This year, Santa Cruz Shakespeare is presenting two plays by their professional cast in their brand new Audrey Stanley Grove in Delaveaga Park, in addition to a play performed entirely by their unpaid interns. The main plays this year are Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, two of the most popular plays Shakespeare wrote, and the intern’s play is Orlando, an adaptation by Sarah Ruhl of Virginia Woolf’s novel. I’ve now seen both the Shakespeare productions and will be seeing Orlando after it opens. The company has posted photos of the Midsummer cast, but not (yet) of the Hamlet cast.
I always enjoy seeing plays in repertory, seeing the same actors in very different roles—there is too little repertory theater in the US nowadays, so the summers in Santa Cruz are a treat. I urge everyone to see both the Shakespeare plays this year, but if you can only see one, Hamlet is by far the better production. They made a number of changes to the play, in order to get equal roles for both genders, and I worried about what damage might have been done by making Hamlet, Polonius, Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern all female roles (not women playing men’s roles, which is often done, but Hamlet as the princess of Denmark).
There were a couple of unedited lines in Hamlet that didn’t quite work (like referring to Polonius’s beard), but Kate Eastwood Norris was the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen—utterly convincing in all of Hamlet’s varied moods. A lot of the lines that seem overplayed in most productions resonated with new depth.
The very simple set and effective lighting (having Hamlet’s shadow on one of the towers during a soliloquoy, for example) increased the impact of the lines. Having the fog come in during the performance was an unplanned, but mood-enhancing addition—I can’t promise that in future performances! The costumes for Hamlet were not distracting, but the “Denmark” of this production seems to be set in no particular century and on no particular continent.
All the actors were at the top of their form opening night, and the audience gave a standing ovation (which is not all that common for Santa Cruz audiences—we tend to be a tough crowd). Even the Player King’s speech, which was left in, not hacked down to a couple of lines as in many productions, was moving. (My wife agreed with Polonius that it was a bit too long, but was surprised at how a good performance made even the rather overblown lines resonate.)
Patty Gallagher did a marvelous job as Polonius—her Polonius was a wholly convincing pedantic counselor, and the gender swap making her Laertes and Ophelia’s mother instead of father may actually have made the role more believable. (Polonius has always behaved more like an old woman than an old man.) Having Ophelia cast as a black woman and Claudius as a black man did raise some questions about Polonius’s earlier relationship with Claudius and his dead brother.
There were some parts cut that we missed, like Horatio’s attempt to kill himself at the end, and some we didn’t (they cut out Fortinbras, who never seemed to belong in the play anyway).
In both plays I was impressed by Larry Paulsen (Puck and Philostrate in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Player King and Gravedigger in Hamlet). It is, perhaps, an unusual choice to make an older man be Puck, but his Puck was the best part of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bernard Addison as Nick Bottom was also quite good (better than his Claudius in Hamlet, which was solid, but not inspired). The two women, Katherine Ko as Hermia and Mary Cavett as Helena, were good, and for once the heights of the actresses matched the insults in their fight scene. Kate Eastwood Norris was quite good as Penny (not Peter) Quince, with the extra byplay of having a crush on Nick Bottom adding to the normally rather thin lines for Quince.
But the directing and costuming for Midsummer were a bit lackluster—the fairies moped about the stage like hungover teenagers wearing boring pajamas. Patty Gallagher as First Fairy bossed them around and had some rather stylized movements that seemed rather awkward—it might have been better to let one of interns have that role and given the fairies a bit of life.
I guess I’ve been spoiled by having seen Danny Scheie’s 1991 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Festival Glen by Shakespeare Santa Cruz—it is hard for a rather mundane, traditional performance like the one Terri McMahon directed this year to compete, even if there were some good additions (like the miming of the potions by Puck and Oberon).
On more mundane matters—the Grove is a comfortable place to see a play (but bring blankets—it gets colder even than the Festival Glen did), but it is rather inaccessible by public transit, bike, or walking (the two-lane access road to the park is very narrow and unlit). We ended up taking taxi and Uber, but cellphone reception in the Grove can be a bit spotty, so calling a taxi can be tough, and the taxi drivers don’t have any idea yet where Santa Cruz Shakespeare is, and the official address on Upper Park Road is misleading. We ended up walking out of the park after Midsummer Night’s Dream, after the taxi we called got lost, and we met a taxi at the golf-club clubhouse after Hamlet, choosing there as a more findable location.
I like the new benches for the reserved seating, but they need cup holders or, better, little shelf tables on the back of the bench in front (which I saw they had started to install). The boxes for the groundlings are a bit confusing, as there was no indication whether any of them had been reserved by a group. Perhaps they need a sign for each box, either saying in red “reserved” or in blue “open for groundlings”.
The bathrooms are rather hastily installed trailers, but they did have hot water, which one doesn’t always get in public bathrooms these days.
The Grove was finished on time (about 3 months from permission to start to opening night), if not quite on budget (they still need to raise about 16% of the cost of the Grove, being $219k short). They are also looking for donations to fund next year’s production, since they are using a forward funding model, where the ticket sales and donations this year determine next year’s budget, rather than building up debt the way the former Shakespeare Santa Cruz company did. (It was that debt to UCSC that killed SSC.)
So go to https://www.santacruzshakespeare.org/ and buy tickets, make donations, or both!