The magic of love finds a winning ‘Formula’ at Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Kathryn Chetkovich’s new play “The Formula,” is getting one heck of a run in repertory at Santa Cruz Shakespeare. The show, which runs through Sunday, Aug. 28, spins firmly off William Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” implementing all the craziness that love can bring when uncertainty is thrown into the mix.

The show has received critical acclaim, and Maguire is beyond pleased with what the show has been able to do thus far. Chetkovich and director Ellen Maguire reflect on what the experience has been mounting this new and joyful work.

David John Chávez: You’ve had a great response so far from the show. If you look at the influence of the play, Midsummer, it is a pretty accessible play for a general audience, and such a fun show. What are some of the most joyful aspects of this interpretation to direct?

Ellen Maguire: With The Formula, a serious look at romantic attachment wrapped in an all-kinds-of-funny play, we aim to make you reconsider how and why you’ve constructed your ideas of love while making you laugh very hard. There’s wit, wordplay, situational comedy and physical comedy, all of which are intensely satisfying to explore in rehearsal. Without giving too much away, there’s a particularly bonkers scene that takes place in the woods at night, with characters dancing under the moonlight, falling under the influence of the experimental elixir and exchanging passionate kisses; it’s the climactic scene of the play and it’s capped by a deeply felt moment in which a character releases himself from grief. As a director, I love to tread that funny/painful/moving line.

Comedy is a very hard genre to write and interpret, but how is that dynamic or difficult to direct?

EM: My approach to directing comedy is simple: I explore the psychological truth of the characters. I never ask the actors to play the comedy. I ask them to pursue their objectives intensely, with high stakes. The more seriously they pursue what they want, the funnier the scenes become.”

Love is so universal, yet it is often incredibly elusive. How do you take your personal and literary knowledge of love and direct a piece where you can use that knowledge to stage something fun and whimsical?

EM: I wanted to make something that I would like to see: a piece of theater that speaks to the complexity of love, makes you laugh hard–and ultimately moves you. Part of my preparation involves revisiting the plays, films and novels that occupy that territory. Having played Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I know how cruel the lovers are to each other.  Watching Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” or Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” reminds me that the stakes of your story need to be high. When I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People, I’m reminded how messy love can be.So in the development process I encouraged Kathy to let her characters make mistakes, to hurt each other, and in the rehearsal room, I encouraged the actors to play their objectives unapologetically. That’s the fun for me: finding the truth.

Which character did you find easier to direct because maybe you have a deeper connection to that character?

EM: Each of the characters has at least one real life counterpart for me and part of my preparation as a director is to create detailed biographies of the characters that I may or may not share with the actors. So I feel connected to each character, and I have a lot of sympathy for each one’s predicament. That said, Patrick’s ability to quickly forgive Suzy, his fiancée, for unintentionally wounding him in an early scene is especially appealing to me. So I understand Suzy’s attachment to him. Who wouldn’t want to be with someone who can forgive so easily, who’s so comfortable in his own skin?

What do you find to be some of the more problematic ideas in the original production of Midsummer? Might this production address some of those problematic ideas? 

Kathryn Chetkovich: One of the things that struck me when I was thinking about the way the love potion works in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is that Puck mistakenly applies it to the eyes of the “wrong” Athenian. In the ordered universe of that play, everyone has their designated right mate; the comedy lies in messing with that order, and the happy ending comes from restoring it.

With “The Formula,” I wanted to both honor and question the wish for one true love. We live in a time when marriages routinely end in divorce. Are all those marriages mistakes, or could it be that the mistake lies in our notion of the one perfect mate? What might a happy ending, and a happy life, look like if we took that question seriously?

Delving into the world of a play where science is centered towards love is interesting. If science were our guide, we can narrow down the potential of love to those dynamics, which could take the anxiety and uncertainty out of humanity. Would that be a good thing, the ability for people to love and engage with complete certainty?

KC: The more I think about this question, the deeper down the rabbit hole we could go with it–but here’s one answer. Part of what makes an intimate relationship so vital to us is that our life is deeply intertwined with another person who is trying to make the most of their life, who has their own ambitions and desires. That’s not always easy, obviously. At the same time, we want to be happy; we want to be with people who love us for who we are and who make us feel good as much of the time as possible. We want easy. If we could pharmacologically achieve that feeling of certainty with someone, waking up every day and feeling that untroubled confidence, never questioning it or having to contend with the possibility that it could all break apart, would we be happier? And even if we were happier, what would we have lost in the trade-off?

Ellen, you are clearly passionate about this project, and have been involved for some time now. What would be the hope for this show, especially as we are getting down to the final few productions and it might be time to start thinking about a shelf life?

EM: The world premiere of “The Formula” at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, a co-production with Blissfield, my New York City-based production company, is the first step in what I hope will be a long life for this play with other non-profit partners, followed by a commercial production and a film adaptation.

ELLEN MAGUIRE ON TWITTER: @ellenmaguirenyc

Cover Photo: The cast of “The Formula” (Santa Cruz Shakespeare)

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Santa Cruz Shakespeare presents “The Formula”
Written by Kathryn Chetkovich
Directed by Ellen Maguire
through Aug. 28
2 hours and 10 minutes, one intermission
The Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park
501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz
Tickets range from $24 – $64
For tickets, call (831) 460-6399 or visit www.santacruzshakespeare.org

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