What a difference good sound and lighting can make to a show. It may sound like the blinking obvious, but when you see the good stuff, you realize how much it elevates a production.
Take the recent shows from Berkeley Rep and Cal Shakes -- Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Shakespeare's As You Like It, respectively -- both of which present smooth, professional results from what can be self-consciously theatrical material. Minor quibbles aside, both shows leave you in a thoroughly satisfied mood and a huge part of that is the effect of the setting, the lights and the music.
Interestingly enough, the talented Alexander V. Nichols designed the lighting for both shows, and for both, Gina Leishman created original scores. Well, gifted professionals are always in demand, especially when their work makes you look so good.
For any Brecht play, a certain spare, carny grime is de rigeur, it seems, and Rachel Hauck's scenic design for Mother Courage strips Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre back to a black box with scattered set pieces emerging like so much flotsam. Throughout the evening, actors scrawl graffitoed tags in chalk across the black walls -- "Sweden, 1624," "Protestants," "Fraternization Song" -- like markers or keywords in a Google search. But if the set suggests an abandoned, cavernous big top, it is Nichols' lighting that adds the emotional desolation, the sense of cold moonlight on a sleepless night. And it's Leishman's hurdy-gurdy, oompah score that lends the drawling lilt of disappointed hopes disguised with sarcasm.
Mother Courage recounts the fable of a war privateer (Ivonne Coll in the title role), who ekes out survival and profit for her family during the 30 Years' War in the 17th century. It's a parable that Brecht wrote on the eve of the Second World War just as a veil was slowly falling over the horrors of the First World War and it's tempting to call it timely -- a lesson on the travails of war as we sink into the fifth year of another kind of religious war. Director David Hare's translation has retained the Brechtian provocation in cynical nuggets that seem custom made for quoting in anti-war pamphlets. But I couldn't help but be fascinated, not with parallels to our war with Iraq, but with the incomprehensible logic and extenuations of the Bechtels and Halliburtons and Mother Courages -- with the different kind of betrayal that has nothing to do with the opposing sides, but rather with opportunism.
"Whenever heroics are called for, it means someone has fucked up," sneers Coll, "What's courage but a failure of planning?"
Brecht's cool assessments however, make for some problematic and unlikely characters. In his own lifetime, apparently, he was little pleased with the maternal warmth that most actresses gave the ironically named Mother Courage and it is a definite problem here. Coll, a compelling actress clearly, is just too likeable -- like a mercurial, jolly grandmother -- and when she pulls the shoes off her dead child's feet (she can still make money off of them) her actions seem ludicrous.
Katie Barrett, as the faded flower Yvette, finds a better balance in brassy pathos. Her campy trollop looks a little like Carol Burnett playing Norma Desmond. Yet she can call up an emotionally diminished Gloria Swanson, singing the "Fraternization Song," in which she ranges from a rattling and ironic "heavenly power of love" to the bittersweet note in her last word, "vanished."
By contrast to Brecht, Cal Shakes' As You Like It is an exuberant, lively affair, leavened not only by Nichols' starry illumination at the open air Bruns Amphitheater, but also by Leishman's effervescent gypsy-inspired music, supplied on fiddle by Lila Sklar, Dan Cantrell on accordion and saw and Djordje Stijepovic on bass.
Director Jonathan Moscone puts a saucy spin on this Shakespeare comedy -- which offers the usual feuding brothers, lost loves and mistaken identities, along with a bevy of delightful whack-job characters wandering around in the Forest of Arden. Fortunately, after the first act, a lot of the wocka-wocka, "Funky Town"-meets-Monte Carlo atmosphere abated, although the bad guys continued to be identifiable as those defiantly wearing white after Labor Day and the good guys as the natty bunch capering about in tuxes in the forest.
Everyone is enjoying having a lark though, both on the stage and in the seats. As the play gets warmed up, the actors embrace the language and none more so than the resonant L. Peter Callender, as both the volatile Duke Frederick and his good egg brother Duke Senior. And if Julie Eccles and Susannah Schulman seem unlikely as the giggling Celia and a boisterous lovelorn Rosalind, their enthusiasm is winning all the same. Of course, the best comic bits go to Dan Hiatt, as the jester Touchstone, and Andy Murray, the hilariously sullen Jaques. But it's Delia MacDougall, in the oft-overlooked part of the scornful Phoebe, who makes the most of a Leishman torch song, complete with feather boa.
Best of all though, is sitting in the Cal Shakes audience. While not perhaps as participatory as a bunch of Elizabethan groundlings in the pit, the audience infuses the amphitheater with a lusty enjoyment. As the aged Adam arm-wrestles Orlando and prevails, a guy in the cheap seats shouts an approving, "Dude!" I think the Bard would have appreciated that.
Cal Shakes: As You Like It runs through October 15, 2006 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda. Box office: 510.548.9666
Berkeley Rep: Mother Courage runs through October 22, 2006 at Berkeley's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. Box office 510.647.2949