Shaw's "Pygmalion" and Shakespeare's "Tempest" thrill East Bay audiences in Orinda and Lafayette this past week!

Ariel brings a breath of artistic beauty in California Shakespeare's stellar production of "The Tempest'!

"You see things; and say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?”George Bernard Shaw

I have indeed been quite fortunate to have had the opportunity to review two quite excellent productions this week that I am excited to tell you about. First, “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw produced by The Town Hall Theater in Lafayette and the second, “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare playing at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda. Both, brilliantly produced and directed, bring a depth and clarity to their author’s works that will be much appreciated. My wife, Karen, who has never cared for Shakespeare’s “Tempest” and only joined me reluctantly to see this play, came away saying she thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it by far the best interpretation she has ever seen.

George Bernard Shaw, born in 1856, was a former art critic, theater critic and advocate of socialism. He has written far more plays than I have space to list here, but Mrs Warren's Profession (1898), Man and Superman (1902), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Saint Joan (1923) and Pygmalion (1913) are perhaps among his most famous. One of the most widely successful musicals of all time is “My Fair Lady”, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s thought-provoking play, “Pygmalion”.

It was Shaw's opinion that language (or the social inferences made from a person's use of language) was partly to blame for keeping the lower classes in the social, economic, professional and educational gutter. Pygmalion’s basic premise is that a phonetician by the name of Henry Higgins can pluck from the streets of London, a poverty-stricken flower girl, and, through a rigorous program of phonetic, grammatical and social tutoring, can transform her into a lady of social respectability, “a consort for a king”.

Shaw created Eliza Doolittle specifically for the renowned and beautiful Elizabethan actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, partly as a flirtatious challenge and partly to tease her for her social pretensions demonstrated through her social climbing affected speech, which he felt hampered her growth as an artist.

The action begins in the portico of St. Paul’s church, where a group of theater patrons exiting the nearby theater are sheltered from a London rain. In the midst of this, a Cockney flower girl, a Miss Eliza Doolittle (played deliciously well by Ginny Wehrmeister), desperately attempts to sell her little bouquets of flowers. In the process of exiting the safety of the church portico in search of a taxi, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Michael Scott Wells) bumps into Miss Doolittle, sending her and her basket of flowers careening into the muddy street. As the young lady regains her posture and recovers her basket of flowers, she appeals to another gentleman standing in the portico, Colonel Pickering (Don Wood), to purchase some flowers so that she can afford a night’s lodging. Standing nearby, furiously transcribing phonetically each and every sound Miss Doolittle makes, is a professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins (Clive Worsley). The young flower girl becomes frightened and upset when she is warned that someone (perhaps a policeman) is writing down every word she says. Her pleadings evolve into a caterwauling that eventually brings Higgins and Pickering together. Both men are interested in phonetics; each has admitted that they were seeking each other out to share their common language interests. As they stand in the portico introducing themselves to each other, their interest in the flower girl’s Cockney linguistic vent brings Higgins to tell Pickering that he could pass off this flower girl as a duchess by merely teaching her to speak properly. These words of bravado spark an interest in Eliza, who would love to make changes in her life and become more mannerly, even though, to her, at best, it only means being able to secure work in a “proper” flower shop.

This begins our theatrical adventure, wherein Miss Doolittle soon finds her way to Higgins home willing to pay for his tutelage. Pickering, however, is so intrigued by the extreme challenges presented by turning this “cabbage leaf” into a lovely flower that he agrees to pay for Higgins time and effort in teaching the girl to speak and carry herself as a lady, that is, if Higgins can truly pull off his promise. They are joined in this adventure by Higgins’ mother, played by Ann Kendrick; Mr. Alfred Doolittle (Chris Parnell-Hayes); Jenna Stich as Freddy’s sister, Miss Clara Eynsford-Hill; Jennie Brick as Mrs. Eynford-Hill and last but not least, by the very talented Tiffany Hoover, who plays a number of other characters very well! Clive Worsly and Ginny Wehrmeister are a theatrical match made as they deliver a superb portrayal, of these diametrically different characters.

Director Dennis Markham has gathered together a terrific cast and a superb crew in developing this outstanding production. Dialect coach Rebecca Castelli has helped to meld these articulate voices into excellent characterizations and Costumer Maggie Yule has dressed each actor to perfection. This thoroughly delightful production continues at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 2 pm, now through June 23rd in the Town Hall Theater located at 3535 School Street and the corner of Moraga Road in Lafayette. Call 283-1557 for tickets or reservations or visit their website at for more information. Tickets range between $29 and $32 each for this professional level production.

A little further west on highway 24, just one mile East of the Caldecott Tunnel, at 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (formerly 100 Gateway Blvd.), the California Shakespeare Theater is presenting the most enjoyable version of Shakespeare’s tale of Kingdom lost and Kingdome found, on a stormy night, upon an imaginary sea, high in the Orinda hills, a delightfully different presentation of “The Tempest”. Under the clever and creative vision of artistic director Jonathan Moscone, the normally very dark vision of this play of redemption takes on a much lighter and much more enjoyable tone. In this production, 6 actors transform themselves before your very eyes into 11 very different characters. This production brings a bold vitality and illuminating lightness to a magical island world ruled by a former duke of Milan, Prospero.
Deposed Duke Prospero (Michael Winters) and his infant daughter, Miranda (Emily Kitchens), had been set upon the tumultuous sea in a dangerously ill-equipped ship that his conniving and treacherous brother, Antonio (Catherine Castellanos), had intended would destroy them. Many years later, Prospero and his now 18 year old daughter are re-discovered by the audience, shipwrecked but having survived upon a Mediterranean island.

As fortune would have it, with the assistance of his magical assistant, Ariel (Erika Chong Shuch), Prospero’s fortune is about to turn around as his enemies are aboard a ship passing close by the island upon which the fortunate Prospero has survived. Prospero has great wisdom and the ability to affect the elements of the world around him with his great prowess and powers at conjuring magic. Upon his island, Prospero has been able to wrest power from the son of a former sorceress, Caliban (Catherine Castellanos), and now is the master of this island, with Caliban serving him as his slave. When Prospero discovers through his magical power envisions that the current Duke of Milan, Alonso (James Carpenter), Alonso’s princely son, Fernando (Nicholas Pelczar), his brother Antonio and their entourage, are passing near his island, he orders the elements to create a terrible storm that will capsize the ship and bring his enemies to his island, unharmed.

Director Moscone uses superbly executed choreography with a ballet of three inspired sprites to articulate the meeting and romanticism of Miranda and Fernando in a way I have never seen before. Poetic and beautiful, this inspired production brings a joy and lightness to this normally very heavy play. The set design by Emily Greene, the lighting design by Gabe Maxson, the sound design by Cliff Caruthers and the costume design by Anna Oliver, when joined with superb acting, bring “The Tempest” to a far more enjoyable height than I have ever experienced with this play.

This production continues Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees as 2 pm and Sunday matinees at 4 pm, now through June 24th. Tickets vary in price depending on dates and seating location, and they range between $35 and $71 with discounts available for seniors, students, persons age 30 and under by going on line at or by visiting the California Shakespeare Theatre Box office at 701 Heinz Avenue in Berkeley, CA. You may call (510) 548-9666 for more information.

Please note that that the Bruns Amphitheater is located at 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (formerly 100 Gateway Blvd.) just off highway 24 at the California Shakespeare Theater Way/Wilder Road, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. There is a complementary shuttle from the Orinda Bart Station beginning 90 minutes prior to opening curtain and there