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Land Ahoy!: Michael Milligan as Feste in 'Twelfth Night,' which kicks off Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2005 season this week.

Behind the Wheel

In which we roller-coast behind the scenes with Shakespeare Santa Cruz as it prepares for its 2005 season

By Sarah Phelan

Set atop UCSC's redwood-ridged campus, Shakespeare Santa Cruz arguably has one of the most otherworldly locations in the world. I was reminded of this the other week, as I drove up to campus in search of answers about SSC's upcoming summer season. Downtown was shrouded in the usual blanket of morning fog, but up on campus, the fog was burning off and drifting across the rattlesnake grasses of UCSC's lower meadow in ethereal tatters--and it was only 11am.

That said, don't bank on buffing your tan, if you attend SSC's outdoor shows. Follow the cue of seasoned SSC fans, who cart sun hats and sleeping bags, along with cushions and sumptuous picnics, into the Festival Glen, which is the magical spot amid the redwoods where SSC stages outdoor shows.

Typically, the Glen bakes in the midafternoon sun, unless, of course, the fog rolls back in, at which point it's time to put away the shades and climb inside the sleeping bag. The same goes for evening shows, except you get to stargaze if the night stays clear. All of which sounds romantic, as does SSC's 2005 summer fest lineup of Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale and Engaged.

Midsummer Madness

I knew almost nothing about Engaged, except that it was written in 1877 by W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame, and thus is in keeping with SSC's tradition of producing at least one non-Shakespearian play each year. Consequently, I was excited to see SSC's artistic director Paul Whitworth pull up as I parked near the SSC hilltop compound, since he's the one directing Engaged. But if I was hoping to pick Whitworth's brains, then I truly was the fool on the hill. Tall and angular with piercing eyes and gently graying hair, Whitworth usually strikes me as wolfish, but on this morning he was more coyote than wolfman, as he strode up the path that leads to the SSC compound, artfully dodging my questions about Engaged.

"Ahh! So you want answers," said Whitworth in plumy British tones that reminded me of John Cleese. And with that he slipped away into SSC's warren of rehearsal and office spaces. Yes, clearly Whitworth wasn't planning to throw scraps to this particular running dog of the press. Well, at least not on the eve of the infamous Media Day luncheon, which SSC throws each year at the Boardwalk's Cocoanut Grove, and for which, presumably, Whitworth was hoarding the answers like so many doggie biscuits.

Besides, my purpose in journeying up onto campus hadn't been to stalk Whitworth, but to interview festival veteran Tim Ocel, who has directed five comedies for SSC, including last year's racy Taming of the Shrew, and who this year is directing The Winter's Tale. I'd also requested face time with festival newcomer and Twelfth Night director P.J. Paparelli, but decided to keep it to a phone interview after being advised that P.J. was "a little crazed at this moment."

Shipwrecked

And who wouldn't be crazed, what with Media Day and opening night looming, rehearsals going on left and right, and sets being constructed all around, as evidenced by the army of hammer- and paintbrush-wielding workers that I passed on the way to Ocel's office.

Wearing a buzz cut and jeans, Ocel looked relaxed as he settled into a chair next to a desk piled high with well-thumbed, dog-eared copies of The Winter's Tale. Academics call this play, which Shakespeare wrote when he was 47, a romance. Ocel, who is 49, prefers to describe it as "a tragicomedy" that is obsessed with issues--in the "children and continuance sense of the word". He likes how this play is about middle-aged folks (OK, royal middle-aged folks)--the main character being a king, who becomes insanely jealous of his wife. Next thing you know, the king's accusing his wife of infidelity with his childhood friend, and everything gets dark. But unlike Othello, The Winter's Tale ends on a light note, the turning point coming after what has to be one of the most intriguing stage directions of all time: "Exit, pursued by a bear."

"I love the bear," said Ocel, his face lighting up when I mention it. "A man being torn apart by a bear is a tragedy, but in this context it's funny. It heralds the devouring of the tragic elements in the play, and introduces the shepherd and the clown, and the belief in fairies and changelings." What Ocel didn't love so much, at least at the outset, was the decision to set the play on a shipwreck, an idea that reportedly was dreamt up by Twelfth Night director Paparelli, with whom Ocel shares the outdoor stage in the Glen this season.

Flashback

Reached by phone earlier that week, Paparelli said the shipwreck idea came to him after he first visited Santa Cruz in the winter of 2005 and saw the Glen. "I was so struck by the Glen, it's such a spiritual, ethereal place, when the fog is lifting and the sun is coming through the trees," said Paparelli, who is artistic director of Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska, when he's not having visions in Santa Cruz.

To his mind, Twelfth Night is "a voyage to maturity," in which shipwrecked twins named Viola and Sebastian, presuming each other dead, are thrown into life very young and end up changing and learning a lot about love along the way.

"So, I wanted a vehicle for the journey," Paparelli explained. "And a sailing vessel is lyrical. It has ethereal power. Crash it into the Glen and the mixture of two spiritual things create a new world in which absurd things happen, a dream world that's oddly garbled, yet oddly familiar."

All of which explains how Ocel and I came to be standing on the edge of the familiar world of the Glen, looking down into its leaf-strewn basin, where the half-built frame of a giant Renaissance sailing ship lay, its nose jammed into the earth, its structure crowned by a quarterdeck and three 40-foot masts, which stick up into the towering redwoods.

