by resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream between 1594 and 1598, when the playwright was in his early to mid-thirties (solidly-middle-aged by the standards of his time, “young” by today’s measurements, where the Y and Z generations have an estimated average life-span of 103!)

Midsummer was preceded by Titus Andronicus, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the three Henry VI plays that we produced last season. The play’s closest companion, however, was Romeo and Juliet, of which it can be seen as an inversion: while Romeo and Juliet begins as a comedy about youthful infatuation, suddenly plummeting into intense passion and ultimate tragedy, Midsummer begins with a cruel threat of death, soaring from there through darkness, misunderstanding and panic all the way to a glorious comic resolution that is celebrated in multiple marriages. The use of trickery, too, is inverted in the two plays, one for tragic purposes, the other for comic: in Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers are tricked by fate into losing their lives; while Midsummer’s lovers are tricked into complicated, intersecting versions of misunderstanding and despair, ultimately to be resolved within joyous concord.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake

But why doesn’t Midsummer end with the several weddings that provide a gorgeous wrap-up to the hectic cross-currents of alarm and confusion? Instead of ending with its weddings, the play has a final act that counters concord with discord: all of the wedding couples are forced to sit through a performance of The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, a Romeo and Juliet-style horror-show complete with blood and gore, hilariously rendered by an inept group of unschooled actors.

I think this ambivalent ending provides one of the analogues that make the play so powerful in our present day, when myths about happy families and forever-marriages are no longer hammered in as they were after the two world wars.  As a part of their wedding celebration, Shakespeare’s contented lovers witness love that doesn’t end up happily ever-after. They witness, in other words, the future that might easily have confronted them, or the future that they still might face. Swearing to love forever doesn’t necessarily mean forever: there was any number of accidents (falling into a pothole, catching an infection, burning in a house fire), that ended many sixteenth-century marriages almost before they had begun. In a time that was governed by carpe diem (“live for the day,”) people understood, at the most profound level, that happy-ever-after is a dream to be longed for, but, perhaps, something that exists as only a dream.

P.S. Subscriptions to our 2019 Season are available now. If you’ve already subscribed, please consider a donation to Cal Shakes to show your love today!


And there’s ice cream: a meditation on life, death and Everybody

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

I have a recurring nightmare that if my plane goes down over the Pacific, my husband Paul will have to go through all my stuff and realize that I was even untidier than he imagined (#dontlookunderthebed); that I had trouble ever throwing anything away; and that the replication of foodstuffs in our un-closable pantry (Did I forget to buy coconut milk? What if it’s gone off?) shows just the periphery of my life of anxious perturbation. Waking from such dreams, I try to remind myself that when the plane goes down I’ll be dead—it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Because while we are living, breathing, sentient, reasoning (and deeply unreasonable) beings, we are the sum of how we’ve chosen to live—of what we’ve bought, what we’ve thought, what we’ve said, what we’ve allowed to be done to us, and what we’ve done to others. Each of us is known in very different ways in different contexts. And while each of us journeys through the world in a unique way, the most fundamental part of our experience unites rather than differentiates us: everybody is born—and everybody dies. And everybody knows that nobody knows what “not being alive” will feel like. 

Wow, heavy stuff. But can we just have fun today and think about death tomorrow? No, we can’t. In Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays, in a certain sense–well, God. He wants us to think about death today, at the California Shakespeare Theater, in 2018: in a wonderfully deep-delving, hilarious, poignant, 90-minute-long encounter with our utterly impossible, incorrigibly self-centered humanness. 

Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Sarita Ocón, Jomar Tagatac, and Stacy Ross will draw their roles via lottery during each performance of Everybody.

Everybody’s preoccupations could be described in a number of ways: What am I without my stuff? Who are my friends, really? Is there anything in the term “blood relative” from which I can learn about my death? Might it be Parkinsons? Might it be cancer? Might it be heart disease? The only thing we know for sure is not that it “might be”—but that, in some form or other, at some time not yet to be named or known, death will be. It will be. It is the only inevitable, unbudgeable truth of our entire lives. 

Detail from frontispiece of Everyman first edition c1530.

