A summer festival hits the boards
Shakespeare (and Shaw) at Santa Cruz
July 16, 1999
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- Paul Whitworth likes to call "Shakespeare in Love" a big trailer for his 1999 Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival.
It's a coincidence that the artistic director of the 18-year-old Californian festival has chosen "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" for this summer's Shakespearean offerings. But he's happy to accept the good publicity of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's use of the same two plays in their Academy Award-winning screenplay.
And Whitworth points out that while Shakespeare, in the prologue to "Henry V," referred to the circular Globe Theatre as the "wooden O," Shakespeare Santa Cruz is distinguished by its use of a "redwooden O." The Festival Glen, as it's called, is at the University of California-Santa Cruz Performing Arts Center complex.
"We're not allowed to leave anything there" from season to season, Whitworth says, in order to preserve the natural redwood circle that's home to the annual festival. Each year the company builds a new set, designed expressly for the productions planned.
That can take some doing. "One year, for example," Whitworth says, "I was doing a 19th-century show by (Russian playwright Alexander) Ostrovsky and 'As You Like It.' One designer had to please both plays."
This year, that "redwooden O" is being used for two plays of Shakespeare. But guest directors Tom Prewitt ("Romeo and Juliet") and Tim Ocel ("Two Gentlemen") are staging two very different interpretations of the Bard, both of which will have to be accommodated in the Festival Glen.
And Whitworth is adding George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" to the mix, directing that one himself, to round out a season he's focusing on "romance or the re-examination of romance."
The word "romance" is one that Shakespeare didn't use, Whitworth points out.
"He saw love as a radical challenge to the identity of men and women," Whitworth says. "His popularity on the screen is no accident: His take on sexuality, gender and love seems to speak to the way we see ourselves at the end of the 20th century."
Sweatin' for Shakespeare
Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz is expected to play to more than 40,000 people between now and the end of August. Recently, it was named by USA Today as one of the Top 10 Shakespeare festivals in North America. That honor puts it in the front lines of a crowded field of summer theaters.
The whole idea is to get you out of the house, out of your tie, into your Nikes and, in many cases, flat on your aspic-toting picnic basket. Your kids normally will pass out by Act III. You'll then get to enjoy the rest of the show, including the end when all the characters either kill themselves or get married -- you know Shakespeare.
From the other side of the ice chest, summer-stock theater is where actors go to wear appallingly heavy costumes in the hottest season of the year with no air-conditioning. Daytime rehearsals are Gatorade-swilling Outward Bound programs for thespians.
Most summer theater programs tend to think you're allergic to serious thought, so their publicity departments stress the yuks-for-your-bucks angle. An all-night triple bill of "King Lear," "Hamlet" and "Othello" would be sold as a "comic laugh-riot" by any dedicated summer-theater pressie.
During the 30 years that Paul Green's Revolutionary War pageant "The Common Glory" was performed in Williamsburg, it often was advertised as "Virginia's mighty outdoor drama." Many of the actors who dodged snakes onstage during the Battle of Yorktown each night said the real point of that slogan was that the show -- which held forth through 1976 -- was "mighty outdoors."
But today, summer theatricals vary in style and stature as widely as they do in locations and limitations. Most are Shakespearean but many aren't. Some seem to do nothing but "As You Like It" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" but, in truth, most stage quite a range of work. All are intent on wooing tourists and residents off interstates and couches long enough to contemplate some live theater. Many have free admission. Some have a free-will donation system. Others charge for tickets.
In Central Park, you do your picnicking over at the Belvedere Castle or somewhere before you sit down in the permanent seating of the Delacorte Theater to watch a Public Theatre staging. This summer, Molière's "Tartuffe" is on the bill at that venerable 42-year-old festival. No, it's not Shakespeare, but your French neighbors will be so proud.
At the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, on the other hand, you can loll all over your blanket, your lawn chairs and each other to watch a show -- this year, like Santa Cruz, they've got "Romeo and Juliet," and also "The Merry Wives of Windsor" plus a staging with the Junior Players of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (told you so). The Sonoma Valley Shakespeare Festival, held at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery north of San Francisco, heads outside this year with "The Comedy of Errors," "The Tempest" and Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead."
