This past Wednesday marked the beginning of the end of Cal Shakes’ historic 40th anniversary season. This summer alone, our audience has travelled back in time and around the world onstage: from segregated Southside Chicago, to the circus-inspired ancient port city of Ephesus, and now to Edwardian London. In this season alone, the Bruns has reached new heights and hosted a series of transportive and transformative theater. And we’re not quite finished yet.
Enter renowned director (and former Assistant Artistic Director) Shana Cooper, directing the final installment of our regular season, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cooper’s journey with Dream began when she was nine years old and living in Ashland, Oregon. As she sat in on a technical rehearsal for their production, Cooper witnessed what she describes as “a magical moment.” The nine-year-old Cooper watched in awe as a mischievous Puck gracefully climbed atop a tall Elizabethan pillar—and forgot his line. In one swift moment, Puck was transformed form a Fairy to an actor, and when the line was recalled and a colorful comment made, Puck was back again. It is this spirit of transformation, of the subtle differences between what our eyes perceive and what may be lurking just below the surface of reality, that contributed to Cooper’s desire to direct Dream.
Dream has remained one of Cooper’s favorite plays throughout the years because it serves as a gateway to an unseen world, a glimpse into the characters’–and even the audience’s–subconscious minds. According to Cooper, in Dream, the untamed landscape of the woods, where the lovers flee to and the Fairies live, “is filled with mystery and danger” due to its potential to disturb the status quo. The Athenians live on the outskirts of this liberated wood, and in Dream, we enter into a world that is wild, violent, and dangerous: the world of our subconscious desires–the world of our dreams. As Cooper so rightly states: “within fantasy lurks madness.”
During last Wednesday’s Meet & Greet with the show’s cast and creative team, we learned that Dream will take place in “a world in which the perspective shifts with the dreamer.” This lends itself naturally to the theme of transformation, hopping from one “reality” to the next, as if trapped in someone else’s fantasy. Scenic designer Nina Ball (The Comedy of Errors) joins Cal Shakes once again this season with Dream’s duel set: the oppressive, civilized Athenian landscape, slowly peeled away to reveal a “poetic representation of a forest,” complete with an exploding arch of twigs, sustained–mid-air–by a seeming lack of gravity. By the end of the play, the arch bursts to life, sprouting blossoms that carry over to, and transform, the once-stale Athenian aesthetic.
Also joining Dream for her second Cal Shakes production this season is Movement Director Erika Chong Shuch (Hippolyta, Tatiana). As Cooper reasons, “this play demands a need for movement and dance to transport us from one world to the next [in order] to tell the story.” In Dream, movement will serve as a vessel to infuse the production with magic. And it is safe to say that Cooper’s vision of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be magical indeed.
Aliya Charney is a dramaturgy intern and Cal Shakes Patron Services Associate. You might have heard her answering Cal Shakes’ phones, giving Grove Talks before our Shakespeare shows, or in her occasional stints welcoming patrons at the new Welcome Center.
Listen to Philippa Kelly’s Grove Talk about Pygmalion by clicking here.
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”:
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.
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 email@example.com, or post below to ask her a question.