Coming into Everybody at Cal Shakes, imagine the same moment 520 years go, when a group of semi-professional actors performed a short, rhyming “morality play” called Everyman in an inn, or even on the street. Most people who watched the performance would have lost at least one brother or sister or parent. Some would die very shortly thereafter—there were none of the drugs and procedures that are routine today, and without which, back then, lives were lost: antibiotics, vaccines, internal surgeries, even chemical painkillers (aspirin wasn’t manufactured till 1899). The character of Everyman played an unremarkable human being, a person sauntering along (or in a chair, on a horse, at the dinner table, in bed) who is suddenly called to their death. Quick! How does he account for his life in order to make a good death? How can he be sure that the checks and balances of his life will guarantee an entry into heaven? Everyone (in this place and time, listening to this incarnation of the story) was Catholic then—and Everyman was called a morality play because it reminded human beings that their deeds would be weighed and measured at death, possibly ameliorated by a cleansing detox in purgatory–that everything is accountable and nothing gets by the all-seeing eye of God.

“I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated less often… If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,” wryly noted Voltaire in a much more pagan era a few centuries later. Today, not all of us believe in God; but there’s no escaping death–except that there’s earthly gratification and insatiable appetite. There’s lush, verdant, death-defying, all-consuming life. And there’s ice cream.

I absolutely love Everybody. It is an encounter with the human self, the fact of being mortal. Re-shaped by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and in the hands of director Nataki Garrett—and with this cast of remarkable actors—Everybody is one of the most moving, painful, joyful, funny experiences I have had at our theater in 15 years. 

Come talk with me about Everybody. I’ll be in the grove—a lot!

Everybody begins performances July 18. Click here for more information and to buy tickets!


Quixote’s Dreams

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

I wonder what Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, would think if he were to spend an hour or two at the conversation table on the plaza at the Bruns? His trusty horse, Rocinante, would be tethered in the car park because we don’t allow horses on site (unless they’re on stage—and never again, not after the nightly clean-up routine for our first staging of Macbeth). There would be hills stretching beyond, enticing Don Quixote with invisible adventures, and the goats he runs into would be replaced by gently lowing cows. Quixote’s stout lance and suit of armor would stand out amongst a sea of puffy jackets. And, just as in his story, our accommodating grounds staff would surely allow him to keep his helmet on, with a straw serving for the reed that gets his wine to his mouth.

And there would be dreams: dreams held up in the face of adversity, dreams abandoned or cherished, dreams that belong not just to our knight errant himself, but to every person sitting at that plaza table. And this is one of the great beauties of Cervantes’ long, rambling story. It’s a story about dreams that keep a man going even when his ear is mangled and anyone else would have given up and gone to bed; dreams that carry him, his friend Sancho and his tired old horse Rocinante, through heat and cold and exhaustion; dreams that transform the world so that Quixote can find a reason to live in it.

As you can see, I love Don Quixote (but advise those of you who haven’t read it to listen to it on tape on a very, very long journey.) But I am positive that, after decades of loving Cervantes’ story, I’m going to love Octavio Solis’s adaptation even more. Solis is back with us again, adapting another classic novel (the last being Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven in 2009.) Into our current cynicism, the playwright is infusing the breath of an old, old story, but a story that is primal for us as human beings. What is the sum of a life? No matter who we are, or how much we possess or don’t possess, we all must leave our loved ones, our enemies, our goods and chattels, someday, to cross that border alone beyond this mortal life.

Emilio Delgado as Quixote; photo by Kevin Berne

And here is where Octavio’s adventure with Don Quixote begins. He’s renamed Cervantes’ story Quixote Nuevo, signaling the area near El Paso, Texas, where Octavio himself was born and raised. In Quixote Nuevo, Octavio asks Cervantes to travel through time and help us to learn about who we are today. And nothing would make Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, happier than to oblige: he always thinks he’s right; he knows what it means to gallop full-tilt in the face of reality; and he believes, above all else, that one should always follow one’s dreams. As with all of us, it’s Quixote’s dreams that make him ferociously, vulnerably, poignantly, hilariously human.

And in Quixote Nuevo, he’s dying. Why on earth would he accept this new curve ball from reality when he’s never accepted anything else?  Why would he believe the doctors and philosophers who tell him it’s all over? It’s not over—it never will be; because the great gift he has is his imagination, which carries him back, through hurts, heartaches, the crumbling of his aged mind, to the days when all things were possible and all he needed was a horse, a friend and a will of iron. Octavio has taken Cervantes’ marvelous character—the inhabitant of the first novel ever written—and, assisted by director KJ Sanchez and a fabulous creative team, brought him across the Atlantic. In Octavio’s words, he’s endeavored to give Quixote “a different cast, darken his skin, darken his hair, give him roots that are more native to the Americas,” then set him to seek out adventures in La Plancha, Texas. And all we need do is bring our jackets, our wine and our sandwiches, and we can be right there with him.