Most theaters have built-in stages, but not the Glen, meaning that the set designer has to design the stage each year, Ocel explained. (Reportedly, he'd been badgering Whitworth for years to direct The Winter's Tale, something that Whitworth finally agreed to, on condition that Ocel deal with Paparelli's shipwreck.)

A squirrel hopped past, prompting me to inquire whether campus critters have ever sabotaged a production. (I'd heard tell about a frog that hopped to the middle of the Glen during a production of Macbeth, then hopped back off again, miraculously without getting squished by any of the actors, but I didn't want to mention it to Ocel for fear of jinxing things by saying the name of what theater folks superstitiously refer to as "the Scottish play" out loud.) "Once you get the audience in, the wildlife usually stays away," said Ocel, noting that with the outdoor set as yet unfinished, the cast has been rehearsing using a miniature model of the shipwreck. But back at the SSC compound, the model was nowhere to be found, as if the squirrels or the frogs, or perhaps even The Winter's Tale fairies, had sailed it away on some fantastic voyage of their own imagining.

Bloody Thursday

Little did I suspect, as I drove away from campus that afternoon, that 24 hours later my high spirits would have plummeted to 9/11 depths, thanks to the four bombs that hit London's transit system on the morning of July 7. Consequently, I was a little distracted as I entered the elegant Cocoanut Grove to attend SSC's dreaded Media Day lunch on what people now call 7/7. Ironically, now that I'd lost my focus, the universe offered me answers to my questions on a plate. A plate of ham salad to be precise, which is what I was picking at when Engaged cast member Mark Bramhall confided that Engaged is about a man with a propensity to declare himself in love with any woman he meets.

"It's a satire on Victorian mercenary marriage practices, it's all about sex and money," said Bramhall, who plays the man's uncle--an uncle who stands to inherit a sizeable allowance, were his nephew to marry or die.

"The mainspring of the plot has to do with a Scottish custom whereby if a couple simply declare their love while on Scottish soil, it's as good as a legal marriage," said Bramhall, whose revelations were cut off midstream, as Whitworth rose to deliver the keynote speech.

"It's a difficult day to be English," began Whitworth, sounding today like a truly British bulldog. "All great cities see great horrors and glories, process them and turn them into civilization, be it through law, parliament and democracy, be it through theater."

Turning to the SSC 2005 festival poster, which shows a fruit-laden tree blooming in a snow-covered winter's garden, Whitworth explained that it was based on a photograph he took from his bedroom window while living in the old rectory behind the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is where Shakespeare is buried.

"One of the unique joys of theater is it gives us a sense of renewal," said Whitworth, as he segued into a roundup of this year's plays, in which "various forms of insanity are cured and all of which involve strange voyages of the imagination."

Finally he got to Engaged, which he described as "a cross between Fawlty Towers and The Importance of Being Earnest, a beautifully made play with a thrilling sense of absurdity." And then it was back to the shipwreck.

Explaining that the Glen has been designed to look "as if a ship has mysteriously come to rest in it," Whitworth turned to the ridiculously youthful-looking P.J. Paparelli, who expressed his hopes that we'll all open our minds to Shakespeare and journey with him, the actors and the audience into the topsy-turvy world that is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

"To sit under stars in a redwood grove is a very special thing. Come to the show. You just don't know what you're missing!" said the shipwreck-dreaming Paparelli, and then it was Tim Ocel's turn to take the floor.

"Media Day strikes terror into my heart. So I don't RSVP the invitation, and I deliberately never bring nice clothes." Ocel smiled. "Though anything above flip-flops is deemed acceptable in Santa Cruz, so that doesn't work as a way out. Two nights ago, I even checked my contract, and damn it, Media Day is in there."

That said, he expressed his love for Santa Cruz, the ocean and the Glen, and his belief that SSC is "the smartest actor's company in the world, put together by Paul Whitworth, with whom I sometimes butt heads. But I've figured out that it's kind of sexy to butt heads with Paul. And Shakespeare Santa Cruz has the cutest bunch of interns."

Then Ocel turned to Whitworth and smiled. "And yes, I have embraced the ship."

And now all that was standing between the press and SSC's 2005 summer fest was Whitworth who, noting that the repertory theater company was approaching its 25th anniversary next year, looked shocked and said "Blimey!"--a very British word that somehow summed up everything I'd been feeling on the roller-coaster journey that I'd unexpectedly taken--from light to dark and back to light again--in the past 24 hours, in the delightful and ever-imaginative company of Shakespeare Santa Cruz.


Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 24th season opens July 20 in the Festival Glen, UCSC, with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, directed by P.J. Paparelli. On July 27, W.S. Gilbert's Engaged opens on UCSC's Mainstage, directed by SSC's artistic director Paul Whitworth. On July 31, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale opens in the Festival Glen, directed by Tim Ocel. All three plays run through Aug. 28. Audiences also have a fourth option this year--two performances of Richard Brome's The Antipodes, a fringe show that will be performed by SSC interns in the Glen on Aug. 15 and 22, and will be directed by Leah Gardner with Mike Ryan. For ticket information and more details, call 831.459.2159, or visit www.shakespearesantacruz.org.

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From the July 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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