-paced, and enjoyable that it makes me wonder why we don't see this play more often. Wagner's changes are few and minor and the result is frighteningly up-to-date for a play written eighty years ago, covering as it does planned obsolescence, straying politicians, and the question of whether democracy really works. It's clever and intelligent. It has the kinds of parts actors like playing. It raises complicated questions relatively painlessly. So why is it so unfamiliar?

Maybe we don't see it more often because Wagner and her cast make what must be hard look easy. The first act runs close to an hour and a half, most of it discourse on the nature of government. Long speeches require great voices, and this Apple Cart is a symphony of rich ones. Dialect coach Elena Torre and the actors reach deep into their bags of tricks to convey the variety of populations represented in the play.

The play itself is mostly Shaw making interesting and often uncomfortable observations about monarchy and democracy. Kindly, refined King Magnus (a vaguely Sean Conneryesque David Winter) is having one of those days. His cabinet has approached him with an ultimatum, his mistress is particularly truculent, and to top things off, a former colony has decided that a big change is in order. What is the people's last hope to do? In his preface to the play, Shaw compared democracy to a balloon that can only fit a few people and touches down just once every election year. In the play itself, he repeatedly stresses that most people don't think enough to be trusted with the task of governing. And while at first glance it seems that the King is all benevolence and his elected cabinet all ineffectiveness, it gradually becomes clear that King and ministers are playing a very high-level game -- making the ending a real and gratifying surprise.Hey, Let's Put on a Shaw


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