Quixote Nuevo begins playing June 13. Get tickets here!


Miguel de Cervantes: A Remarkable Life

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Last week my 85-year-old mother had cause to go to the bank, where, with her walker frame, she stood in front of another elderly woman with an identical frame. “Let’s have a race,” said the woman behind her. “I should warn you, when I get going with this thing I can run like the clappers,” replied my mother. The other woman said, “I withdraw.”

Today the world—particularly in its wealthier parts—is blessed with many 85-year-olds. In the 16th and 17th centuries this was not the case: many people considered a good long life to be one lived till the mid-forties. But if you made it to the age of 8 (37 percent of children did not), you were not unlikely, if you had the means (and also the good fortune to avoid the plague), to reach the age of 50 or even 60. This was more than true of Miguel de Cervantes, who lived until almost 70, surviving three gunshot wounds and over 5 years’ imprisonment, much of it spent in irons.

We know almost nothing of the first 20 years of Cervantes’ life from 1547 onward, except that he came from a noble but impecunious family. We know much more about this period in Spain, which was one of great transition. The old “native” Spain, with its chivalrous codes of honor and its powerful nobility, had crumbled under the force of the Habsburg kings’ sole dominion, backed by the church and the Spanish inquisition. Spain sought to command as much of Europe as it could, extending its authority into the Americas, the East Indies, parts of France and Germany, Portugal, North Africa, and Italy’s nation states. The Spaniards’ voyages around the world led to many advantages: for example, on discovering that the orange plants they had plundered from China could, within three days, magically cure the horrible disease of scurvy that produced swollen, stinking gums and bleeding to the brain, wealthy Spanish landowners now graced their homes with their own orangeries, namely glass-enclosed, heated greenhouses that produced oranges all year round.

This period of enormous growth and stature led to an efflorescence not only in the gardens of Spain, but also in its artists. The period from 1492 to 1659 become known as the Spanish Golden Age, during which Miguel de Cervantes spent his entire life.

The clearest knowledge we have of Cervantes’ young days begins with his occupancy, at age 21, of the role of Cardinal’s chamberlain. At the age of 23 he resigned this post and entered the military. Seeds of Don Quixote’s stubbornness can be found in the exploits of the young soldier Cervantes: although desperately ill on the voyage from Messina, Cervantes insisted, against all advice from doctors and comrades, on sticking to his post, claiming that he would die in the service of God rather than remain in the ship’s hold secure and in good health. During this military campaign he survived three gunshot wounds, which left him severely incapacitated and hospitalized for seven months, and he never regained the use of his wounded left hand. He came out of hospital, however, only to enlist for another three years’ military service, beginning his return to Spain at the age of 28 in the company of his brother, with a written recommendation from his General to the king honoring his brave service.

On the way home, the Cervantes brothers’ regiment was overpowered by an Algerine force and taken to Algiers. A ransomed fellow-captive got the news of the brothers’ imprisonment to their family, who strove by every means—the father selling his goods and the Cervantes sisters forfeiting their dowries—to cobble together enough ransom money to free them. But when the Algerian governor found on Miguel’s person the general’s letters of recommendation to the king, he concluded that the young man was a person of great importance, and that the ransom money was inconsequential for someone so highly prized: he kept Miguel in captivity, allowing his brother to go free.

Thus began a period in Miguel’s life that affords some precedent for his eventual literary hero’s indomitable strength of conviction (if not for his absurdity). Miguel tried not only to escape, but to take his fellow captives to safety with him; and when they were discovered, he insisted, despite threats of impalement, that all blame for the breakout be placed on his shoulders alone. The Algerian governor executed some of his companions but held onto Cervantes, feeling that there was something special in his bravery and resourcefulness. Although restrained in irons, Cervantes remained unbroken in spirit and ventured another escape, for which he was sentenced to 2000 blows to the back, which would have killed him had not some unknown powerful people interceded to save him. He was kept under even further confinement (how was this even possible?!), but two years later attempted another escape, trying to save sixty of his fellow-prisoners with him. An informant, jealous of the love and admiration that Cervantes inspired in his fellows, revealed his plot to the governor, and Cervantes’ plan was again foiled. No threat of torture could compel him to name any of his accomplices, and he was sent back to prison heavily ironed as before.

