If you are a lover of Shakespeare who has been in the Bay Area for a while (or generations), you probably know and love Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Well, knew and loved. In 2013 the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) stopped its funding for the famous Shakespeare company and its annual productions in the beloved Redwood grove. Despite heroic fundraising efforts to try and change the university’s mind, Shakespeare Santa Cruz was forced to shut down.
But this is not a tragedy, it’s a comedy. By 2014, the group relaunched itself as Santa Cruz Shakespeare and has continued to put on world-class productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Still, between location changes, name changes and a global pandemic, it’s been hard to get back to their shows if you live on the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains.
This is my first year back, seeing two of their shows this season in the new Audrey Stanley Grove. While not quite as magical as UCSC’s glen surrounded and isolated by old-growth Redwoods, the new stage embraces California’s natural beauty and is surround by a variety of trees. You do unfortunately have to drive through a golf course to reach the theater’s limited parking, but all in all, the new space is a good home that I’m sure will continue to grow.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 10th anniversary season consists of a tragedy, King Lear, a comedy, Taming of the Shrew, a non-Shakespearian show, The Book of Will, and a fringe show to highlight the younger actors, Exit, Pursued by a Bear. Below, you will find reviews for the two shows I had the pleasure of seeing. I have every reason to believe that the other two shows are of a similarly high caliber, but I will not be reviewing them as I did not see them myself.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of King Lear is full of amazing performances and moving moments. I know that it’s scandalous to say, but I’m not overly fond of King Lear, mostly because I find the character’s actions frankly bizarre, but this performance is packed with first-rate performances that will make you invested in the story even when not a single character makes a rational choice through most of Act Two.
When bestowing his three daughters with their inheritance, King Lear asks them to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Reagan, the oldest two daughters (who have apparently figured out their father’s mercurial temper over the years) flatter Lear profusely and receive their thirds of the kingdom without fuss. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, however, gives more tepid praise and is immediately disowned. Her land is split between her sisters and she is immediately dumped by her betrothed. Luckily, the King of France is there to propose marriage and whisk her out of England.
King Lear proceeds to make a nuisance of himself, alienate the two daughters he has still in the country and show off some impressive Sundowners Syndrome. This production actually manages to make you feel bad for Goneril and Reagan as their father, the King, acts like a jerk and overstays his welcome at their estates. It’s only late in Act One where the daughters show they inherited plenty of their father’s capriciousness and throw him out of the house and into a raging storm. Separated from his daughters and most of this staff, Lear proceeds to go fully nuts. The story progresses from there, but be warned this is a Shakespearian tragedy so a good chunk of the cast is dead by the final bows.
Unsurprisingly, Paul Whitworth gives a stand out performance as the titular King Lear. He is very convincing as Lear, capricious moods and all. He recontextualizes Lear’s inconsistent moods as something reminiscent of the early stages of dementia. He’s so good in fact, it’s hard to say anything about his performance. He just was Lear for a few hours. The mark of a great Shakespearean actor is that they make you forget that your hearing 400-year-old poetry, and simply engross you in the story, and Whitworth does this to a tee.
Also impressive were the actors in the secondary plot, revolving around the Earl of Gloucester and his sons. Derrick Lee Weeden, playing the Earl, gives just as compelling a performance as Whitworth. Especially during the Earl’s mutilation in Act two, Weeden’s depth of emotion is electric. Both of the actors playing his sons, Junior Nyong’o as Edgar and M.L. Roberts as Edmund give deeply moving and engrossing performances, breathing life into these less-remembered but equally important roles.
The Book of Will Review
The company’s non-Shakespeare show this year is still about Shakespeare’s work, just not written by him. The Book of Will is a moving exploration of endings and the immortality humans find through art.
The play follows two of William Shakespeare’s friends and their families as they work to compile the first folio of his works. Three years after Shakespeare’s death, London is full of bad rip offs of the Bard’s most famous plays. Henry Condell (Charles Pasternack) and John Heminges (Mike Ryan) are some of the few who, as actors and friends of Will, remember the original lines. After another friend dies suddenly, the two friends resolve that Shakespeare’s plays need to be published so that they will live on after the original actors have passed away. The rest of the play follows their struggle to get the plays published and therefore preserved for future generations.
While the play is largely comedic and full of laughs, the show is truly about loss; the pain and inevitability of it, countered by the way that art can live on indefinitely.
Although the play was written recently, it does a good job of feeling true to the period while addressing modern questions including (but not limited to) what the women were doing off stage.
This show is thoroughly enjoyable, and especially poignant in 2023, the 400th anniversary of the first folio’s publication. The show brings to light some forgotten heroes without whom we might not have the wealth of Shakespearen plays that we still love to perform and study more than 400 years later.
The 2023 Season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Through: August 27, 2023
Where: The Grove, Upper DeLaveaga Park at 501 Upper Park Rd, Santa Cruz
Tickets:santacruzshakespeare.org/, (831) 460-6399