By contrast, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a year-round operation, extremely and gorgeously indoors -- it's in a drop-dead $21.5 million three-theater facility donated by Montgomery industrialist Wynton "Red" Blount. In Artistic Director Kent Thompson's theater, you keep your shirt and your shoes on, and you listen up. This summer, you can hear some "As You Like It" (told you so), plus "Troilus and Cressida," "Richard III" and several scripts the Bard didn't write.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the heavy hitters in the heat-and-halberts circuit each year. Ashland mounts a round of highly regarded work, this year staging "Much Ado About Nothing," "Henry IV, Part 2" and a new adaptation of Alexander Dumas' "The Three Musketeers." One feature of Oregon's program is an ambitious Green Show before each main production. The Green Show is a little entertainment, the daffier the better, usually something that goes down well among the groundlings.
The Santa Cruz criteria
Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned, like Sir Proteus ... to relish a love-song.
Paul Whitworth makes three points when asked what separates Shakespeare Santa Cruz from the densely dotted map of other Shakes fests.
As if the director had cued them, some Santa Cruz activists have just launched a signature drive to use the March 2000 ballot to declare the city a "hate-free zone." The surf town of 55,000 people, 60 miles south of San Francisco, could become the first municipality in the nation to establish such an ordinance, if the drive is successful.
"And we're 35 minutes away from Silicon Valley," says Whitworth. A lot of people who work there live here -- which has driven up house prices enormously. But I tend to think that people who are in computers aren't interested in 'hey nonny nonny' Shakespeare. They want something more bracing than that. We're not stuck with a stuffy constituency as some Shakespeare festivals are. So we turned, right from the beginning, firmly away from 'museum Shakespeare.'
"That gave us an essential conversation between the best of new thinking about Shakespeare and the best of practical application of Shakespeare to the stage."
As is the case in many summer festivals, the acting company at Santa Cruz is a mixture of seasoned pros and promising newcomers. Whitworth says he sees more than 1,000 actors a year in travels around the country. His company this summer is made up of 11 members of Actors Equity Association (AEA), the stage actors' union.
The rest of the 21-person ensemble -- most members of which appear in two of the three shows -- is made up of local-area professionals, recent actor-training program graduates and several interns.
Two in Italy, one in Bulgaria
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my 'havior light ... .
As it happens, both Shakespearean scripts being staged this summer at Santa Cruz are set in Verona.
"Romeo and Juliet" is thought to have been written in 1594 or 1595. Of the three shows Whitworth has chosen, it's the darkest, centering, of course, on those two kids and their "death-mark'd love."
Already an old story when Shakespeare got hold of it, the tale has stood for centuries as a big "let that be a lesson to you" for parents who don't like it when their younglings associate with "the wrong kind."
It's often been retooled to serve social and political positions, too, as in Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's 1957 "West Side Story" -- ethnically based street gangs became the opposing "families" there. More recently, a documentary on Bosnia-Herzegovina considered the tragic tale of a Muslim and Serbian "Romeo and Juliet," shot dead in their effort to escape Sarajevo during the fighting that was ended by the Dayton accords.
Prewitt's production at Santa Cruz -- which Whitworth says envisions the story as an endlessly re-enacted myth -- casts Dominic Comperatore and Holly Twyford in the title roles, with Hans Altwies as Tybalt; Michele Farr as Juliet's Nurse; Colman Domingo as Mercutio; Mike Ryan as Benvolio; William Hulings as Paris; and Gary Armagnac as Friar Lawrence. Conceptually, Prewitt is using Carnivale and Lent as touchstones of gaiety and severity, Whitworth says.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" likely was written around the same time as "Romeo and Juliet," and is mentioned by Francis Meres in his "Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury," a favorite of many Shakespeare scholars, published in 1598.
"As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines," wrote Meres -- in the days before copy editors drove such sprightly critics mad with spelling and style requirements -- "so Shakespeare among y'English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge'tleme' of Verona."
Audiences at Santa Cruz, in fact, will "witnes" the festival's first doing of this dark comedy, a deceptively layered look not only at heterosexual love but also at bonds of loyalty between men.
