Cal Shakes' New Souped-Up Surroundings
July 12, 2010
No summer in the Bay Area is complete without a trip to Orinda to experience a production and picnic at the California Shakespeare Theatre's Bruns auditorium. There's something so magical about watching the sun disappear behind the golden hills while watching what are usually high-quality productions of classic plays (and the occasional new take on an old standard.)
It's true that sometimes the weather and productions fall short of ideal. I've yawned and/or shivered my way through several plays at Cal Shakes in the past. But the trip I made to see the company's production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession on Saturday night delivered the Cal Shakes experience at its best.
All that was regrettable was the loss of the ruggedness of the picnic grounds, which have lately been souped up to look all shiny. Although the gleaming new landscaping, toilets and snack pavilion give the Bruns space a more upscale look, they sort of undercut the rustic feeling of the space. Concrete and steel don't in this case add to the beauty of the natural surroundings in my opinion. If it weren't for the fact that the show I saw was so wonderful, I would have said that the money spent on "improving" the facilities could have been used more effectively on bettering the quality of the work on stage.
But I don't need to say such a thing because the production was so terrific that I didn't mind the souped-up surroundings. Under the directorship of Timothy Near, Cal Shakes' production of Mrs Warren comes to life with an energy and savage humor that surpasses any production I have seen to date of Shaw's masterpiece social satire which examines the theme of prostitution in its broadest possible sense.
For one thing, the play is eloquently cast. Anna Bullard's Vivie Warren and Stacy Ross' Mrs Warren bring out the pathos and claws of the play's central mother-daughter relationship. The two women show deep-seated affection for one another while at the same time standing up for themselves and doing whatever it takes to push forward their agendas. The men of the cast -- Rod Gnapp as the puckered Reverend Gardner, Dan Hiatt as the bumbling Mr Praed, Andy Murray as the oafish Sir George Crofts and Richard Thieriot as the sweet and dandyish curate's son Frank Garder -- create sharply drawn characters that all stand out individually, while blending in with the ensemble.
For another thing, the design elements of the production all work together to bring out the multi-layered texture of Shaw's dramaturgy. I was particularly taken with Erik Flatmo's vibrant scenery, which offsets enormous gaudy painted roses against aggressive black furniture. As the play unfolds, a low-garden fence made out of forbidding, black, interlocking spears gradually gets bigger and bigger and takes up more space on stage. By the end of the play, when the darkness of Vivie's background is fully revealed and understood forcing her to retreat into a state of workaholic isolation, the fence has become a huge locked fortress, completely encasing the stage and, metaphorically, Vivie's heart. Powerful stuff.