As the only non-Shakespeare production at this summer’s Santa Cruz Shakespeare festival, Kathryn Chetkovich’s “The Formula” updates the love-potion comedy for a contemporary audience for a world premiere in her hometown.
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It’s not crucial, or even necessary, to know much about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to enjoy Kathryn Chetkovich’s new play, “The Formula.” The new play, after all, deals with the mysteries of love and attraction, and that’s a theme that’s going to interest everyone — from Shakespeare scholars to those who’ve never heard of the guy.
Still, it adds a beguiling dimension to “The Formula” — the only non-Shakespeare production at this summer’s Santa Cruz Shakespeare festival — to recall the amorous chaos at the heart of “Midsummer.”
In Shakespeare’s beloved midcareer comedy, you’ll remember that the magical being known as Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, creates an elixir from the juice of a flower that, when applied to the eyes of someone sleeping, compels that person to fall in love with the first creature, human or otherwise, he or she sees upon waking.
Puck, under the command of Oberon, king of the fairies, has a certain intention with his love potion, but he gives it to the wrong person. Others get dosed as well, and what follows is comic mayhem, a swirling choreography of would-be lovers chasing confused and horrified beloveds.
Chetkovich’s “The Formula” — which opens Friday, July 15, at The Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park — is a thoroughly contemporary tale, written in modern language. In no way is it a remake or reimagining of “Midsummer.” But Shakespeare did inspire the play’s central question: Given what we’ve learned about the biochemical character of human moods and passions, could a similar love potion be created today? And what would happen if it were possible?
“I was taken with a couple of things about ‘Midsummer,’” said Chetkovich from her home on the Westside of Santa Cruz. “One of them was just the fun of the love potion, and thinking, ‘OK, that’s a magical element in that play, but what if I were trying to set it in a recognizable real world of today?’ The more I thought about it, I thought — I don’t have a science background, and there’s a fair amount of hand-waving, so it’s not like this all checks out in the lab — but, nevertheless, from some of the basic premises of affecting people’s moods and mental states, and from the idea that we are learning more about brain science, you could conceivably come up with a substance that could temporarily alter someone’s immediate response to meeting someone else.”
“The Formula,” the first play by a Santa Cruz writer to be fully produced at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, is at heart a romantic comedy that recasts the tale we can’t stop retelling: What is the nature of love? It addresses the what-if questions that challenge the prevailing myths and assumptions about romantic love: What if there is no predestined “right person”? What if there are 10 million “right” people?
“I enjoy romantic comedy,” said Chetkovich, “much of which is premised on the idea that there is a right person to end up with in the end. And in ‘Midsummer,’ part of the fun is the wrong person gets treated with Puck’s potion and so things are disordered for a while. But in the end, things get straightened out. That’s part of the happy ending, that it is an ordered universe. But thinking about the world we live in now, it’s not straightforward anymore.”
“[Chetkovich] has done this really great trick with this play,” said the production’s director, Ellen Maguire, who has had a key role in the development of the play going back several years now. “It’s very funny. It offers all the things you expect from a classic romantic comedy. It’s got wit, wordplay, physical humor, there’s music, there’s even dance at the climax of the play. And yet, she turns the convention on its head to say, ‘Is it really possible to find The One?’ And the trick of the play is saying, ‘I don’t think so,’ but without you feeling like you’re getting bad news.”
“The Formula” was supposed to be part of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2020 summer season. But the pandemic wiped out SCS’s live season, and the 2021 season was a scaled-back affair featuring plays with small casts. As a fully staged production with an ensemble cast of seven, it’s now ready for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s comeback season.
Chetkovich and Maguire are reluctant to reveal much about the storyline of “The Formula,” which receives its world premiere at Santa Cruz Shakespeare (we did learn that Puck’s magic potion is reimagined as an over-the-counter spray). But a handful of locals already know all about the play. In the summer of 2019, during SCS’s summer season, it was given a staged reading — a theater tradition in which a play is presented by professional actors reading from the script without costumes and staging, as a means to develop the play. The 2019 reading was a surprise hit, even generating a standing ovation at the end.
“There was a full house in the Grove,” said Maguire, remembering the moment. “So, the climax of the play takes place in the woods at night. And there we were, in the woods at night. And, afterwards, I said to Kathy, ‘You know, this is the ideal spot to do this play. You’re a hometown girl. It’s a beautiful play. I can’t think of a better group to do this, a Shakespeare company to do something new that kinda turns the convention of Shakespeare upside down that makes you feel good. This is it.’”
Later that summer, celebrated fiction writer George Saunders, who lives in Santa Cruz County part-time, mentioned “The Formula” in an interview in The New Yorker. Soon after, SCS artistic director Mike Ryan called Chetkovich to offer up a full production for the next summer season.
This summer, Chetkovich has been sitting in on Maguire’s rehearsals for the play, offering up insights and ideas to the actors, working with the director on tweaks to the script. That process, she said, has been “magical.”
Chetkovich is among several local playwrights having remarkable creative years. Earlier this year, Jewel Theatre staged a comedy written by Santa Cruz’s Kate Hawley. Santa Cruz’s Spike Wong will see his play “White Sky, Falling Dragon” premiere at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in August.
Ultimately, though, audiences won’t stream into The Grove at DeLaveaga Park to see “The Formula” because it was written by a local writer. They’ll do so because it promises a unique view on a timeless theme.
“Having been divorced myself, and having gotten married fully expecting I would stay married the rest of my natural life, I know how some version of [the happily-ever-after myth] plays out,” said Chetkovich, who now lives in Santa Cruz with her partner, novelist Jonathan Franzen.
“I find it interesting that we really still enjoy those stories of the satisfaction of true love triumphing. And yet our own experience often is something other than that, or something more complicated than that, or something that it takes the passage of time to truly understand.”
Kathryn Chetkovich’s “The Formula”officially opens July 15 at 8 p.m. (after preview performances July 10 and 13) at The Grove at Delaveaga Park. It plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest” through Aug. 28.