Portrait of Cervantes credited to Juan de Jáuregui. Like Shakespeare, there is no official likeness of Cervantes.

All this time Cervantes’ family never ceased its efforts to raise sufficient ransom money to get him released. Finally the governor, planning his own retirement, accepted a sum, releasing the 33-year-old prisoner five years almost to the day after his first captivity. But Cervantes’ trials were not yet over. A jealous functionary, claiming to be an officer of the Inquisition, concocted false evidence against him, claiming that he was guilty of misconduct while in prison. Cervantes checkmated him by drawing up a list of 25 questions that covered the period of his captivity, and he asked that credible witnesses he deposed to answer them. All of them attested to his bravery and to his selfless concern for others while in prison, and he returned to Spain a free man.

But not for long. He was penniless, and felt compelled, for the sake of his own survival, to rejoin his old regiment. Pushing 40 and with a useless left hand, however, he could expect no promotion, and he finally left the army, married a woman of sufficient means to feed them both as well as his infant daughter (conceived with someone else before his marriage), and wrote 30 or 40 plays in an attempt to earn a living as a writer. The plays were not admired, and at the close of the century, at the age of 50, he accepted a position as tax collector. It was as he traveled from town to town collecting the king’s taxes that he noted down scenes that would eventually end up in his remarkable novel, Don Quixote. He was again imprisoned because a merchant to whom he entrusted the taxation revenue absconded with the money—and although this imprisonment was brief, it appears that Cervantes was not reinstated to his former position. But he did appear, in this last prison stint, to have begun transcribing Don Quixote from his notes. The novel was first published in 1605 when Cervantes was almost 60, and was immediately successful (although Cervantes himself still had to work at various jobs for the Council, trying to make up the money with which the merchant had absconded.)

Despite Don Quixote’s immediate success, Cervantes didn’t continue with his anti-hero’s comic adventures. He wrote several other works, mainly plays, continuing to believe that he could make a great career as a playwright. The fact that Don Quixote has a second volume is due to a disciple of the great writer Lope de Vega, who loathed Cervantes. This disciple, Avallenada, wrote his own “second volume” of Don Quixote, to which he attached a preface attacking Cervantes with such vile descriptions that our literary hero was provoked to write his own second part to Don Quixote, eventually killing off the famous knight errant to ensure that he had final control of his character.

Cervantes died at the age of 69, on April 23 1616, the same day as Shakespeare.


Graves at my command

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

I have always wished that the early works of Shakespeare hadn’t so largely disappeared beneath the weight of his monumental tragedies (think Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello) and enchanting comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream being one of the all-time favorites). It was a thrill in 2011 when we got to do two early works, Titus Andronicus (directed by Joel Sass) and The Taming of the Shrew (directed by Shana Cooper): two of the works that Shakespeare was piecing together in the very same years that he was creating his first history plays—the Henry VI trilogy.

By the early 1590s, London’s population had doubled from the beginning of the century, with 200,000 inhabitants ready to fill the theaters. Shakespeare was under 30 years of age and had a wife and three children, whom he had settled in Stratford while he established himself as a playwright in London. In 1592 London was ravaged by a renewed onslaught of the plague—dreadfully feared for its symptoms—first a swelling of the groin, then an evil-smelling pus, fever, carbuncles, coma, and most likely death. (The disease would claim the life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet a few years later in 1595, at the age of 11).

In London, except for the months when the theaters had to close at the height of the plague, Shakespeare’s players had a hugely busy schedule. His actors were performing in other playwrights’ works as well as his own. But when we look at the earnings for these performances of plays by such writers as Robert Greene and even Christopher Marlowe, something remarkable emerges. We see that on 3 March, 1592 (1591 in Shakespeare’s time because the Elizabethan calendar didn’t kick over till the end of March), the first performance of a Henry VI play was staged: and that the company’s earnings shot up from the usual 86 pence or 82 and a half pence  (today’s equivalent of about $300) to a remarkable 3 pounds and 16 shillings ($1600). Elizabethan audiences loved the Henry VI plays!