Proteus and Valentine are played off against each other by their girlfriends, Silvia and Julia. But the young men's own relationship is close, even by Elizabethan standards. And the seamless jump Shakespeare makes from one set of affections to another is among the playwright's most interesting studies of human nature. Friendship between "Two Gentlemen" -- at least in a production played without campiness -- is as highly valued as romance, a challenging concept to some in today's audience.
Ocel's staging for Santa Cruz is set in the 1990s, "very high-fashion," Whitworth says. "It's somewhat brittle, a mockery of the times and society. This production sees Julia and Silvia very much as society babes of their time."
Courtney Peterson plays Silvia and Altwies plays her Valentine; Jenni Kirk plays Julia and Ryan plays her Proteus; Gregg Coffin has the comedic role of Launce.
Shaw's "Arms and the Man" was first staged in London in 1894 and became the great British playwright's first commercial success. Whitworth has cast Andy Murray as Bluntschli, the Swiss mercenary soldier fighting in the Balkans, with Twyford as the young Raina, and Armagnac and Farr as her parents. Hulings plays the saber-rattling Sergius in this satire of romantic and wartime conceits.
The production is staged indoors, in the 540-seat Performing Arts Center house, which -- like Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater -- has a "thrust" stage. Whitworth thus has had to work in "three-quarter" format, meaning that the audience sits on three sides of the action. "It makes the debate of the play sparkle," he says, despite the difficulty of moving the action smoothly in such a configuration.
The natural temptation today in "Arms and the Man" is to update it to the present. The Serbs are at war and Bluntschli, as Shaw's representative in the show, has a lot to say about the futility and posturing of battle. "But I decided not to update it," Whitworth says, "because it would have been distasteful. It would rock the delicate balance of the play of comedy and psychological depth. So I've stayed in the 1880s, but with a slightly heightened level of design."
That design draws on imagery from Eastern Orthodox icons. "I grew up in Greece," Whitworth says, "I've been to Mount Athos and know all this artwork. And what we've come up with is a set that's all wooden, even the sky is wooden. It's an architecture that flows straight down to the floor, seamlessly."
Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.
Whitworth started acting when he was 10 -- he played Kate in "The Pirates of Penzance" and Abigail in "The Crucible" at boarding school in England. Trained for more fitting "trouser roles" as he matured, he played Hamlet with the St. Andrews University Dramatic Society, Pericles with the Oxford University Dramatic Society and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1976.
He's worked with some of the RSC's most acclaimed directors -- Trevor Nunn, John Barton, Peter Brook, Howard Davies, Adrian Noble and others. And he's directed, himself, at the internationally acclaimed Lyric Studio Theatre, Hammersmith, London, notably staging his own translation of the 17th-century Spanish play of Tirso de Molina, "The Rape of Tamar."
Whitworth joined Shakespeare Santa Cruz first as an actor in 1984, playing Prince Hal in "Henry IV, Part 1." His other onstage work with the festival has included the title roles in "Hamlet," "Richard II," "Henry V," "Richard III" and "Tartuffe."
His English classical stage training gives his voice a sort of tired-rich resonance and dialect shared by Peter O'Toole, Nicholas Pennel, Roger Rees and Christopher Plummer. Not only does Whitworth hold the summer festival together each year, but he also directs the company's year-round activities, including winter stagings and other work under the program's $1 million annual budget.
It helps to keep a sense of humor when you're operating such a multifaceted program. And you hear it when the director stops for a moment to think of the "Arms and the Man" he's staging.
One of the most endearing parts of Shaw's script, as he points out, is that both Bluntschli and the young Raina are completely unskilled in romantic encounters -- when Bluntschli comes through the window of her bedroom one gunfire-wracked night.
"We've discovered," Whitworth says slyly, "that on our all-wooden set, the whole thing becomes terribly sexy. In rehearsals, we've given Act I its own subtitle -- 'Two Virgins in a Box.'"
Reuters contributed to this report.
"Romeo and Juliet" opens at Shakespeare Santa Cruz on Saturday. "Arms and the Man" has its opening on July 25. And "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" joins the repertory on July 27. The shows play through August 29. Single ticket prices range from $16 to $30; subscription prices range from $51 to $65. For information and ticket purchases, call 831-459-2159, or see the company's Web site, listed below.
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