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In Season Closer, Cal Shakes Goes Back to the Future

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the same play it opened its first season with. We talked to the directors of both.

One of Cal Shakes' nine "Dreams" over the years.

 

Cal Shakes, the theater company nestled in the Orinda hills, closes their 40th anniversary season with a new, dance-infused production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (previews start tonight). By a handy coincidence, Dream was also the very first show Cal Shakes (then called the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival) put on in 1974. For old time's sake, we looked up Mikel Clifford, the inaugural director of that inaugural season's inaugural show, and checked on how her approach compares to that of Shana Cooper, the hot-ticket director of the new staging:

 
The production:

Clifford: The play is almost perfect as it is. Gimmicks are amusing and all, but they don't have much to do with the show. The radical-ness of the play is just the play. My attitude was, stick with that.
Cooper: We want to bring visceral life to extreme fantasy and nightmare. We want the play to an entirely new place with extreme expression of the body and space, and wrestle with the big questions going on in an almost violent way.

The costumes:

Clifford:
Tights, tunics, and pointy shoes. What else do you need? One of our actors was a dyer and he gave us big swaths of dyed nylon that the fairies wore. A friend had married a Frenchman and sold me some Rennaissance-style costumes that the Paris Opera were getting rid of, so the Athenians wore those. And I had a real leopard skin—don't ask—so Hippolyta wore that.
Cooper: The fairies are part of the landscape: blood, dirt, grass stains, and mud become a second skin. We imagined what would happen if you went into wild, untamed territory and stayed until nature took over. The Athenians are 1940s and '50s style, very streamlined silhouettes, because they represent the world of laws and order.
 
The stage directions:

Clifford: This was only my second time directing. We were a little static. My parents didn't approve of TV, so I hadn't been exposed yet to much visual art. If I did it all again, we'd move around more.
Cooper: We do a bit of acrobatics and dance, to get across emotions beyond language. Like how in musicals people will break out into song to express themselves, but instead with dance.

The venue:

Clifford: Some yahoos liked to drink in John Hinkel Park and they’d hang out until some of our bigger male cast members had words. Before we went on, we had to go door to door to get the neighbors' okay to use the park near their houses. We must have talked to 40 or 50 people. Now and then dogs would wander through.
Cooper: One of the best things about the Bruns Amplitheater is the engagement between the audience and the actors. We're all in the same space, and that breaks down the barriers, with all the entrances and exits through the audience. You're exposed, and the audience becomes the confidant. But animals wandering around could happen at the Bruns too: coyotes are calling, cows are mooing, birds land on the set. There's not much you can do about it.

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