Part of this pleasure doubtless lay in the urge to create a collective national history
for the English people in the last years of Queen Elizabeth, the granddaughter of
Richmond (AKA Henry Tudor, AKA Henry VII). By the late 1500s it was clear that
the queen was soon going to die without issue, which made it a hugely unsettling
time for the English nation: and so the Henry VI plays provided a way of looking
back on the unsettled decades that had led to the present glories of the Tudor
dynasty, and to celebrate the benefits of Elizabeth’s long reign. The theater made
history accessible for those who could not read, teaching them to celebrate
England’s heroes and vilify its enemies, in particular the French. Pamphleteer
Thomas Nashe wrote of the Henry VI plays:

How it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of spectators who, in the tragedian who represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

So how do audiences see these plays today? More accurately, why don’t audiences see these plays today? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the figure of Henry VI, historical son to Henry V—a timid, shy man, crowned at the age of 10 months and never growing into maturity even when he succeeded to full sovereignty—has been eclipsed by the personality of his charismatic father, who, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV/Henry V trilogy, has eaten up the stage for centuries. Henry VI, prone to bouts of mental illness which left him in a coma, disappeared altogether from his regency from time to time. And when he was in situ on the throne, he cowered in the face of conflict.

Choosing the Red and White Roses by Henry Payne (1908)

Second, Henry VI Part I, while thrilling to its contemporary audiences, is a play almost entirely composed of rhyming couplets. While fabulous productions like TV’s The Hollow Crown can conquer the effect of these rhymes via stunning visuals and sound effects, Henry VI Part I is a much more difficult play to perform on stage. So we’ve taken two of this play’s fabulous features—the selection of the roses and the wooing of Queen Margaret, poor Henry’s bride, who begins her own ascendancy from her very first entrance, powerless, 15, and given away by her father with no dowry as a cheap gift to England—to a mammoth figure of female empowerment and eventual heartbreak.

Thus begins our tetralogy—the first half of our evening devoted to the finest features of these truly remarkable Henry VI plays, and the second half (post-intermission: hot chocolate, snacks, rollicking bottles of wine)—devoted to a full performance of one of Shakespeare’s most stunning creations—Richard III, the self-declared embodiment of mischievous evil.  We’re beginning work on the tetralogy—what we’re calling The War of the Roses—at the top of the year. And we leave you for now with those famous words of Prospero, which one can imagine straight from the mouth of Shakespeare himself:

“Graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth.”

Welcome, Henry VI and all your companions, including Richard—from earth to stage!



A Mighty Heart

by Philippa Kelly

Recently I fed watermelon to three pigs and wondered how such sentient creatures—each a unique embodiment of the life force—could ever be eaten by myself or any other human. By coincidence, later that day, Napoleon the Pig was the protagonist at Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST where, on a beautiful afternoon, I walked through Live Oak Park, grabbed a cup of coffee and a cookie, and settled on my travel cushion (the seats are hard) to watch The Farm in a space tucked into the leafy edges of Walnut Street. Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm was performed in Trump-America: the chilly recognition of a nation’s self-induced tyranny existed in a theatrical world of utterly engrossing dance and song—a paradox that only art can freely embody.

But…life in small theaters is not all song and dance. It takes a mighty heart to run a small artistic organization. Yes, small theaters can adjust their programming more nimbly to respond to changes in the world, making great, timely, provocative theater. But their big dreams wage a daily battle with the sheer economic challenge of impossibly elastic budget goals.

In the last months, I’ve seen so much wonderful theater created in the network of small organizations that make up much of Berkeley’s verdant theater life. Ubuntu Theater Project kicked off its season with a heart-breaking Death of a Salesman starring Julian López-Morillas and Dawn L. Troupe, moving into a stream of impressive new works beginning with To the Bone, a portrait of life in the chicken industry. At Symmetry Theatre, Stacy Ross stunned audiences with her portrait of a woman at the onset of dementia in The Other Place. Aurora Theatre Company gave us Luna Gale, tracking the life of a social welfare worker dealing with Child Protective Services, a nail-biting scenario delivered by a fabulous cast in a spectacular, tight-paced production. Shotgun Players, which served up an unforgettable Hamlet in 2016 where actors picked their roles nightly out of a hat, this year churned up every organ in my body with Sarah Kane’s horrifying Blasted. Crowded Fire (where the magnificent Christopher Chen is resident artist); Word For Word; the Playground; African American Shakespeare, Central Works, Indra’s Net, Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley: I come away from an evening spent at these theater companies with so very much more than the tiny price I pay to get in.

