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Petaluma brings Shakespeare back to the river

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PLANNING TO GO?

What: Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well,” presented by Petaluma Shakespeare Company.

When: Friday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. Additional performances on Aug. 24, 30, 31 and Sept. 1, also at 7 p.m.

Where: Petaluma Foundry Wharf,

Admission price: Performances are free, though donations are welcome. This is an outdoor show. Please bring a low-backed lawn chair, and dress for the weather. Food and drink are available for purchase.

Additional information: PetalumaShakespeare.com

When Riz Gross first saw a stage production of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” she knew she had found her calling. She was six years old.

“I didn’t even know what it was called but I knew I wanted to do it,” Gross said about her first encounter with the skill of acting. Fast forward to the present, and her upcoming starring role in Petaluma Shakespeare Company’s “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

Gross may be in a wheelchair, but it’s never slowed her passion for theater.

After deciding to pursue a life on stage, Gross embraced acting with full force, and by eight-years-old, had her debut in Shakespeare’s right-of-passage play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She played Nick Bottom, the token comic-relief character whose head is turned into a donkey by mischievous fairies.

“I’m a musical person, and Shakespeare is musical to me, it comes really easily,” explained Gross.

This performance marks the second time Gross has performed in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” but her first time playing Helena, the protagonist. Generally, Gross enjoys playing supporting characters such as the wench, the fool, or other evil figures. The role of Helena leans closer to innocence and heroism. Once offered the part, Gross seized the opportunity, marking her second production with the Petaluma Shakespeare Company.

Recently, she was in the cast of the musicals “Spring Awakening” in San Francisco and “Spamalot” with Spreckels Theatre Company in Rohnert Park.

“I love how you can get sucked into other worlds and experience lives that you’d probably never be able to live otherwise,” said Gross. “You can travel around the world and everything, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to be other people and experience what they experience.”

For Gross, Shakespeare has always been a passion, and she cites the works of the 16th Century playwright as her specialty.

“The great thing about Shakespeare is that it’s all tragedy and romance,” Gross said. “Forbidden love, warring families, being silly and dressing in drag. It’s not something that’s old, it’s still relevant today.”

As for “All’s Well That Ends Well,” among Shakespeare’s least-often-staged works, Gross understands that the comedy has frequently been criticized and misunderstood, listed as one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays. As written, the tone of the piece teeters between tragedy and comedy, having been written during a dark period after the death of Shakespeare’s son.

“During our show, we’re adding nonverbal scenes to help tell the story so the audience won’t be confused,” said Gross. This specific production, directed by Chloe Bronzan, includes other nuances such as a wheelchair blocking scene between Gross and a fellow actor. It will include a blending of an old Franklin Roosevelt styled chair and Gross’ more modern chair. “I’m really excited for this scene in particular,” said Gross. “I’ve never done a show with another wheelchair before, so that’s exciting for me.”

It’s no surprise that the play contains some outdated perceptions of women, as does most writing from that era. That said, “All’s Well That Ends Well” differs from the rest of Shakespeare’s catalog in that the play is written from a female perspective. In this sense, Gross explained, it is more a story of female empowerment than dependence on men.

“I saw it more as a young woman who’s very intelligent and knows what she wants and is taking charge of her life,” Gross said. “It’s way more complex than just coming from a misogynistic point of view.”

PLANNING TO GO?

What: Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well,” presented by Petaluma Shakespeare Company.

When: Friday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. Additional performances on Aug. 24, 30, 31 and Sept. 1, also at 7 p.m.

Where: Petaluma Foundry Wharf,

Admission price: Performances are free, though donations are welcome. This is an outdoor show. Please bring a low-backed lawn chair, and dress for the weather. Food and drink are available for purchase.

Additional information: PetalumaShakespeare.com

As an out-of-character plot line, the two women interested in Bertram (who’s a bit of a scoundrel, but is still the subject of Helena’s unwavering love), together form an alliance, and hatch a plot to win his faithfulness to Helena. Shakespeare certainly did have a habit of marrying off his female characters and in turn, silencing them. In “All’s Well,” the unexpected alliance between two women oddly presents a kind of modern feminist dialogue.

“There’s a lot of dynamic between the women characters specifically,” Gross said. “We have a really great time backstage with that.”

A key scene involves Helena and Diana (the other love interest), secretly switching places in bed with Bertram. That’s a common theme in plays of the time, but was rarely written from a female perspective. In addition, Gross said that the women’s respect and camaraderie for each other touches on current themes in today’s society.

“Helena and Diana are both very clear about who they are, and I think that’s really important to the story and what’s going on now, politically and socially and everywhere,” said Gross. “I think, most importantly, it’s women being honest about what they want and not being afraid of their intelligence, because I think that’s an issue we have a lot. In order to get men, we have to dumb ourselves down or act a certain way.”

This is a truly exciting role for Gross on multiple layers, as it commemorates her 20th year of acting. Additionally, the production stands as a major milestone or recovery and resilience, as Gross was a victim of last October’s wildfires.

“I was badly burned,” she said. “This is my first role since the fires, so I’m very excited to do this, and mark myself coming back.”