SC Shakespeare Rocks Season 1

Santa Cruz Shakespeare's inaugural season is a triumph.

by Traci Hukill

July 24, 2014—Two things stand out about this inaugural season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare. One, this is the Year of The Woman, with two plays featuring feisty female characters who upend the established order of things. And two, this festival is clearly the spirited child of its beloved predecessor, laid to rest in December 2013 after the university dissolved the 32-year partnership. The independent nonprofit that arose in its place delivers the festivalgoing experience fans know and love, with familiar faces in the cast, a familiar esthetic in direction and, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of the most rambunctious productions in recent memory.

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Though As You Like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor are both comedies, Merry Wives is by far the more outrageous of the two. Director Kirsten Brandt has set it in the 1920s, a moment of widening horizons for women and post-Great War peace that has left old soldiers at loose ends. Enter the incorrigible Sir John Falstaff, out of money but not ideas: he plans to seduce a rich woman or two and liberate some husbandly funds. To conserve effort, he sends identical letters to his targets, Mistresses Ford and Page, who are soon onto the old goat’s scheme and pledge vengeance via dire humiliation. Repeated dire humiliation.

Brandt has given her actors permission to revel shamelessly in the double entendres and opportunities for slapstick physical comedy presented by this play, and she declares her intentions with the first appearance of our magnificently paunchy, wily, cigar-wielding antihero. Richard Ziman’s Falstaff is the stuff careers are made of—huge, loud, equal parts mischief and malevolence, guaranteed to pull belly laughs out of the audience. The fat suit doesn’t hurt one bit, nor do the turban and fortuneteller’s caftan in the inevitable cross-dressing scene. We’ve been mesmerized by Ziman’s Falstaff on this stage twice before, in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 (2011, 2012); his return is one of those happy continuities that makes this all-important first season a success.

As Mistress Alice Ford, Julia Coffey is fiery and risible, while her partner in crime Mistress Margaret Page (Greta Wohlrabe) has a charming and earthy sense about her. As the play progresses, the two friends warm to their task of bringing Falstaff to woe not once but three times, becoming more brazen with their plots and delighting more openly in their successes. While the dapper and confident George Page (played with elan by Allen Gilmore) is unfazed by the attempt on his wife’s virtue, jealous Frank Ford (Mark Anderson Phillips, excellent) is flung into a tailspin of panicky paranoia and eventually driven to scheming (in disguise, of course) to discover the truth. A disgusted Mistress Ford determines to teach him a lesson. The chemistry within each of these couples is excellent, with the easygoing affection shared by the Pages standing in stark opposition to the tormented relationship of the Fords.

Side plots spice up the action as suitors vie for the hand of young Ann Page, daughter of George and Alice. The role of foppish Frenchman Doctor Caius gives comic genius and Festival Glen alum William Elsman ample chance to shine. We see other familiar faces onstage: Carly Cioffi as an impish Mistress Quickly, Marcus Cato as Robert Shallow, Kit Wilder as fussy Sir Hugh Evans and the ever-popular Mike Ryan (now company co-artistic director with Marco Barricelli) as Bardolph.

One quibble with Merry Wives: it’s too long. Twenty minutes less would have been more. But when the actors came out for curtain call, the crowd roared its approval. Santa Cruz Shakespeare appears to have its first hit on its hands.

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By contrast, As You Like It is a somber moral tale. It isn’t, of course, but it starts on a mellow note and doesn’t hit its comic stride until much later—well after Rosalind (played by Julia Coffey) trades the dress, and with it a perplexing meekness, for pants, boots and swagger after she’s banished from the land by her jealous uncle, Duke Frederick (Richard Ziman, admirably restrained). I liked the idea of Rosalind reveling in her liberation, but these two Rosalinds almost seemed like different people rather than one woman undergoing transformation. Except for that early hitch, Coffey is excellent—dynamic enough to carry the action and occasionally rolling out brilliant comic flourishes, usually around the subject of her beloved Orlando (the tantrum is memorable).

This thought-provoking but lighthearted play works well today, what with the strong female role, the gender-bending and the back-to-the-land esthetic. Director Mark Rucker has opted for a 19th-century setting, invoking the spirits of Emerson and Thoreau (as he writes in his notes), since most of the action takes place in the Forest of Arden. Nature, so often a scary place in literature, is here a place where people can truly be themselves. Even the disguises serve that end.

Rucker and the cast trend modern in other ways too. Once again Greta Wohlrabe plays the BFF; her Celia is a little whiny and spoiled but basically good-hearted, which seems a perfect contemporary (and refreshingly unromanticized) choice for this character. Dan Flapper as Orlando is a perfectly modern boy—a little passive, a little wistful, hooked on an ideal but willing to be brought along by the right girl (or boy). One of the play’s great treats is Jacques (Allen Gilmore), the melancholic philosopher who wanders the forest talking to himself. His “All the world’s a stage” speech makes fresh sense of that familiar passage.

Mike Ryan as Touchstone, Neiry Rojo as Audrey, William Elsman as Silvius and Carly Cioffi as Phebe are two funny couples contemplating two different kinds of unhappy marriage, one based on convention and cynicism, the other on desperation and romanticism. Props go to the banjo-strumming troubadour, who makes those obligatory Shakespearean songs more fun than awkward.

In both productions, B. Modern and her crew have created beautiful costumes (oh, to live in the 1920s). The spare set design works nicely for both plays; Merry Wives makes excellent comic use of doors (and, actually, of children, who distract the audience during minor set changes with pantomimed play in adorable costumes), while the advantages of the Glen are put to great use in As You Like It. The lighting and sound—the things we don’t usually notice unless something goes terribly wrong—are spot on.

Bottom line: Santa Cruz Shakespeare is delivering the same caliber of entertainment that has spoiled festivalgoers for three decades. Having secured funding for the current season through heroic effort, SCS is in the clever position of being able to truthfully tell attendees that they are already supporting the 2015 season; all 2014 ticket sales serve next summer’s festival. What’s not to like about believing in the future, especially when it's so fun right now?

Santa Cruz Shakespeare runs through Aug. 10 at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen on the UCSC campus. Individual tickets are $16-$48. Reserve them at Santa Cruz Shakespeare or by calling 831.459.2159.