For small theaters and theater projects, all the world is often actually a stage, as they find imaginative and affordable ways to make their work. Cal Shakes’ rehearsal hall, waiting hungrily for the warmth and life of next season’s preparations, was recently home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On translation project, where Lue Douthit joined director Lisa Peterson, Playwright Christopher Chen, Dramaturg Desdemona Chiang, and a group of Cal Shakes’ finest actors to spend three days workshopping Chen’s progress on Antony and Cleopatra. The Paul Dresher Ensemble recently expanded its precincts in West Oakland to provide a home for many more artists, and amidst an assortment of musicians, dancers (the Ensemble has a fully sprung dance floor), opera companies and shadow puppeteers, Ubuntu Theater has made its new rehearsal home, creating site-specific productions to travel throughout the community. The New Conservatory Theater and San Francisco Playhouse have their stages in hotels; The Sandbox Theater sits atop the Strand at ACT; Theater First shares its space with Symmetry Theater and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley; on Potrero Hill Crowded Fire shares space with Golden Thread, 3Girls and the Actors Playground in a community where, as Artistic Director Mina Morita says, “we’re eating, buying our coffee and talking to our neighbors: this is where we’re also performing.” And if you can’t afford a shared space, try a moving car (for a maximum of three audience members) as did the artists who made Car Play this year.

When I see plays at small theaters, I am truly aware that artists are born to exercise a very special gift for illuminating and re-imagining the world: and that no matter where, or how, this theater gets made, it must be made: each one of these productions provides its own unique prism through which our worlds can be bigger and bolder and richer and more generous.

Philippa Kelly is Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, and upcoming dramaturg for Quixote and War of the Roses.


Welcome, Queen Margaret! The 2018 Tetralogy

by Philippa Kelly

The prohibition on women on the Renaissance English stage undoubtedly affected the way Shakespeare wrote his female roles: since it was a stretch for young boys to play older female parts, many of his mothers seem purposefully scripted as cold and narrow (think Lady Capulet), aggressive and embittered (think Tamara in Titus Andronicus), apt to be conveniently buried for as long as 16 years (think Hermione in A Winter’s Tale or Thaisa in Pericles); or, far more commonly, absent altogether, presumed dead in childbirth (think Mrs. Lear, Mrs. Prospero, Mrs. Mother Rosalind, Mrs. Mother Viola, just to name a few). The young boy actors at Shakespeare’s disposal would have found it far easier to play girls of their own age or thereabouts—Juliet, Rosalind, Celia, Viola, Cordelia. And who knows? Had Shakespeare had access to a Helen Mirren, or a Glen Close, or a Judy Dench, he may have written many female roles with the uncommon heft and complexity suggested by Lady Macbeth, or by Volumnia in Coriolanus.
It’s also possible that the prohibition of females on stage influenced Shakespeare’s choice to have several of his heroines disguise themselves as boys—that, in other words, by using the theme of disguise he found a way for boy actors to spend the majority of the play “performing” their own gender. While this is a compelling suggestion, there are actually only five times in 38 plays when he does have female characters disguise themselves as young men, and, except in Cymbeline, in each of these plays the boy playing a woman disguised as a boy is paired with a boy playing a woman who doesn’t change her gender. Go figure.
I love to speculate about Shakespeare’s stagecraft in this way—and often find myself changing my mind. No matter which way the argument goes, however, one thing is clear: Shakespeare always, where possible wrote for the actors he treasured. (Just as we at Cal Shakes love to do in casting. We have a wonderful casting treat in store for you next season.) So, for instance, Shakespeare proportioned roles to suit the ratio of men-to-boy actors in his company. Almost all of his numerically larger roles (except Rosalind in As You Like It) are male; and all of them (even Prince Hal, who transforms to Henry V) are appropriate for mature male actors. His famous female pairs (Rosalind/Celia, Viola/Olivia) were likely written for two special boys uniquely able to play female roles well beyond puberty. 

Detail from the “Talbot Shrewsbury book” gifted to Margaret on her betrothal to Henry VI.

