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2017 July 15

More recent theater events

I haven’t been posting about theater I’ve seen since the post Recent theater events, which was back in April.  Here is a list of things we’ve seen since then:

Date title produced by
2017 May 13 Great Expectations WEST performing arts
2017 May 19 Avenue Q Santa Cruz High School
2017 May 20 Sylvia Jewel Theatre
2017 June 3 Zoot Suit UCSC Theater Department
2017 June 5 Two Gentlemen of Verona UCSC Shakes To Go
2017 June 10–11 Midsummer Night’s Dream UCSB Shakespeare in the Park
2017 June 17 Merry Wives of Windsor Silicon Valley Shakespeare
2017 July 14 The 39 Steps Santa Cruz Shakespeare

The WEST teen production for the spring, Great Expectations, was fairly well done, though there were a few actors who were too quiet, even in the small Broadway Playhouse.  The teen productions have a mix of first-time-on-stage actors and experienced ones, so can be a bit hit-and-miss.  Their WEST Esemble players are their more experienced teen troupe—I did not get to see their production this Spring, though my wife did—they had an adaptation of Robin Hood that they performed at some local schools, including the one where my wife is the librarian.

The Santa Cruz High production of Avenue Q was good—we went because it included an actress who has also performed (at WEST) with our son (she’s also the daughter of one of my former students—we found out that she was in the Avenue Q production when we ran into her and her father at a local eatery).  The biggest problem with the Avenue Q production was that the singers were miked, but the mikes did not work consistently. I’m not a big fan of musicals, but Avenue Q seemed better written than most.

The next evening after Avenue Q we went to see Sylvia by the Jewel Theatre. The acting and production were good, but the script was rather weak material, so the production as a whole was not very satisfying.  It was quite a contrast to Avenue Q the night before, which had much weaker production values but better material. It showed that even a professional production can’t rescue a weak script.

Zoot Suit at UCSC was an amazing production, combining first-rate acting, superb costuming, and a first-rate script. The script was updated by the author (Luis Valdez) last year for a production in Los Angeles, and this production was directed by his son, Kinan Valdez. Because Luis Valdez is a local author, he attended the performance the same night we were there and was available after the show for Q&A (we did not stay for that, because we needed to catch a bus home). This was probably the best student production I’ve seen, at UCSC or elsewhere.

My wife and I saw the Shakes to Go production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the elementary school where my wife works, as I was unable to get to any of the performances that they did on the UCSC campus. As always, the Shakes to Go production was fast-paced and simplified for school children to be able to follow, but well done within the constraints of a production that has to be finished in 50 minutes and needs to be portable enough to be set up on in an unfamiliar location in about half an hour.

We traveled down to Santa Barbara to see our son in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he played Peter Quince (the leader of the play within a play). I made a video recording of both performances, but haven’t yet rendered it to put it up on YouTube.  The play was difficult to film, as they had a lot of the action in the audience, and I had a hard time panning the camera fast enough to catch what was going on.  I liked the production, but I never know how much of that is just my bias towards anything my son is in.

After my son got home from Santa Barbara, all three of us took the bus to San Jose to see Merry Wives of Windsor in Willow Street Park. The performance space in Willow Street Park is quite nice—a very large stage area with a steeply raked bowl for the audience and a wooded backdrop. It was a fun production, but not quite at the high standards of Santa Cruz Shakespeare (more at the level of good student productions).  The performance was free (suggested $10 donation at the end), subsidized in part by the San Jose City Council, I believe.  We spent as much on getting to the performance as we did on the show. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be able to go to the other Silicon Valley Shakespeare productions this summer, as they are in Sanborn Park, which is inaccessible by public transportation. (We might be able to use Lyft to and from the Lawrence Expressway train station, but that makes for a fairly long trip, and catching the last Highway 17 bus home could be difficult.)

Last night we went to see Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of The 39 Steps, a farce based on Hitchcock’s movie of the same name. The production is amazing, with the 4 actors playing dozens of roles (well, one actor has 1 role, the actress has 3 roles, and the remaining roles are all played by the 2 remaining actors). The costumes and costume changes were perfect. The show was hilarious and has been getting good reviews—I was surprised to see that Grove had not been sold out and that there was a lot of groundling space still available.

All four actors in the Scottish inn scene, photo from the SCS media page

Santa Cruz Shakespeare is doing only comedies this summer (the other two are Measure for Measure and Two Gentlemen of Verona). Their interns are doing Candide, and the company will be doing two staged readings: A Most Dangerous Woman and The Night that Never Existed. We, of course, are planning to see it all.

