'Calendar Girls' gets under the skin on Sonoma stage

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On stage: "Calendar Girls" runs May 12 to May 29 at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St.

Showtimes: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

Tickets: Cost $15 - $22, available online at sonomaartslive.org from the box office, (866) 710-8942.

“Fabulous concealment.”

Those are the words playwright Tim Firth employed in the author’s notes for his 2008 stage play “Calendar Girls.” They refer to the staging of one particular scene. It is, perhaps, the most famous scene in the play, as it was in the 2003 film from which Firth’s script – he also co-authored the movie – was adapted. In the scene, a number of proper English women take turns posing for a fundraising calendar. Though technically unclothed, they are tastefully “masked” by various inanimate objects.

The sequence, when staged properly, is both hilarious and sweetly tender.

“As in the best traditions of vaudevillian fan dances, the art of the play’s nudity lies in what is withheld,” writes Firth, who then suggests the notion of “fabulous concealment” as the guiding principle for this now-famous photography sequence, adding, “Should we see anything we oughtn’t, the whole scene will deflate like a soufflé on which the oven door has been opened too quickly.”

It is rare for playwrights to be quite so insistent as to how a specific moment in their play is to be carried out. That said, as one of the most popular and frequently produced plays of the last decade, one could say “Calendar Girls” is worth the extra care and attention.

“This is not a play about nudity, so much as it’s a play about relationships,” agrees Ashleigh Worley, who is directing “Calendar Girls” for Sonoma Arts Live, having staged the show last March in Statesville, North Carolina. That production, at the nonprofit Theatre! Statesville, was well-received and strongly reviewed, with particular attention called to the cleverness and sensitivity of Worley’s direction. Not long after Worley relocated to the Bay Area 10 months ago – to take on the role of education program manager at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company – she connected with Sonoma Arts Live. She now serves as education manager for SAL, in addition to continuing her work with MTC.

“Calendar Girls” marks Worley’s California directorial debut.

“It’s been a totally different experience, staging this show again,” she says. “But I have the opportunity to do a lot of things I wanted to do the first time, but couldn’t. One of those things was to do projections for certain parts of the show. And we can do that here, so that’s been really nice. This is such a nice theater space.”

There are 14 characters in “Calendar Girls,” providing one of the play’s many challenges. The story, based on true events made famous in the 1990 film of the same name, takes place in numerous locations across England. Though partially fictionalized, it tells the true story of a group of middle-aged English women from Knapely Village, in Yorkshire.

With plenty of humor, a dash of drama, and loads of human insight, Firth’s play reveals how the ladies’ friendships and family relationships are tested when, on a whim, they decide to show a bit of skin for an annual calendar, conceived to raise money for a local hospital. The calendar’s resulting international fame comes by surprise, and leads to a number of personal crises and opportunities for growth for many of the ladies of Knapely.

“It’s a tough one,” laughs Worley. “It’s a very technical show, with a very large cast. Putting that many people on such a small stage is quite a feat. The stage I worked on last year was half the size of this one, so I’m not complaining – but when you have a full set, and full props, and all of this other stuff, fitting eight or nine people into a scene can be logistically challenging.”

Month-by-Month

On stage: "Calendar Girls" runs May 12 to May 29 at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St.

Showtimes: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

Tickets: Cost $15 - $22, available online at sonomaartslive.org from the box office, (866) 710-8942.

Of course, when several of those characters are unclothed, those challenges tend to multiply.

“That’s true,” says Worley. “When the real ladies of Knapely disrobed for their photo shoot, they weren’t on stage, obviously. So they just had to worry about one angle. When we stage that scene, we have to worry about how it looks from numerous angles, from every seat in the audience. That’s a lot of angles.”

Which brings us back to the playwright’s “fabulous concealment” remark.

“This is not ‘The Full Monty,’” Worley points out. “It’s got nudity in it – or suggested nudity, anyway – but it’s really not about that. If people get all caught up in that, they’ll miss out on the important message of the play.”

That message, she says, is about the power of friendships and love.

“There are two best friends in the play, and what they mean to each other, through difficult times, is very beautiful and moving,” says Worley. “This play is about the relationship between one of the women and her husband, who she loses to cancer. It’s about the interactions between all six of the girls who make the calendar, and the relationships all of them have with themselves.”

The brief moments of nudity, she explains, though important, are merely the vehicle for change within all of those relationships.

As such, Worley says the process of rehearsing and staging the play has been, to a large degree, a bonding experience for the entire cast.

“You can’t fake a strong relationship,” she says. “So we’ve had to build that, together. People who come to see ‘Calendar Girls’ are going to walk out feeling that.”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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