Ask Philippa: “Pygmalion” Edition

Listen to Philippa Kelly’s Grove Talk about Pygmalion by clicking here.

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, invites your questions about Pygmalion, which runs July 30–August 24. Tickets on sale now.

Pygmalion, perhaps George Bernard Shaw’s most renowned play, concerns the playful plight of phonetics Professor Henry Higgins and penniless flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whom he takes under his tutelage. Poor Eliza is reduced to a bet between aristocrats who believe they can pass her off as one of their own. This scheme leaves plenty of room for Shaw’s signature social commentary on the British class system and the relationship between language, class, and power.

Many of us might know the characters of Pygmalion from its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady; however, it is worth noting that artists and directors have struggled against Pygmalion’s lack of predictable romance for a century (since it debuted in 1914). Some writers think this may be why Pygmalionis still “underperformed”:

From the PYGMALION stage at the Bruns: You'll notice this population chart sitting on Higgins' bookshelf.

A hundred years on from that first production, the ending of Pygmalion continues to be a sticking point. It stands as an unspoken matter of contention between audiences, confidently expecting a romantic resolution of the plot, and most directors who wish to remain true to Shaw’s intentions. And it may help to explain the conundrum of why the play, for all its enduring fame and popularity, remains relatively underperformed today.

Are you going to see Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion?  Do you have questions or comments about the production’s cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

Headshot of Philippa Kelly

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Ask Philippa: 2014 Pre-season Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, invites your questions about our 2014 season, which begins May 21. Subscriptions on sale now.

Headshot of Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo by Richard Friedman.

2014 brings a very exciting season for many reasons—not the least of which is that it’s Cal Shakes’ 40th anniversary.

First up is Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Patricia McGregor, who first joined us at the Bruns last in 2012 with her magnificent Spunk. A Raisin in the Sun offers a stunning portrait of a black family’s experience in racially divided Chicago, injecting domestic and racial tension into 1950s self-portraits of the post-war American Dream. Raisin made Hansberry the youngest playwright, the fifth woman, and the only black writer ever to win the New York Critics’ Circle award. (The play also inspired the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, written 60 years later and directed by our own Jonathan Moscone in an award-winning production at A.C.T. in 2011). Next is Shakespeare’s early play The Comedy of Errors, directed by Aaron Posner, a comic take on mistaken identity that offers a brilliant look at the dark side of Shakespeare as well as the light—loss, isolation, family reunion, and redemption. Third in our season director Moscone brings us Pygmalion, often seen as George Bernard Shaw’s most enduringly important play, a savagely ironic critique of the British class system. (This play, too, made such a social impact that it gave birth, 44 years later, to another masterpiece, the musical My Fair Lady.) Lastly is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Shakespeare play most often described as “perfect” in its exploration of love that opens out, concertina-like, from an early threat of punishment and even death. Buoyed by perhaps the most beautifully poetic language of Shakespeare’s entire career, director Shana Cooper will take us into the “green world” of the forest—will the lovers emerge from the forest different, or more truly themselves?

Look out, too, for my free, off-season session, Reprises and Rehearsals, a look at how the plays of the 2013 and 2014 seasons connect to different works and themes in their authors’ lives. Date TBD. In the meantime, post any question or observation you like right now (and into the early spring) and I will post an answer as quickly as possible—often within 24 hours.

Dr Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

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Notes from the SHREW Meet & Greet

How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon? —Dr. Seuss

The Taming of the Shrew

Yesterday was the first rehearsal day for The Taming of the Shrew, the final production of our 2011 season. And though the last show of the season is always steeped in bittersweet, this one has a sense of triumphant closure to put the anticipation level right over the top. As Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone explained at the start of the traditional first-day meet-and-greet presentation, our 2000 production of Shrew (directed by Lillian Groag) was not just the start of Moscone’s very first season here—it was also the first show that his new Associate Artistic Director, Shana Cooper worked on.

