View Count: 101 |  Publish Date: February 25, 2014
Cal Shakes hits the road

Morning light streams through high industrial windows, illuminating the midnight revelry on a makeshift stage in the middle of the room. As the actors negotiate the confused-gender love triangle of Shakespeares Twelfth Night, freight trains rumble past a few yards away, outside the former California Packing Corp. building.
The site off Oaklands Embarcadero is a far cry from California Shakespeare Theaters usual environs. At its Bruns Amphitheater in the East Bay hills, the ambient sounds usually come from passing owls or a more distant coyote. But Cal Shakes is trying something new to open its 4oth anniversary year. Several new things.
The Feb. 14 morning Twelfth Night at Civicorps - a high school equivalency/job training program for highest-risk young adults - is the beginning of a long-term program to bring Cal Shakes work to underserved communities. Its the first of eight performances at sites ranging from an LGBT senior facility in San Francisco to the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center, plus a run of 10 low-cost public performances at Intersection for the Arts that opened Feb. 21.All-female cast
Its also Cal Shakes first-ever single-gender production, with seven women - all seasoned Shakespearean actors - playing all the (mostly male) roles.
That wrinkle probably didnt help attract the few dozen young adults who filled the folding chairs on all four sides of the small performance space in Civicorps spacious, airy assembly room. They were getting credit for attending (extra credit for those bold enough to take a front-row seat or ask a question during the post-show talk). But as the play went on, the all-female cast seemed to pique the interest of many of the women in the audience, and not a few of the young men.
Whats it like when youre performing like that, with all women? one young woman asked after the show.
Whats most fun is that sometimes I forget were all women, said Nancy Carlin, who plays the key part of the priggish Malvolio, as well as a long-bearded priest.
Cindy Im, who has the lead role of Viola - the girl who disguises herself as a boy - and also plays her twin brother, confessed she still had trouble not cracking up at the sight of Carlin in that beard.
I play so many dudes, added Catherine Castellanos, the plays drunken Sir Toby Belch. I think this dude really has to get in touch with his feminine side.
Cal Shakes followed the lead of New Yorks Public Theater and called on Michelle Hensley, founder and director of Minneapolis Ten Thousand Things company. Hensley, who came out to direct Twelfth Night, developed what has become the national model for such programs.
Were copying exactly her model, says Rebecca Novick, Cal Shakes new director of artistic engagement and developer of its ongoing Triangle Lab production and outreach partnership with Intersection, a community tour and some low-cost public performances.
Shes been doing it for 20 years. A large number of their performances are in prisons, and we worked pretty hard at that. Were going into juvenile hall, but we havent been successful with prisons. The people at San Quentin (which has an ongoing program with Marin Shakespeare Company) told us theyre pretty set up already. So were looking further afield.
Novick refers to this Triangle project as a pilot program. Its under that umbrella where were looking at how we bring art more strongly into the community. ... Its important to us to focus on low-income communities and communities of color.Long-term potential
The sites for this first tour, Novick says, were selected partly for their potential as long-term community partners for Cal Shakes in the East Bay and its Triangle partner Intersection in the Tenderloin area.
Its going fine, Hensley says halfway through the community tour, on the eve of the Intersection opening, after which shell fly back to Minneapolis (Hello, polar vortex).
The kind of director who jumps in to arrange the audience chairs in the tight, up-close configuration she prefers, Hensley says an unexpected side benefit of her community work is how much she and her actors have learned about performing Shakespeare. She tells of an early prison performance of Measure for Measure when a prisoner yelled an angry rebuttal at the villain and the actors next line fit the moment perfectly.
And I learned that Shakespeare wrote assuming that people would shout out like that. The speeches are constructed for that. Another revelation for me has been how his stories speak very strongly to people of all different economic levels and educational backgrounds. You dont have to worry about the story. If you tell it clearly, the audience will commit to the play.
There are always bumps in the road the first time out, she added. When we were at Civicorps, we learned that the next time there we should be sure the show isnt mandatory. That the youth have another choice . ... At the San Francisco Public Library, which was an attempt to reach the homeless population that tends to gather there, we need to do some fine-tuning in terms of the time of day.
The most challenging site has been Youth UpRising in Oakland. We discovered that there were overlaps in their programming, so that the kids who were there for the first part had to leave to go to other activities, and then all these kids came in for the second act. But we did a little heres whats happened in the story so far, and they were great. They said they loved the immediacy of it, that the actors were in your face. And they loved the story.
Twelfth Night: By William Shakespeare. Directed by Michelle Hensley. Through March 2. California Shakespeare Theater and Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F. $20. (510) 548-9666.
Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicles theater critic. E-mail: Twitter: @RobertHurwitt

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Time: 1:55  |  News Code: 384081  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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