 Shakespeare’s history plays with their wartime and action scenes are typically categorized as “masculine” (as is the case today—think We Were SoldiersThe Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down). And yet the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy we’ll be staging next year has a remarkable and exciting difference. Written before Shakespeare turned 30, this tetralogy features a female part of singular duration and importance. Margaret of Anjou first appears in Henry VI, Part I as an immigrant sold by her father without a dowry to the Lord of Suffolk (“She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed,/A woman, and therefore to be won”), with the purpose of passing her off to young King Henry VI sight-unseen. In the course of the tetralogy Margaret becomes a queen who gets the husband she is sold to; a powerfully sexual woman who gets the lover she chooses; a mother; a preeminent political force in the War of the Roses; and eventually, in grief and loss, a “raging crone” who refuses to be silenced. This was the first journey Shakespeare gave to a female character in the course of an extended play-sequence; and it would be the only journey of such length and character-evolution in the whole of his oeuvre. Welcome, Queen Margaret—proceed apace!

The War of the Roses… What in the World?

by Philippa Kelly

Where do leaders come from? Are they measured by a moral compass, or are they, as Richard III suggests, bred from a psychopathology where crooked backs make crooked minds? Or do we judge them by what they accomplish?

If the third premise were true, the bloody and tempestuous period of the War of the Roses would slide and disappear into the Lancaster defeat of the Yorkists that closed out the decades-long brutality between two feuding families, merging into the relative harmony and prosperity of Tudor England. But the sum of human lives is measured by more than lands conquered and victories achieved: it’s known by the bitter loss of sons; by the thwarted ambitions of mothers; by the passion and lust that can drive human beings together in the most perilous of circumstances. Such passions, ambitions, and rancors mark the War of the Roses as depicted by Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays.

While the War of the Roses had ended in 1487, a century before Shakespeare began writing, audiences still thirsted for the revenge that had since been prohibited by Church and State. The bloodied knives piercing iron mail; the heads sliced from offending shoulders; the treachery, duplicity, ambition and regret: these characterize Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, all of them performed during the very early 1590s before the playwright turned 30.

Shakespeare clearly wrote the three Henry VI plays, together with Richard III, as a tetralogy, to be performed consecutively (although Henry VI Part I was probably written after Parts II and III). Certain characters in the Henry plays close out one play and open another, while the close of Henry VI Part III clearly beckons Richard III.  Furthermore, in an electric exchange in Richard III, two grieving mothers look back bitterly at the Henry VI sequence in which they’ve witnessed the destruction of each others’ sons (and psyches) by opposing families. Richard III is often performed alone: but it is a special thrill to place it in concert with the three abridged plays that Shakespeare so clearly wrote to precede it.

In Shakespeare’s tetralogy we get a world where, in an absence of ideology, human beings strive to convince us of the merits of their own choices and motivations. We get a world where “fake news” is not a modern phenomenon, but an age-old method by which characters exploit each others’ ignorance. And it’s a world where the French threat is represented by two of the strongest women in all of Shakespeare—the driving honesty of Joan la Purcell (better known as Joan of Arc) and the subtle manipulations of Margaret of Anjou, a passionate lover, and then a passionate mother, acting always at the expense of the husband to whom she was sold at the age of 15. And the War of the Roses perhaps suggests to us that even in a godless universe, human beings still seek gods; and we still seek to know ourselves amidst an array of pretenses.


Arden: coming home through where we’ve never been before

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

Decades ago my husband bought some land with a bunch of fellow-hippies in Mendocino, and we often go up there. When you wake in the night, the sky is coal-black, studded with stars. You might be surprised at a steady thud in the air, until you realize that in the unfathomable quiet you are listening to your own heartbeat. We are very solitary there —it’s a place of peace and renewal for us both, where we read and write, plant vegetables and harvest them, if the mice don’t get to them first.

We wonder—if we lived there permanently, would we shift from our state of intense privacy to share in the intrigues, news, gossip, community byways and through-lines, that are a part of any human group? But for now, what we feel there is the brief retreat from one world we love to another quite different one.

The woods in Boonville are our forest of Arden of sorts—but you don’t need a forest to make an Arden. Arden is a place, but more truly it’s a state of being. In As You Like It, the Forest of Arden is a place of exile, for some a banishment and for others a place of escape: for characters turned out of home, or alienated from it. But the amazing thing about dramatizing exiles is that they are on their way to being something else.

