SAN FRANCISCO—How to praise California Shakespeare Theatre's production of Oscar Wilde's comedy classic The Importance of Being Earnest without slobbering? For starters, there was wonderfully frozen-faced, quintessentially earnest Anthony Fusco as Jack Worthing. In a nod to Wilde's famed homosexuality, director Jonathan Moscone emphasized Jack's tight but rocky friendship with his pal Algernon—a smirky, ultimately smitten Andy Murray—to good effect. Moscone's homage extended, slyly, to a towering blowup of the author himself—unnecessary, but amusing. Other standouts in a stellar cast were Julie Eccles, whose haughty Gwendolyn recalled a young Maggie Smith; Susannah Schulman's saucy, impetuous Cecily; and a pursed-lipped Domenique Lozano, who captured the imperious Lady Bracknell with a mere lift of a sculpted eyebrow or the regal wave of a walking stick. The actors mined every kernel of Wildean wit seemingly effortlessly, but Moscone also finds a tender soulfulness in the heart of the broadest humor. He found it here.
Elsewhere on the summer Shakespeare circuit, I caught Marin Shakespeare Company's last show of the season on a particularly warm, starry, and cricket-chirpy night at Dominican University's amphitheatre. Marin County veteran director James Dunn has staged this Wild West version of The Taming of the Shrew many times previously, so it's a testament to the cleverness of the concept and the mostly strong cast that the antics seem fresh and buoyant. The citizens of Padua have Texas drawls and swagger around bowlegged in spurs, ten-gallon hats, and holsters, firing off six-shooters randomly; a few play old-timey music on fiddle and tinny piano; and the action is mostly set in a delightfully rowdy saloon. Jeff Bridges look-alike Paul Sulzman is such a charmingly macho Petruchio that we believe in Kate's instant infatuation; she grabs him for a lustful kiss at the end of their first scene together, a directorial choice that somewhat tempers what is, undeniably, a cringingly sexist script. But willowy Marcia Pizzo—decked out becomingly in overalls and military cap—is rather lightweight and reedy-voiced as the scornful Kate: Although her snarls are believable, they're not deeply rooted and wrathful enough. She's better at play's end, as a Katharine still feisty but finally transformed by love.
As for para-Shakespeare plays: Bard scholars, and those who've seen Amy Freed's contemporary comedy, The Beard of Avon, know that some fanatics believe the 17th Earl of Oxford is the true author of Shakespeare's works. So a new play exploring that theory, first proposed in 1920 by one J.T. Looney, necessarily lacks suspense. Central Works playwright Gary Graves tries to compensate in The Mysterious Mr. Looney. Drawing on material from Looney's book, Graves has constructed a ghost story, with dollops of marital discord and hints of eroticism. And he directed it like an early 20th century thriller, so highly theatrical as to be at times satirical and, confusingly, at times dead serious. His actors turned in elegant performances: Christopher Herold as a tightly wound Shakespearean scholar; Jan Zvaifler as his mystically inclined wife; and John Patrick Moore as a mysterious visitor. But the well-executed froufrou in this talky play is ultimately fruitless; the central issue is dryly intellectual and wears thin quickly. It would make a clever one-act, though.
On to women-centric work. New York–based autobiographical monologist Marga Gomez is so hilariously self-effacing and bracingly honest about her appalling love life that, if you're not a lesbian, you almost feel that you are, temporarily—her embarrassing and wildly comical confessions are that universal. Intimate Details, directed by David Schweitzer, which opened Theatre Rhinoceros' season, is unfocused at times, and the writing lacks depth—you'd like Marga to dig a little deeper to reveal what on earth she saw in that chain-smoking, bisexual, New Jersey cokehead who dumped her. But never mind. The orgasm scene is in a class by itself.
Leftovers, the Ups and Downs of a Compulsive Eater, is Next Stage's three-actor, non-narrative exploration of women's food and body-image issues, with an upbeat, self-affirming conclusion. Originally created and performed in San Francisco in 1981 by improv teacher Marcia Kimmell and two partners—Deah Schwartz and Anne Wilford—it's had a long shelf life, playing in New York and elsewhere. Kimmell directed and also performed in this revival, and her split focus showed—the piece was marred by erratic pacing, awkward and haphazard staging, and low-key energy. And there's a raw feel to it: It evolved through improv exercises and still has the shapeless, clumsy feel of classroom work. Slick it ain't, but it touches a nerve. There's much to be said for addressing these concerns on the stage, as Eve Ensler is currently doing.