Fast-forward to 2011, and a new Shrew is being created in the Cal Shakes rehearsal hall, directed by none other than Cooper. It took some work to get her out here, said Moscone, but he kept a promise to Cooper that started the negotiations rolling: As he’d sworn to do when she left Cal Shakes in 2004, he want to see her MFA senior show at Yale, Ghost Sonata.

Love's Labour's Lost at OSF

Cooper's recent production of LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST at OSF; photo by T. Charles Erickson

“I wouldn’t be where I am today or be able to imagine worlds the way I do if it wasn’t for my time here,” said Cooper, fresh from a production of Love’s Labor’s Lost at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She went on to explain how she started 2011 with Romeo and Juliet at Yale Rep, and how she also considers Shrew to be a great love story as well—albeit from a far more adult perspective. In her Shrew, the extremities of violence in R & J‘s culture are replaced by extremes of seductive commercialism. Kate and Petruchio are untamed spirits, creatures of authenticity who stand out in sharp relief to the culture of Padua. And in this play, they begin an adult relationship, which is, by its very nature, a challenging journey.

SHREW set model by Scott Dougan; photo by Dave Nowakowski.

SHREW set model by Scott Dougan; photo by Dave Nowakowski.

Her challenge—and that of her cast and creative team—is to re-hear this play, so that they can give that fresh hearing to the audience. Cooper, herself, heard something in our current production of Candida, which she saw this past weekend, that director Moscone had not heard. In the final scene, Cooper heard Kate in the title character, particularly in this passage:

“Ask James’ mother and his three sisters what it cost to save James the trouble of doing anything but be strong and clever and happy. Ask ME what it costs to be James’s mother and three sisters and wife and mother to his children all in one. Ask Prossy and Maria how troublesome the house is even when we have no visitors to help us to slice the onions. Ask the tradesmen who want to worry James and spoil his beautiful sermons who it is that puts them off. When there is money to give, he gives it: when there is money to refuse, I refuse it. I build a castle of comfort and indulgence and love for him, and stand sentinel always to keep little vulgar cares out. I make him master here, though he does not know it, and could not tell you a moment ago how it came to be so.”

Bianca costume sketch by Katherine O'Neill

Bianca's costumes; sketch by costume designer Katherine O'Neill.

Cooper has no doubt that Shrew is a love story, one with a cost. Both Kate and Petruchio are changed by the end, but only Kate is asked to make her compromises public. Recalling a conversation she had with the freshly-married Erica Sullivan, who plays Katherine in our production, Cooper said, “This play is a testament to the great challenges and joys of marriage. At the end of the day, all we can do is turn to our partners and ask, ‘Is the cost worth it?,'” as the couples of Shrew all do at play’s end.

The world of the play, explained Cooper and set designer Scott Dougan, is one in which appearances are crucial. The whole thing is inspired by pop art, from Warhol and Lichtenstein to Jeff Koons and Banksy and beyond—beautiful colors and bright, graphic pieces that are seductive but ultimately prove themselves to be shallow, empty. “Part of what pop art is about,” said Dougan, “is that it’s not real. Everything is repeatable and sellable.” That is the world of Padua—Baptista’s Hollywood Hills-type home is decorated in the midcentury modern style and intersects with a garish billboard; Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson, currently buttoned-down to the nth degree as Prossy in Candida) is auctioned off using giant cardboard cutouts of herself, and rides something akin to a famous Koons creation into one of her lessons.

And this kind of world, said Cooper, “is what makes what happens between Kate and Petruchio even more miraculous.”

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CANDIDA Grove Talk Podcast

Philippa KellyPriceless dramaturgical insight into Jonathan Moscone’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, by Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. The music at the beginning of the recording is from “Racer” by Paul Dresher; the music at the end is from “Hallelujah Junction” by John Adams. Podcast produced by Will McCandless.

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Ask Philippa: CANDIDA Edition

Candida

Top to bottom: Anthony Fusco, Julie Eccles, and Nick Gabriel in CANDIDA; photo by Kevin Berne.

Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts and answers your questions on our 2011 productions.

