“For Romeo & Juliet we're playing with no language, so we call it 'according to Shakespeare,’” said Jim Cave of his show with Deborah Gwinn, Romeo & Juliet and Other Duets, which just opened at The Marsh in San Francisco. “For The Chairs, it’s ‘after Ionesco.’ There are maybe a couple pages of text; the rest went out the window. We tell both of these stories in our own peculiar way. And as the run develops, we may add other little pieces.”
Cave, an Oakland resident, and Gwinn, who now lives in Vermont, have been working together on and off for decades, since they “connected” during what Cave called “kind of the second generation of the Blake Street Hawkeyes, post-Bob Ernst, David Shine, John O’Keefe ...” referring to the seminal Berkeley theater group of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Cave has gone on to become an ubiquitous presence in Bay Area theater (including opera), a masterful jack-of-all-trades, whether as tech director, performing, or in the director’s chair. Actors, on being asked about the show they’re in, will often just describe it as “a Jim Cave thing.”
“We connected at the Hawkeyes in the early ‘80s when Deb was artistic director,” Cave recalled, “She’d been in the Iowa Theater Workshop, which was influenced by Jerzy Grotowski’s experiments, so very movement-oriented. She came out here with others who founded the Hawkeyes. I was technical director, then directed the last piece Bob Ernst, Cynthia Moore and Whoopi [Goldberg] did, Tantrum. Then I was given a project, The Whole Hog, something different groups around the Bay Area have duplicated ...
“Debbie’s a wonderful playwright,” Cave went on, “always fascinated with classical stories, like Alcestis, Phaedra, Medea—but they’re turned into comedies. She also worked with Merle Kessler and Duck’s Breath, and was in O’Keefe’s DISGRACE at the SF Playwrights Festival and Theatre Artaud. Then she moved back to Vermont, where every summer she puts on her Shakespeare festival in a barn. I go back for it. She and I anchor a piece, then get local people to help. There are kids in that town who’ve grown up with our idea of Shakespeare.”
Cave endeavored to describe the style they’ve developed for their duets.
“We both find it very difficult to talk about it,” he said. “You have to see it. This particular style pares language back. And it’s not the characters speaking. We have developed ways to deliver the language—as voice-over, or with a megaphone, or, a specialty of Deb’s, through dolls. It makes you listen in a different way. We tend to use the same music over and over in different contexts. Since we’re doing duets, we use duets for two pianos. For The Chairs, Poulenc, Gershwin, Turelli; for R & J Gershwin, Milhaud, Nina Rota and Prokofieff. An odd thing, but the Milhaud sometimes sounds exactly like Gershwin!
“It all started in Berkeley and around Berkeley,” Cave continued. “Debbie got an old dance studio in Rockridge, where an old woman had taught ballet classes, which she called the Temple. We worked with whoever was around, with different approaches—Macbeth, but all in Lady Macbeth’s voice-over; Midsummer Night’s Dream, speaking for dolls. Then we began working with Greg Goodman, aka Woody Woodman, a pianist whose mentor was Cecil Taylor, and who collaborated with high-level improvisers like Rova, Derek Bailey ... he had musicians from all over the world in his place, really for 30 years in his Berkeley living room. We founded Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace together. He and I put on a version of Don Quixote with no language, to Richard Strauss’ ‘Sketches for Don Quixote,’ later taking it to The Marsh. All the duet work was born from that; Don Quixote inspired it.”
So Cave and Gwinn’s show at The Marsh is something “coming full circle. Stephanie [Weissman] has been very supportive. And another full circle—Deb performed [and brilliantly] in Stephanie’s opera., Aphrodisia, the piece she founded The Marsh because of, finally played at The Marsh-Berkeley in 2006.”
Their gestural, collaborative theater continues, an ongoing project “now at Roham’s place. [Roham Shaikani, Oakland actor, known for his work with Darvag, Shotgun and George Charback’s TheatreInSearch.] It’s the Kingdom of Mahor: Roham, backwards. We all have positions in the Ministry. We do magical stuff with very little, curtains sometimes, lights—we cram for a couple of days, invite friends and put on a show.”
ROMEO & JULIET and OTHER DUETS
Through March 29
Thurs-Sat. at 8 p.m.
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco