Spunk is a bit of a departure for California Shakespeare Theater. It was just a decade ago that then-new artistic director Jonathan Moscone started adding modern classics to the company’s steady diet of Shakespeare—plays by Wilder, Chekhov, Shaw, Wilde, Beckett and Coward. And then the adaptations of classics: David Edgar’s Dickens; Amy Freed’s Restoration comedies; Octavio Solis’s Steinbeck stories; Amanda Dehnert’s Shakespeare rock musical. Now Cal Shakes looks beyond dead white men for its latest presentation of an adapted classic: Spunk, George C. Wolfe’s acclaimed 1989 adaptation of a trio of short stories by seminal Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, three very different portraits of struggling African-Americans in rural Florida and big-city Harlem.
It’s a good problem to have: Looking over the list of the 118 local shows I saw this year, I had a hard time narrowing it down to a Top Ten. There are plenty of ways in which 2011 was a tough, lousy, no-good year, but in terms of what I saw on the Bay Area stage, it was pretty damn good. It was a great year for solo shows, between the Marsh (Marga Gomez’s Not Getting Any Younger, Don Reed’s The Kipling Hotel and Geoff Hoyle’s Geezer) and Berkeley Rep (Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Last Cargo Cult, Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy and Rita Moreno’s Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup). There were a couple of great visiting performances by screen stars: Kevin Spacey as Richard III, John Malkovich as mass murderer Jack Unterweger. And there were any number of other shows that thoroughly charmed me in one respect or another but didn’t quite crack the Top Ten: Crowded Fire and Asian American Theatre Company’s Songs of the Dragons Crying to Heaven, Sleepwalkers Theatre’s The Nature Line, Shotgun Players’ Beardo and Care of Trees, Impact’s Disassembly, SF Playhouse’s Tigers Be Still. As for what did make it onto the list, I tried to rank them in order of preference, but no matter how many times I tweak it the ranking feels arbitrary. So let’s say that, like one’s own children, I love them all equally, and just hope they buy that.
From Mrs. Warren to Joan of Arc, George Bernard Shaw adored his strong women characters, and was fierce in his condemnation of the gender inequality in Victorian society. His 1895 play Candida takes an interesting approach to this concern, using the situation of one man in love with another man’s wife to explore which gender really holds the power in a traditional married household.
California Shakespeare Theater is doing more Shakespeare than usual this season. Since Jonathan Moscone took over as artistic director in 2000, he’s brought in more than the occasional non-Shakespeare production the company had done before that but at least one play by someone else each year, and since 2004 it’s been half-and-half. This season’s four plays are also split evenly between the Bard and other authors—there’s Titus Andronicus and Taming of the Shrew alongside Shaw’s Candida—but in a way there are three Shakespearean works in the mix because the one completely new play, The Verona Project, is based on Two Gentlemen of Verona, sometimes believed to be William Shakespeare’s first play, and far from his best.
It’s hard enough dealing with grief when you understand what happened, and why and how it happened, but when what’s happening to someone you love is completely incomprehensible, it’s mighty hard to get your mind around it and resign yourself to anything. For whatever reason, plays all over Berkeley depict families dealing with highly unconventional versions of loss.
For a play that’s supposedly cursed, whose title theater people make a big show of not speaking aloud, the bloody tragedy Macbeth is performed so often that it’s a credit to William Shakespeare that it retains as much power as it does the umpteenth time around. And it’s a credit to director Joel Sass and his strong, multitasking cast that the California Shakespeare Theater production feels as electrifying as if it were entirely unfamiliar and perilous ground.
Ever since Jonathan Moscone started adding late 19th and early 20th century classics into California Shakespeare Theater’s seasons early in his decade as artistic director, the company has done an outstanding job with the works of George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde. Former San Jose Rep artistic director Timothy Near, who helmed Cal Shakes’s near-perfect 2008 production of Uncle Vanya, now takes on George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which was initially banned for its no-nonsense discussion of prostitution and particularly of society’s culpability for providing few economic alternatives for women.
There was an appropriately agricultural scent in the air for opening night of California Shakespeare Theater’s world premiere of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. The company’s brand new Sharon Simpson Center with café, store, offices and the like under a verdant living roof was not quite completed, and the prosperous smell of fertilizer wafted through the outdoor amphitheater.