When Marco Barricelli was the alpha male of American Conservatory Theater's core acting company, the Geary stage sizzled. Before leaving to pursue opportunities back East in 2005 after more than a decade's association with San Francisco's flagship theater company, Barricelli brought his imposing frame and brooding grace to a multitude of roles from A Streetcar Named Desire's Stanley Kowalski to Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. His appeal was visceral. San Francisco's female audiences in particular adored him, and, judging by the way sparks flew when he acted in love scenes, so did many of his leading ladies. Barricelli's onstage relationship with fellow core company member René Augesen was particularly pulse-racing. You only had to be at a performance of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in 2004 to see the test-tubes bubble. When Michael Scott Moore, this publication's former theater critic, heard about Barricelli's departure, he asked only one question: "Now whom will René flirt with onstage?"
Barricelli's instinct for creating theatrical chemistry has found a new outlet for expression just a few miles down the coast. As the new artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz — the actor's first foray into heading a theater company — he has put together an inaugural season that explores the laws of attraction. At least, the two productions of the company's four-show program I caught in preview on my visit to the balmy, laid-back surf town — William Shakespeare's prickly romance All's Well That Ends Well (composed sometime between 1601 and 1608) and Lanford Wilson's passionate 1987 drama Burn This — demonstrate that love indeed works in mysterious ways.
This feeling is heightened by the fact that the romantic relationships at the heart of both All's Well and Burn This are extremely awkward. All's Well centers on the largely one-sided passion of Helena, the orphaned daughter of a recently deceased, much-respected court physician. Helena is smitten with Bertram, the aristocratic son of the Countess of Rousillon, who is Helena's protector and her late father's employer. Sadly for Helena, Bertram barely notices her. But when the resourceful young woman uses her father's medicinal skills to cure the ailing king of France in exchange for obtaining the right to marry any man she desires, Bertram suddenly finds his bachelorhood compromised. Forced to wed Helena by the king, Bertram flees to the battlefields, apparently happier clashing swords against France's Italian enemies than getting cozy with his new wife.
As in Shakespeare's play, the storyline for Burn This is couched in death and destruction. Following the unexpected loss of a close friend in a freak boating accident, roommates Anna and Larry quietly try to put their lives back together when the dead man's older brother, a tormented, foul-mouthed restaurant manager by the name of Pale, shows up uninvited at their yuppie New York loft. Like Helena and Bertram, Anna and Pale come from very different social strata. They also, albeit under very different circumstances, find themselves hooking up.
Despite the passionate themes of these plays, it's hard for contemporary audiences to fall in love with them. Though Shakespeare's drama has seen a surge of productions lately, its denouement — in which a strong woman desperately pursues a man who isn't interested and who then harshly puts her down — is hard to stomach in a postfeminist world. Figuring out how to make the characters' puzzling behavior credible and empathetic is the biggest challenge facing director Tim Ocel. Burn This was written hundreds of years after All's Well, yet in some ways it feels more dated. 1980s Broadway audiences may have been shocked by Pale's incessant expletives and the play's references to dick-sucking and coke-snorting. Director Michael Barakiva's greatest hurdle is to conjure a roaring fire out of a couple of spent sticks.
Neither production is without its passion-dampening moments. Pacing is key to building up the necessary energy to keep both plays on the boil. The dragging rhythm of the subplot in All's Well, which involves an elaborate joke played by French soldiers at the expense of Bertram's mouthy sidekick Parolles, undermines the vitality of Shakespeare's storytelling. Similarly, in Burn This, Anna's appearance before the play begins, forlornly floating about the stage like a particle of cigarette ash, gets the action off to a meandering start.
Yet when viewed on adjacent evenings, the contrast between the sexual energy of the two dramas is as overt as the difference between the redwood-framed outdoor grove in which All's Well is performed and the indoor Thrust Stage setting for Burn This. The complete lack of chemistry between Rachel Fowler's forthright, almost masculine Helena and Erik Hellman's effete, cowardly Bertram in All's Well makes their eventual coming together appear all the more twisted. Though Ocel's cynical staging fails to make us feel empathy for them as individuals, their combined fate resonates in a world where actions are all too frequently divorced from true feelings. The animal passion between Yvonne Woods' Modigliani-like Anna and Gene Gillette's incendiary Pale in Burn This couldn't be more different. Accented by David Lee Cuthbert's forceful lighting design against the muted, ramshackle contours of John Iacovelli's naturalistic loft set, the actors circle each other like cats in heat. The characters might come from very different backgrounds, but at the deepest level, they're both made of the same stuff. Like Bertram and Helena, they probably shouldn't be together, but unlike Shakespeare's decidedly unstar-crossed lovers, their passion, though dangerous, makes perfect sense.
If anyone at Shakespeare Santa Cruz is playing with fire right now, it's Barricelli. The artistic director's decision to present four plays (rather than the company's previously standard three) in repertory, and to balance out crowd-pleasing Shakespeare productions (All's Well and Romeo and Juliet) with works by living playwrights (Burn This and Itamar Moses' Bach at Leipzig) is a daring departure, particularly in an unforgiving economic climate. The chemistry for success is certainly there in the combination of talented artists and enthusiastic audiences. But whether Barricelli's reign will foster an enduring romance between plays and theatergoers or serve as a mere one-night stand remains to be seen.