We took public transit to the Audrey Stanley Grove last night, which really meant about 2.4 miles by bus and 2 miles walking.  It would have been almost as fast to walk the whole way, as we could have gone a slightly more direct route. We took the newly built path from Park Way Trail (at the end of Park Way) up to the Audrey Stanley Grove. It is a very steep path that my wife was willing to do uphill, but not downhill—I’d be a little reluctant to take it in the dark also. The trail is definitely a hiking trail and not for bicycles. We ended up taking Lyft home, which for the three of us was not much more expensive than the bus and much more convenient.

2016 September 18

Streetcar Named Desire and Richard II

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What do this Tennessee Williams play and this Shakespeare play have in common? Nothing much, really other than my having seen performances of both in the past 10 days.

I saw Streetcar Named Desire opening night at the Colligan Theater produced by the Jewel Theatre Company, for which my wife and I have season tickets. We had three tickets (one for my son as well), but my wife got a bit ill (the hazards of working at an elementary school) and decided not to go. My son and I went and found it to be quite a good production.

I’m always a little worried when the artistic director (Julie James) gets cast in a major role—the perks of owning and running a theater company, I suppose. She is a decent actress, but the parts she gets cast in are sometimes ludicrously inappropriate and should be given to much younger actresses.  (Jewel Theatre does hire across a wide range of ages, but skews a bit older in their actors than, say, Santa Cruz Shakespeare—though not nearly as old as their audiences.)

For Streetcar, casting Julie as Blanche works well, given the change in culture since the play was written and the generally older age for marriage these days. What really made the production work, though, was the superb acting by Brent and Erika Schindele, who played Stanley and Stella Kowalski, and generally good acting by all the performers.  The set, costumes, and musicians were also very well done, making for a very satisfying show.  I find Tennessee Williams’  characters all rather irritating people, but I believe that is the author’s intent.

Streetcar runs until Sun 2016 Oct 2 and is worth the $43 single-ticket price ($37 for students and seniors) at the box office.

Richard II was not being performed locally—what my wife and I saw was the recording from the Globe Theatre in London, recorded last year as part of the Globe on Screen series. The performance was worth seeing, if only because Richard II is rarely performed in the US. I was only familiar with two of the monologues: Richard’s “sad stories of the death of kings” and John of Gaunt’s “On this blessed plot, this realm, this England.” I mainly know the “sad stories” monologue, because my son memorized it.

The acting in Richard was generally quite good, but I found Simon Godwin’s directing rather annoying, spoiling several scenes by playing them as farces for the groundlings. I felt particularly sorry for the actor playing the Duke of York, a very dignified and noble character torn by his loyalty to the idea of kingship while serving a very imperfect king, being forced to act the buffoon to satisfy the director’s need for low comedy. Part of the “sad stories” monologue was also played for laughs, reaching out to hold an audience member’s hand, destroying one of the strongest scenes of the play (though other bad directorial decisions had already weakened that scene).

I would say that I’ll make a point of avoiding productions directed by Simon Godwin, but truth to tell, I’ll have forgotten his name by tomorrow.

2016 August 26

Santa Cruz Shakespeare last weekend for 2016

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This is the last weekend for Santa Cruz Shakespeare (one show tonight, two each on Saturday and Sunday). I’ve seen all three plays this year, and definitely liked the Hamlet best (see 2016 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season and Santa Cruz Shakespeare has released Hamlet photos).

Santa Cruz Shakespeare has just released the photo call for the intern’s fringe showOrlando, which we saw in the sold-out closing performance last Wednesday.  The intern’s shows are always lively, low-budget romps, and this one was no exception. The directing reminded me a lot of the directing that John Pasha has done for the conservatories at WEST—a lot of choral work and lines split among several actors.  I don’t know whether this is just currently trendy (perhaps to equalize the number of lines per actor) or whether it is a considered choice for actors who are not quite up to long monologues and dialogues. Either way, it worked fairly well, and the cross-dressing and gender changing played well to a Santa Cruz audience. (Note: Orlando is all about gender roles and gender changing, so this was not a Santa Cruz interpretation put uncomfortably onto the play, but integral to the original concept.)

My son went to Ashland last week with WEST to see six plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  OSF was also doing Hamlet this summer, but their take on it had heavy metal guitar music. My son reported that the OSF Hamlet was good, but not as good as the Santa Cruz one (which he saw twice, once with us and once with the WEST conservatory group). I can see heavy metal music as appropriate for Hamlet, but not for Ophelia, whose madness is of a gentler sort.

2016 August 1

Santa Cruz Shakespeare has released Hamlet photos

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Santa Cruz Shakespeare has now released photos from their production of Hamlet on their blog. This complements their previous release of photos from Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For my review of the two productions, see my previous post.


2016 July 30

2016 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season

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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 and buy tickets, make donations, or both!

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