True love is the stuff of fairytales. Everybody longs for it, some even find it. But does it happen by magic? By sheer animal magnetism? Kathryn Chetkovich’s ingenious new play The Formula asks as many questions as it answers, before toppling each one of them—leaving only the most unexpected conclusion. The Formula showcases a moment in the lives of seven people and a rogue science experiment, when romantic chaos breaks out at the wedding party they attend. Hilarious results and radical transformations erupt. In short, it is a perfect play. More than that, it is a captivating work of performance art receiving its world premiere this season at Santa Cruz Shakespeare.
Local playwright Kathryn Chetkovich has given us a shiny new vehicle for probing the human longing for true romance, searching for “the one” destined to be our perfect mate. Challenging our myths about desire and mating, Chetkovich writes through the timeless lens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the accidental slip of Puck’s magic elixir joins together two highly unlikely characters. Shakespeare had magic. Chetkovich has the Formula, a synthesized substance undergoing clinical trials by researchers Suzy (Allie Pratt) and her lab partner Dean (M.L. Roberts). It’s called “the most significant neuro-pharmacological breakthrough of our lifetime!” One spray of this stuff, and the subject will fall in love with the next person they see. Yes, just like Titania and her braying paramour.
It’s the eve of Suzy’s wedding to Dean’s brother Patrick (Christopher Silvestri), and she doesn’t yet realize what we in the audience already sense—that Dean is also in love with Suzy. Dean is a brilliant, methodical scientist. Patrick, “the human equivalent of a golden labrador,” is handsome, simple and generically perfect. Suzy gets jittery. Who hasn’t had self-doubts and jangling nerves the night before their wedding? As guests gather for the wedding, attitudes are unleashed. And the couples we meet all scrutinize the wisdom of their choices, past and future.
Suzy’s father Jack (Dion Graham) brings his girlfriend Gina (Paige Lindsey White), much to the mocking disapproval of Suzy’s mother Miranda (Maggie Bofill). Patrick’s father Francis (Ward Duffy) brings his dead wife’s ashes and a kilt to wear for post-nuptial dancing. As you’ve already guessed, a sample spray bottle of the Formula somehow gets loose and new infatuations erupt like TikTok videos. The scramble to examine, reverse or accept the fallout of the chemical manipulation forms the heart of this brilliant, sophisticated play. Think of it as a dazzling sit-com of errors, with topnotes of psycho-hysteria and undertones of sweet humanity. Seinfeld meets Shakespeare after shaking hands with Dr. Frankenstein, and a few drinks with Nora Ephron.
From the flawless opening to its upstart ending two hours later, The Formula takes us through an explosion of epiphanies. Chetkovich is a detail genius, noticing the granular minutiae of sexual attraction, and the myriad pitfalls of diminishing desire. No doubt you’ll find yourself in her well-polished mirror.
White, a stunning veteran of SCS seasons past, gives a powerhouse performance as Gina, the father-of-the-bride’s new girlfriend, riddled with doubts about her life choices. A stunning actor, White wields an appealing stage presence, capable of intense introspection as well as robust physical dexterity. As the mother-of-the-bride—world-weary and so over the entire idea of marriage—Bofill has some choice asides, as well as some of costumer Nikki Delhomme’s brightest fashion statements. Wonderful costuming throughout! Special applause goes to scenic designer Dipu Gupta, whose spare, sly set serves every inch of this seductive play. Ditto the lighting perfection designed by Kent Dorsey.
As Suzy, the bride-to-be in the center of the formula-driven whirlwind, Pratt is a delightful and anxious bundle of doubts. Her energized performance powers each scene into emotional quicksand—Elaine in Seinfeld comes to mind. So strong and confident are all the female actors—and characters—in this production, that the men tend to recede by comparison. Duffy in full kilt mode is an exception. Like every newborn, The Formula will naturally continue finetuning in vocal technique and timing. But even on its opening night, the production soared and sparkled, bringing the audience to its feet, applauding and cheering its approval. In league with her co-conspirator and director Ellen Maguire, Kathryn Chetkovich has devised a challenge to our socially conditioned fantasies, while deftly navigating the crazy mysteries of being human.
The Formula is also something we don’t have any right to expect: an original work of theatrical art. No higher praise. A play is born twice; once in the mind of its author, and again as it’s brought to life in performance. What a gift it is to watch a new creation spring from the imagination onto the stage. The Formula is a bracing start to the Santa Cruz Shakespeare season, and guaranteed to shake up your pet theories about love.
“The Formula,” written by Kathryn Chetkovich and directed by Ellen Maguire, runs in repertory with “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest” through August 28 at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. santacruzshakespeare.org.