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Puppets and Shakespearean verse take center stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Wooden puppets are manipulated by actors clad in black, who stand behind the puppets, using voice, humor, and movement to create empathy for the wooden-faced characters on stage. Falstaff appears inside a 20-foot puppet. Puppets and actors in period clothing interact on stage, without the viewer feeling jolted by the switch from puppet to actor.
“Puppetry as a storytelling device has been around for thousands of years,” says director Sean Daniels. “The puppets communicate different levels of class; for instance, I used the high-class puppets like marionettes for the high-class characters, and shadow puppets for the low-class characters. Directing a cast of puppets is a time-intensive process. Time is spent in figuring out how one walks across the stage, how one can pick up things, how a puppet can sit down.”
“To live inside a puppet,” says Ron Campbell, who plays the role of Sir John Falstaff, “I had to think carefully of the implications of every physical movement since I could not use facial expression. Every move had to be calculated to create the right impression, including how to place my chin.”
Campbell shares the company’s inventive approach to bring these classics alive for today’s audiences. “At Cal Shakes, we have great respect for Shakespeare, but refuse to hold up the material as a ‘sacred cow.’ The material has proved itself over 400 years. We try to bring it to life, and challenge audience members’ pre-conceptions of Shakespeare. The verse and the plot line provide the framework, and then the organization challenges the artist to go beyond the verse.”
Founded in 1974, California Shakespeare Theater presents Shakespeare and other re-imagined classics, bringing fresh artistic perspectives to bear on the material. In the current season, following The Merry Wives of Windsor, acclaimed local playwright Amy Freed’s work Restoration Comedy will be staged. It is based on two comedies written during the Restoration of the English throne—Love’s Last Shift and The Relapse, and is directed by Sharon Ott. The Merchant of Venice, the play that immortalized the characters of Shylock and Portia, directed by Daniel Fish comes up next. Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of Cal Shakes directs the season’s last play, As You Like It with an original jazz score by Associate Artist Gina Leishman.
“To direct The Merry Wives of Windsor at Cal Shakes is to enjoy tremendous artistic freedom,” says Daniels. “Even though this sounds crazy, some theater companies can make the director feel that they are in the way. Cal Shakes is an artists’ theater, where we are encouraged and valued for taking artistic risks, presenting our efforts in an outdoor setting.”
Campbell talks about the challenges and advantages of acting in an outdoor amphitheater. “I need to be heard in the back rows. And, then, of course, there are thrilling moments where I can talk about the moon and actually point to the moon.”
As I walked down the hillside after the play, I thought that Cal Shakes represents something quintessentially American that many of us immigrants grow to admire over years of living here. Great acting, passion, and dedication to the craft are on full display. Along with this is an innovative interpretation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old material in a new light that doesn’t fossilize the playwright and his work.
I recalled Campbell’s passionate words, “If ever there was a theater that made Shakespeare not academic and not difficult to understand, a true ‘equal opportunity’ theater, then this is it.”
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is an Indian classical dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who writes about the arts.
Theater at Cal Shakes is quite the outdoor experience. Go prepared with a couple of jackets to keep you warm when the fog rolls in, and pack a picnic basket with wine, cheese, and sandwiches. The picnic grounds with outdoor sculptures open a couple of hours before each show. A pre-show talk is given by respected dramaturges, detailing the finer points of the play.
Take advantage of audience events such as Previews, Opening Nights, Tasting Series where you can sample some of the Bay Area’s finest food and drink, Meet the Artists Matinees, InSight Matinees featuring a post-show conversation with the dramaturge exploring the world of the play, Inside Scoop, and Behind the Scenes.
Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed. Directed by Sharon Ott. July 5-30
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Fish. Aug. 9-Sept. 3
As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Moscone. Sept. 13–Oct. 15
The Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda. Main Box Office, 701 Heinz Ave., Berkeley. $32-57 regular, $5 discount for seniors, $15 ages 30 and under. (510) 548-9666. www.calshakes.org