By far the most important offering of the month is American Conservatory Theater's exclusive North American engagement of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. The Robert Wilson/William S. Burroughs/Tom Waits musical was originally produced in German translation in Hamburg in 1990. Yes, the internationally based ensemble of actor/singers is flawless. It includes rock legend Marianne Faithfull as a sinisterly smiling, smoky-voiced devil, and Broadway's Matt McGrath as the clerk who makes a deadly Faustian pact to win his sweetheart's hand. The presentational, Brechtian-style performances are humorous, macabre, and grotesque, precisely and powerfully executed. Certainly, Wilson's minimalist fairy-tale set, various special effects, choreography, and painterly lighting are stunning, at times mesmerizing. Waits' music is memorable: funny, beautiful, and even heartbreaking. A small orchestra also provides alternately comic and chilling sound effects. Burroughs' text—based on a German folk tale and opera—resonates, a wry philosophy wrapped around a grimly obsessive gun motif.
But there's something coldly distant and self-indulgent here. Some scenes are extraneous, some are pointlessly slow, and some are too self-consciously comical. Despite Burroughs' deeply personal exploration, Wilson's characters are more humanoid than human; our emotional involvement in their plight is apparently not part of Wilson's artistic agenda. There's plenty of virtuosity on display here, but I longed for a human connection.
SACRAMENTO—Buck Busfield, producing director of the B Street Theatre, admits to playing favorites. Due to on-the-fly show selection and the short three-week rehearsal schedule that goes along with it, the czar of Sacramento's preeminent new-works house prefers to surround himself with casts that have more than a passing familiarity with his style of work, his size of stage, and his kind of people.
"I know where they're going, I know what they need, I know what their weaknesses are," says Busfield. "And they're funny." A good sense of humor, he says, defines the "B Street personality." Preferring to repeatedly dive into a small pool of reliable talent than swim in uncharted open waters, Busfield has assembled something of an unofficial repertory company. His cast for the B Street's current production of While We Were Bowling features many of those faces, including Kurt Johnson, Greg Alexander, Julia Brothers, John Lamb, and Dana Brooke.
Says the New York–based Brooke, who began her affiliation with B Street as an intern during the 1999–2000 season, "If you've got an established chemistry, and you know how those people work, you can skip that getting-comfortable period and jump right in."
"When you're working in a new environment or with new people, there's a testing-out of each other," says Alexander. "There's a need to impress. That's done away with when you're working with really talented actors you're familiar with and know everyone is going to come through." Especially in the early going of read throughs, a sense of comfort and security is welcome, says Lamb. "As an actor, it's nice to have that camaraderie from the outset, because theatre is such a risk anyway."
It's all about freedom, says Alexander. "I trust Buck's instincts implicitly, and he trusts mine. And that's a very freeing thing as an actor." Familiarity with a stage's physical space is another plu, say the cast members. "Whenever I come back, I know the stage so well and feel so at home that, when I start to rehearse, it's sort of in my bones," says the Los Angeles–based Brothers, who has appeared in 11 shows for the B Street since 1992. "I know where I can stand on that stage, and what constitutes strong blocking for the space; [I know] what Buck wants."
"There are areas on the stage that we all know how to apply," adds Alexander, a member here for 15 years. "Doing three-quarter thrust is tricky on the diagonal—you have your back to someone at all times. You don't want your back to the same person the entire scene, so finding reasons to adjust is a challenge."
There are cons, however, to working with the same actors and director in the same space. "The disadvantage is you're not working with anyone new, and that could be wonderful," says Brooke. Another "disadvantage" is a tendency to spend too much rehearsal time rehashing backstage banter.
Says Lamb, a B Street artistic associate, "If there's a cast member who isn't part of that group—maybe working for the first time there—they can feel like they're walking into the middle of a dinner with a group of friends they don't know." New Yorker Jarrad Skinner is making his professional debut, the lone B Street "virgin." "At first it was kind of intimidating," he says. "But they've been very inclusive. They look out for me."
"We were all very aware," says Busfield of Skinner's situation. "He was so outnumbered. I took him aside and let him know that we had three long weeks to rehearse and plenty of time to bring it in. If you're a new actor coming in, you can be hoodwinked to think we're not doing anything, but the last week-and-a-half [the regulars] come on like gangbusters."