By Charles Brousse
George Bernard Shaw’s plays, particularly the lesser known ones, are rarely seen in Bay Area theaters these days—a supposition verified by a quick Google search. That being so, I was greatly anticipating California Shakespeare Theater’s production of his 1897 comedy, You Never Can Tell. Is it an overlooked jewel, or did it disappear because of lack of merit? Or, perhaps the neglect is simply because recent generations put Shaw’s works in the same category as the original iPhones—quaint “classics” that are fun to look at in museums, but unsuited for modern users/audiences?
After attending Cal Shakes’ opening night production last weekend, I’ve concluded that none of the foregoing explanations are entirely accurate. You Never Can Tell is minor Shaw, in no way comparable to masterpieces like Heartbreak House and Arms and the Man, for example, but perfectly capable of providing theatergoers—who make the trek out to Bruns Amphitheater in the Orinda hills during the play’s five-week run—with a solid evening’s entertainment and a reminder of how much we’ve been missing.
To make that happen takes the right approach, and the company’s visiting director, Lisa Peterson—who has lately been specializing in Shaw revivals around the country—seems to have found it. Countering the Anglo-Irish playwright’s predilection for wordiness and preachy pronouncements, she interjects a mix of music, dance and general physicality by brightly costumed characters who make the most of their comedic opportunities, even as she keeps the author’s radical (for the times) messages about the value of female equality and the perils of bourgeois love and marriage clearly in view.
In pulling this off, Peterson is assisted by a corps of talented artistic associates. Designer Melissa Torchia’s turn-of-the-century costumes range from sober to extravagant, depending on whether the character being dressed is meant to be a bearer of Shaw’s social commentary or a playful ornamentation. Paul James Prendergast’s sound design keeps toes tapping with music of the era, fully exploited by movement choreographer Rami Margron. York Kennedy’s holiday-bright lighting design helps to maintain an exciting atmosphere throughout, reminding us that this is a summer show that takes place during high vacation season.
Speaking of which—while normally I don’t care for transposing foreign plays from their original settings to American equivalents, inhabited by American actors speaking with flat American accents, in this case it works. The reason, I would guess, is that the English seaside resort that Shaw references is probably Brighton, whose ambience is not that different from Santa Cruz, where Peterson grew up. In any event, scenic designer Erik Flatmo’s twinkle-light-outlined Big Dipper and leaning haunted castle provide just the right suggestion of amusement park frivolity. As for the American voices: Better those than poorly rendered standard British.
Accents aside, Cal Shakes’ cast is first-rate from top to bottom. Among the several relationships that form the play’s rather convoluted plot, three in particular stand out in their importance, all of them involving a certain Mrs. Clandon. Ably portrayed by Elizabeth Carter, she is a successful writer of self-help books and ardent feminist, who has come to the beach town for a holiday with her bumptious twins, Dolly (Khalia Davis) and Philip (Lance Gardner). They insistently question about their father, whose identity their mother has kept secret because of her conviction that women don’t really need men, especially disagreeable men. Then, suddenly, he (Michael Torres) turns up as the landlord of the free-spirited dentist Valentine (Matthew Baldiga) who Mrs. Clandon’s elder daughter Gloria (Sabina Zuniga Varela), despite her mother-instilled feminist convictions, unexpectedly falls in love with. Yes, it’s a small world.
By the end of the day, helped along by advice from the family lawyer (Anthony Fusco), a voluble waiter (the irrepressible Danny Scheie), and a learned retired judge (Liam Vincent), everything has shifted. Which all goes to show, as Shaw reminds us—perhaps a few too many times, but nevertheless true—that in life as in love, “You never can tell.”
NOW PLAYING You Never Can Tell runs through September 4 in the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda; 510/548-9666; calshakes.org.