Cal Shakes’ adds new meaning to the phrase “love conquers all” as it presents the 2014 season’s final production of the summer of dreams, sensationally so with director Shaunna Cooper’s combustible combination of talent sparked by perennial favorite Danny Scheie; magical choreography by Erika Chong Shuch who plays a physical lead role; and several familiar faces from the beloved amphitheater. Make this enchanted forest comedy, a 40th anniversary production, the highlight of your summer. Cooper and Shuch arrange the actors and ensemble in all kinds of formations from the opening duet to trios to group numbers and solos, on the floor crawling or getting dragged, pirouetting, flying into each other’s arms or out of them, arranged vertically and horizontally and every which way but loose.
Indeed Cal Shakes usually finishes the summer season with a bang not a whimper as post-sunset temperatures finally create an adult summer camp sleepover feeling for the loyal twisted Shakespeare fans in their camping attire. Did one really catch Danny Scheie pirouetting during his mischief in the forest? Did he really saunter off, slowly meandering off stage as he rushed to correct his mis-spells? His role as the self-satisfied Puck seems well deserved after he just played the hapless and beaten servant at the other end of mistaken identities in “Comedy of Eros” I mean “Errors”. Just desserts. Somewhere Bill Irwin is proud.
So. Cooper creates the most original and imaginative dream world, using the Orinda foothills outdoor location as the perfect backdrop for her magical forest setting. Nina Ball interpreted the forest with branches strung floor to ceiling and shrouded in white clouds of poofery. Like Halloween costumes, that stuff needs to be flame retardant especially given the hijinks and mischief all around. In any event, Margo Hall looked really hot in her harness. Costume designer Katherine O’Neill turned a braying actor making an ass of himself into a hairy ass with a strutting S & M bent complete with black leather head halter and collar. The feisty forest nymph played by Chong Shuch falls for the ass played by Hall. It seems in the magic forest, love conquers Hall.
It’s a lot of fun to watch these particular roles as each must transform into something so wildly divergent. For instance James Carpenter, known for his role as Scrooge each Christmas at ACT, plays not only the royal father denying his consent for his daughter’s marriage but also a feeble carpenter and traveling actor with his little Paris Hilton doggie for a friend.
The affable artistic director Jonathan Moscone introduced the production with instructions to exit stage right in case of fire, unless the fire was stage right. Right on cue, a sort of electrical burning smell rose in the air toward the end of the production from the scaffolding where certain light seemed to burn ever so brightly.
Meanwhile the cast projected chemistry hotter than a sum of it’s parts. Cooper cast Scheie as Puck, who casts a love spell on the wrong lover at the behest of his master played regally and with a vegeneance by Daisuke Tsuji. He is frustrated by the push me/pull you Amazonian nature of his romance with the forest nymphish Titania, played by the choreographer herself Erica Chong Shuch. Katherine O’Neill designed the costumes including embuing giant forest flowers with magical powers of love, which Puck wields like weapons in the faces of the targets.
She has the forest fairies singing and dancing in unison. She herself gets elevated as if levitating. From the moment she makes an impressive entrance with her rival/lover Oberon in a cave-man conquest, it’s on like Donkey Kong. To this end, his powers eventually lead to the transformation of a boastful poseur in a traveling band of actors into a seductive lover for his recalcitrant queen. Margo Hall plays that duel role, Bottom the mule with a black g-string and leather strapped on over his hairy ass. (Sorry, plot spoiler.)
Dan Clegg plays one of the cross-wired lovers Lysander, who desires Hermia, played with elegant ferociousness by petite Tristan Cunningham. Hermia’s father disapproves of the match as he has chosen Demetrius, played by Nicholas Pelczar. In turn, Lauren English plays the spinsterish and chunky Helena who suffers from unrequited love by Demetrius.
To Helena’s chagrin, the love spell ends up with Lysander angrily rejecting pretty Hermia and declaring his love for Helena who gets zapped into something from Frederick’s of Hollywood under her Catholic school girl/military uniform. Simultaneously the cad Demetrius competes for Helena’s affection. Helena feels overwhelmed and dismayed at their cruelty towards her, mocking her suffering and loneliness.
Another highlight of the play within a play within a play has to be Catherine Castellanos in a gender bending role involving slapstick where she plays an inanimate object, a door. She’s the door blocking two lovers who try admirably to kiss through her.
As is true of most Shakespeare, it helps to read the script before attending the play since there are so many character changes and duel or triple castings and just as many plot twists, like opera.
The post-opening night party involved some tasty treats.
The parking lot was jam packed opening night and the nice shuttle between Orinda BART and the theater made that a moot point.
The food at the café is great and adult beverages may be taken into the theater itself along with the coffee and tea by sponsor Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Single tickets range from $20 to $72 with discounts for groups, seniors, students, people under 30. Cal Shakes also offers twenty tickets for $20 each first come first served for each performance. Callers may reach the box office at 510 548-9666 between noon and two to purchase.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs to September 28.
For more information: www.CalShakes.org