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Play Time

Thanks to Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Cabrillo Stage and others, it's a promising summer for drama and musical theater

Shakespeare Santa Cruz: Going to the Chapel

Who would have thought that Shakespeare Santa Cruz could thank the United States Senate for underscoring the profound relevance of the theater company's 2004 summer season?

With an anti-gay marriage amendment set for introduction in the legislative body in mid-July, the Senate could not have better timed an incendiary debate on one of the nation's fundamental social institutions. Likewise, Shakespeare Santa Cruz takes on the institution of marriage--more precisely, struggles for power among married partners--in a season that opens a mere week after the Senate's planned debate on the issue of gay marriage.

While fortuitous, the coincidence of artistic director Paul Whitworth's festival programming and such a highly charged national debate is not entirely unexpected. Since its founding 23 years ago, Shakespeare Santa Cruz has made a habit of presenting classics--by Shakespeare and others--with both scholarly rigor and up-to-the-moment relevance. Many notable SSC productions through the years have caused reviewers and audiences alike to reflect on national politics and cultural phenomena. For sheer knife-to-the-heart-of-the-matter exploration of America's current state-of-mind, however, this season takes the three-tiered wedding cake.

Whitworth has cast the 2004 summer lineup as an extension of the wedding-planner's principle that a marriage incorporates something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Underneath the comic and cutting ideas of love and marriage lie darker themes of illusion and war-weariness. These themes are perhaps not a part of Whitworth's vision for the season, but they certainly resonate with current events.

Something old? Easy: Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has a vision of marriage that harks back to the Middle Ages. Or even further back to the pre-Betty Freidan 1950s.

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, first produced on Broadway in 1962, is the newest of the plays on the season's lineup. Like Shrew, Woolf looks at power relationships in marriage. Underneath the surface of the play's battles between an educated, middle class and middle-aged married couple lurk serious questions about the hollowness of American ideals. Many fans of the play have thought that Albee--who's openly gay--intended the drama to be played out among an all-male cast. Albee has directly and forcefully discredited that notion, but the idea lives on, even inspiring a recent play (Michael Kearns' Who's Afraid of Edward Albee?).

Shakespeare contemporary John Fletcher borrowed many of the main characters from The Taming of the Shrew for his sequel, The Tamer Tamed. Fletcher turned Shrew's power relationship between man and woman upside-down and outlined many of the demands for equality that the post-Freidan feminist movement would make during the 20th century.

Finally, for something blue, Shakespeare Santa Cruz features Lysistrata. Written by classical Greek comedian Aristophanes, Lysistrata tells the tale of a group of Athenian women who go on a sex strike to convince their warrior husbands to bring a quick end to the Peloponnesian War. While not part of the main Shakespeare Santa Cruz season, the play is presented as the first Shakespeare Santa Cruz "fringe" production and features a cast drawn from company interns.

This year's Shakespeare Santa Cruz season also marks the return of longtime company actor and artistic director Whitworth. After the 20th festival season of summer 2001, Whitworth took a two-year sabbatical, leaving the company in the hands of interim artistic director Risa Brainin.

Where Brainin sought to infuse the festival with new directors, new actors and a new sensibility, Whitworth has looked back to some of the visionaries most identified with Shakespeare Santa Cruz's past. Directing this year are Michael Edwards and Danny Scheie, both who preceded Whitworth as festival artistic directors, and Tim Ocel, who directed some of the festival's best-loved comedies during recent years.

According to festival tradition, Edwards directs the play presented on the main stage, with Whitworth starring in the leading role. The Edwards-Whitworth team has produced many of the festival's greatest moments, from 1984's punk-rock staging of Henry IV, Part I to 1987's creepy Richard III. At the close of the festival season, this Woolf will pick up and move to Syracuse, N.Y., for an additional run with co-producer Syracuse Stage beginning in mid-September.

In directing The Tamer Tamed, Scheie skirts the gender-bending territory that earned him local fame (some say infamy) in Shakespeare Santa Cruz productions loaded with cross-dressing fairies and kitsch. Pop culture references are also hallmarks of Scheie's festival productions, and audiences should expect a reading of The Tamer Tamed that plays more like a comedy on premium cable than an Elizabethan drama.

Tim Ocel brings a sparkling and classy presentation to the Shakespearean comedies he has directed for Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Ocel directs The Taming of the Shrew, following Sheie's own production of the play, which the festival presented in 1992.

Go to shakespearesantacruz.org or call 831.459.2159 for performance and ticket information.

Rob Pratt

Cabrillo Stage: 'Man' With A Plan

Which musical has been described as Iowa's answer to Oklahoma!, contains the only Broadway tune to be recorded by the Beatles ("Till There Was You") and gave pop culture the phrase "We've got trouble in River City"?

If you knew the answer was Meredith Willson's The Music Man, you'll be happy to learn that Cabrillo Stage, which is now in its 23rd season and has come through with a run of remarkably strong and classy productions in the last few years, is staging this classic piece this summer.

For those unfamiliar with The Music Man, it's worth noting that the musical was inspired by the boyhood memories of Meredith Willson, who grew up in the small Midwestern town of Mason City, which eventually renamed itself River City in honor of The Music Man's enduring popularity.

As for the plot, the story revolves around the shenanigans of one Professor Harold Hill, a smooth-talking con artist who warns the townsfolk of River City against the corrupting influence of pool halls, dime novels and exotic foods on young people, only to persuade them to finance a boy's marching band to be led by Hill--even though he doesn't know his trumpets from his trombones.

According to Cabrillo Stage veteran Skip Epperson, who this year assumes the mantle of the company's artistic director, the production is dedicated to Cabrillo Stage's founding artistic director Lile O. Cruse, who retired last year.

Directed by Tom McKenzie and under the new musical direction of Michael McGushin, this year's show threatens to be as popular as ever, with Broadway equity actor James Patterson in the lead role of Hill and opera performer Sheila Willey as Marian, the librarian, whose heart Hill seeks to win. The show runs July 9 through Aug. 15 at the Cabrillo Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. For information, call 831.479.6154 or visit www.cabrillostage.com.

Sarah Phelan

Other Theater Events

* Kids on Broadway presents A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum July 14-24 at Loudon Nelson Center in Santa Cruz. The story of a slave who finds true wackiness as he wheels and deals in an attempt to get his freedom is performed by teenagers from all over Santa Cruz County. Call 831.420.5260 for ticket information.

* The Pacific Players present Tommy, the Rock Opera August 7, 13 and 14 at the Rio Theatre. The folks who brought you the successful local productions of Hair and last year's Rocky Horror Picture Show present a stage version of the Who classic that draws not only on the Broadway musical and the Ken Russell film but on hours of research into archival materials and the deeper meanings of the text to offer a fresh take on a rock classic. Call 831.439.0913 for ticket information.

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From the June 23-30, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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