The figure of the “stranger in a strange land” haunts us from Exodus through to The Odyssey (look out for this theme in black odyssey, our stunning third play of the season) through to As you Like It. And as exiles, our characters search for home—whether it’s the place they once knew, or a new home, a self and relationships that are in some way recreated, resolved or renewed. This is what they dream of, anyway, as exiles. In a way I think the whole of America is currently in exile—many more people are literally turned out of their homes, lined along the street, huddled under blankets, whether in shame or despair or sheer escape from the cold. And there will be more. It is dangerous and frightening; the promise of renewal seems distant and faded. All the more reason to evoke it, to remember what it looks like, to insist on its possibility, through art.

As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18.
Click here to learn more and buy tickets!


A Sunny Day in Ashland

by Philippa Kelly

A sunny day in Ashland, Oregon. A cup of black coffee (director Desdemona Chiang) and a pot of tea (me). Two people sitting in a café, brainstorming about what kind of infant is to be born, raised, and, within a month, sent out into the world as a full-grown being: As You Like It, Shakespeare’s mid-career exploration of greed, abandonment, ambition, the gift of contemplative peace, and the mysterious fact that no human being is beyond redemption.

“I’ve got two big ideas,” says Desdemona, “And I want you to talk me off the ledge or help me jump.”

So, while the sun filters out over the hills of Ashland, we talk about how these ideas might shape what we are about to prepare for our season opener at the Bruns. Desdemona’s first question: “Who is Rosalind in 2017? Who can she become? I want to have her do something more interesting than stepping back into a dress.”

Four hundred years of history have had Shakespeare’s Rosalind breaking out of the restrictions of court life into the Forest of Arden—in boy’s clothes, as Ganymede, Jove’s beautiful male page; using her newly-engendered (and regendered) freedom to go for broke, quickly arranging four marriages (including her own) with wit and wisdom. I’m intrigued by Desdemona’s question. Why must Rosalind step back once more into those old girl-clothes, content to live as wife and mother, looking back at the character of Ganymede as a brief dream of borrowed power? How about we consider that Rosalind actually likes her inner Ganymede? Enough to want to embrace him, to be both Ganymede and Rosalind? Why must she choose? Can she have both?

And what might this vision require of Orlando, Rosalind’s lover? Perhaps he can “come home,” too, to a place he’s never been before. Because despite all the long-winded poems he writes to Rosalind, Orlando does love Ganymede, his rubious lips and excellent complexion, his wit, his playfulness, his lawyer-like precision.

“I’ve always wondered why Rosalind suddenly jumps at the idea of dressing like a man”, says Desdemona. “It’s as if she seizes this surprise moment as an opportunity for liberation, something that feels inspiring to her.” So, as we kick back in the sun, Desdemona and I talk about what this can mean: what we can gain by keeping Ganymede with us; and what we might lose. Duke Senior, banished to the forest, can get his longed-for daughter back again—but not as she was. He’ll get Ganymede. And if, with him, we’ve been through the Forest of Arden—a symbolic “everywhere”, where the mind is opened and expanded, enriched and deepened, where the thrumming heartbeat of humanity replaces the drum beat of the city—“now” can be even better.

Our next big question…but we’ve run out of time. And so, after I’ve finished rehearsals that day with OSF’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, we plan a 5 pm meeting on my way to the airport—this time at our Ashland’s Liquid Assets, to lubricate, via wine, our expanding imaginations. “I’m interested in what the forest can mean,” says Desdemona. “Celia’s line: ‘I willingly would waste my time in it.’ It’s as if the forest is a place out-of-time.’” What if we invert the play’s city/vernal opposition, making Arden a place of transformation that speaks to our Bay Area today? Oakland is where Desdemona’s imagination has landed: not Oakland the place of gentrification, a cheaper real estate for urban dreams and aspirations; but the place of exile, the 24-hour hum of the streets, people surviving on very little under freeways and in abandoned lots.

Can Oakland be our Arden? We need a world where we can invite our audience into mystery and transformation—a place both familiar and strange, a place within whose rhythms the straitjacketed world of business and finance feels like a dream, far away. Money has no value in the forest—you can’t eat it. But love does. Compassion does. And a simple banquet, open to all, at a makeshift table under a bridge or in a park with rusty swings.

As You Like It begins performances May 24 and continues through June 18.
Click here to learn more and buy tickets!