Lord, what fools these mortals be if they miss the 40th anniversary season at the California Shakespeare Theater.
A jewel of the Bay Area's bustling summer outdoor theater scene, Cal Shakes boasts one of the most gorgeous outdoor venues ever, an amphitheater perched atop a golden Orinda hillside. The natural beauty of the vista is matched by an inventive artistic aesthetic that appeals to culture vultures and newbies alike.
"It's a bright, sparkling gem," says actor Danny Scheie of the company. "It's the prettiest place to act in Christendom, and the audiences that come to the Berkeley hills are the smartest and most open audiences in the world ... (Jon) Moscone is a force of nature whose relentless pursuit of exciting, athletic and accessible theater gets an actor plugged into the highest artistic voltage possible."
Indeed, company artistic director Jon Moscone is taking pains to make sure that Cal Shakes will not be resting on its laurels this summer. Instead, the ever-ambitious troupe will be rededicating itself to finding fresh new ways to bring the Bard to life as well as expanding the boundaries of the canon. Lorraine Hansberry's masterpiece "A Raisin in the Sun," the first play written by a black woman to make it to Broadway, launches the season on Saturday night. The play runs through June 15.
"For us, the anniversary is not about throwing a big, la-dee-dah party where we pat ourselves on the back," says Moscone. "We want to find ways to be as full of wonder as we were when we started. The anniversary reminds us of that, and that makes it a very exciting time for us. This is a time to reach back to the energy and vigor of the past."
New looks at classics
For the record, Cal Shakes has launched an endowment campaign in honor of the occasion, to help ensure the company's future. But theater officials are also determined to keep the theater from growing complacent with age. The mission remains to reinvent the classics for a new generation, to urge theatergoers to rethink their assumptions about the classics and to grapple with Shakespeare with the same rigor and urgency as a brand new play. In recent years, Cal Shakes has surprised audiences with a zombie "Hamlet," the music-infused Zora Neale Hurston tale "SPUNK" and a haunted "Macbeth." Taking risks, some of which soar, some of which fail, is the guiding principle.
"We're not big on nostalgia here," as managing director Susie Falk puts it. "That's not who we are."
Certainly, change has been a constant at the company since its birth. The troupe began in 1974 as the ragtag Emeryville Shakespeare Company, staging "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Unitarian Fellowship Hall in Berkeley. Later, the company transformed into the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, which held court at John Hinkel Park. Many remember the magic of those early years in the park but also the pitfalls.
"The conditions were pretty primitive; the dressing rooms were just sheds that were slapped together each year (which rats tended to nest under during the course of the summer), porta potties, and one or two outdoor sinks to wash up in after the shows," recalls James Carpenter, a veteran of the Shakespearean pantheon. Eventually, "Some of the neighbors went on a crusade to boot us from the park ... and Cal Shakes was born from the ashes."
When Moscone took the reins in 2000, the theater had declined from a local treasure into a lackluster troupe with a spotty track record. Under his tenure, it has re-emerged as a $5 million operation that stands on the front ranks of the Bay Area theater scene.
Building up the cred
"Moscone took this company that really did seem on the wane and turned it into a national gig," says actress Stacy Ross, who has played everything from Lady Macbeth to Lady Windermere there. "He started bringing in directors, designers and actors from across the country, and the result has been a theater that has grown in size and skill and creativity. He's brought it closer to the cutting edge, and he's been fearless about it."
While the company remains steeped in the Bard, Moscone has also opened the door to new works, even musicals, in an attempt to reinvigorate the company's theatrical vocabulary. This year, Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" and Shaw's "Pygmalion" will rub shoulders with Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors" and a revival of the first play the company ever performed, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
On the cutting edge
"We're not just artists up on a hill," says Moscone, "We live in the world, and the theater has to navigate the way the world is shifting."
The theater is also embracing edgier aesthetics, such as a pared-down, all-female "Twelfth Night," in collaboration with San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts this spring. That gutsy, minimalist production toured to local schools, community centers and homeless shelters. Reaching out to new audiences is key.
"How do we bring new voices to the table? Not just because it's good for the world but because it's good for the art," he says. "We want to tighten the string between the artists and the community."
Community engagement is one of the reasons for kicking off the season with "A Raisin the Sun," a parable about race, class and destiny in 1950s Chicago that never seems to lose its tragic potency.
The trick is cultivating a new audience while cherishing those who have been attending Cal Shakes forever. For some families, Shakespeare under the stars is a tradition passed down from one generation to another. Falk cut her teeth with the troupe as a high school apprentice back in 1987. Part of the allure of the troupe is its rich sense of history.
Bonding in the fog
That history includes the wind and fog that have become part of the camaraderie of the experience. Theatergoers bond over their parkas and long underwear, necessities of life at the Bruns, which has been nicknamed the "Orinda Wind Tunnel" by devotees. Braving the vagaries of nature is part of the adventure.
"We have an audience like no other," says Falk. "Cal Shakes folk are a loyal and hardy bunch. It's a tribe of people who value the things that make this theater unique."
Certainly that sense of specialness is shared by the actors. Scheie, former head of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, will never forget playing Pyramus in "Dream" a few years back.
"I remember lying on the stage," he says, "peeking up at the vast twinkling stars and an honest-to-God real full moon, listening to the audience scream with delight, and thinking, 'It doesn't get better than this for an actor. Ever. Be in this moment. Be in it fully. This is why we do it.' "
By Lorraine Hansberry
Running: May 21-June 15
Where: California Shakespeare Theater, Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
Tickets: $20-$72, 510-548-9666; www.calshakes.org
more OUTDOOR THEATER
There are lots of outdoor plays to catch this summer. Here's a partial rundown.
MOUNTAIN PLAY: Through June 15; amphitheater on Mount Tam, Marin County; "South Pacific"; $40; www.mountainplay.org.
LIVERMORE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL: June 19-July 20, Concannon Vineyard, Livermore; "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Pride and Prejudice" in tandem; $25-$46; http://livermoreshakes.org.
FREE SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK: Presented by San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, "The Taming of the Shrew," June 28-Sept. 21 at parks in Pleasanton, Cupertino, Redwood City and San Francisco; free; www.sfshakes.org.
SAN FRANCISCO MIME TROUPE: Presents political comedy "Ripple Effect," July 4-Sept. 1 at parks throughout Northern California; free; www.sfmt.org.
WOODMINSTER SUMMER MUSICALS: "Les Miserables," July 11-20; "Catch Me If You Can," Aug. 8-17; "Flower Drum Song," Sept. 5-14; Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland; $28-$46; www.woodminster.com.
MARIN SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: "As You Like It," July 12-Aug. 10; "Romeo and Juliet," July 26-Sept. 28; "An Ideal Husband," Aug. 23-Sept. 27; Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, San Rafael; $12-$35, season packages available; www.marinshakespeare.org.
HALF MOON BAY SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," planned opening day is Labor Day weekend, go to www.hmbshakespeare.org for updates.