Written early in Shaw’s dramatic career, when he was about 38 (he would not stop writing till his death in his mid-90s!), Candida belongs to the time of his life when he idealized women as Madonna figures. Not the Raphaelite figures whom he described as dumbly bovine, but the “Shavian” Madonnas, beautiful, quick-witted and hardworking, unafraid to clean sinks and carpets. On a lovely sunny October morning, Shaw presents Candida (his Madonna) with an unexpected choice that comes seemingly from nowhere, and yet which forces her to reflect on her marriage and, indeed, on her whole life.

Are you going to see our production of Candida? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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Belated Notes from the CANDIDA “Meet and Greet” Event

By Publications Manager Stefanie Kalem

Candida art

This has taken me a while to get around to writing, which is really too bad, as the first-rehearsal “Meet and Greet” event, on July 13, for George Bernard Shaw’s Candida was inspiring, enlightening, and just plain hilarious. Ain’t no production like a Jonathan Moscone production: Our fearless leader explained, cajoled, and delved his way deep into this romantic comedy within minutes.
Below are a few observations with which I walked away.

The Play: Moscone finds Candida more complex and dissonant than Mrs. Warren’s Profession in some ways, even though this is classified as one of Shaw’s “Pleasant Plays.” This play, said Moscone, “could be explosive if it was untied; it could be an opera. It should vibrate energy just under the surface of this content world.”

Julie Eccles

Actor Julie Eccles, who portrays Candida.

The title is ironic, Moscone opined, in that the character of Candida rarely gets to speak for herself. Yet both Candida and her husband, Rev. James Morell, are either loved or hated by everyone else in the play. No one is ambivalent about this seemingly perfect pair—everyone is fanatical over them, and all the characters maneuver around the two, positioning themselves to their best advantage. Appropriately, Moscone called the set “a very complex little chessboard.”

Sets: Moscone’s frequent co-conspirator, Annie Smart, has returned. She designed his productions of The Pastures of Heaven, Man and Superman, and An Ideal Husband (as well as the Berkeley Rep and Broadway productions of In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play) so she knew of whence she spoke when she said that, though Candida is written as a classic Victorian drawing room play, a small handful of people on the Bruns stage can be hard to watch if they’re all staying in one place most of the time. So she and Moscone settle on a “room without walls” for this production, similar in theory to Smart’s 2009 Private Lives set. She opened it up, so the audience can see people coming and going.

Candida set

Set model and photo by Annie Smart.

A major source of inspiration for the Candida set is British interior designer William Morris, who was also an activist. His rooms and houses were what we call Mission or Arts & Crafts in the U.S.—very human, handmade, welcoming, which is parallel to Rev. Morell’s character, how his ideas for Christianity and mankind fit together in a utilitarian way. This room is a working room, too, so it will appear to be a very busy office that, at one point, was a parlor, but now is in service to a very busy, in-demand man.

With no walls to decorate, Moscone and Smart decided on a yellowed, parchment-paper backdrop behind a hand-stained, floral-pattered window, imbuing the whole set with the feel of a photo.

Proserpine Garnett

Miss Proserpine Garnett costume sketch by Anna Oliver. Click for more costume sketches!

Costumes: Costume designer Anna Oliver, who designed Nicholas Nickleby andRestoration Comedy for us, explained the creative team’s decision, early on in the planning process, to move the date of the action forward by a decade. The women’s silhouette in the mid-1890s was very aggressive, she said, with big sleeves, tiny waists, and severe hair. In looking for a softer, more sensual shape—in an effort to to “speak the character, not shout it out”—they landed in the early years of the 20th century.

The costumes of Proserpine Garnett (played by Alexandra Henrikson) are of particular interest, in that being a typist was one of the first non-domestic-service jobs widely held by women. Garnett wears slightly masculine dress, with a slightly silly hat to demonstrate that she’s got her own money to spend.

Candida begins previews Wednesday, August 10; opens Saturday, August 13; and closes Sunday, September 4. Get your tickets now!

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