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No Holds Bard

[whitespace] James Newcomb and Ursula Meyer
Love Is a Battlefield: Benedick and Beatrice (James Newcomb and Ursula Meyer) bicker and spar their way through Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing,' kicking off SSC's run at UCSC.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz enters into its new season with a heady mix of jealousy, lust and amore

By Karen Reardanz

TEENAGERS AREN'T exactly known for their self- possession and worldly ingenuity. Gangly, callow and dewy, they may look like grown-ups, but inside they're a self-conscious muddle of nerves, hormones and insecurities. There is one teen, however, with a maturity level well beyond its years. That young'un? Shakespeare Santa Cruz, of course.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz will stretch its maturing legs when it opens its 1998 season on Thursday, July 23, at UC-Santa Cruz's Performing Arts Complex, where it kicks off its marathon six-week run.

As it enters its new season, Shakespeare Santa Cruz brings with it the composure, professionalism and experience of a festival, oh, twice its age. The annual ode to the Bard has become synonymous with summer in Santa Cruz, attracting attention not just from theater-starved locals, but from Shakespeare fans far and wide.

"This is a vital thing in the community," summarizes Paul Whitworth, Shakespeare Santa Cruz's artistic director. "The theater company is like a conversation with the audience, and with the constituencies that make up the audience. We intend to keep responding to the audience as a source of entertainment, but it's crucial we educate the imagination as well."

When then UCSC professor Audrey Stanley and the other proud parents of Shakespeare Santa Cruz put the festival on the theatrical map in 1982, they knew they'd struck dramatic gold. Even as an upstart, the small company had big plans: In its first production, two of its leading actors, Tony Church and Julian Curry, were from Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. The festival also unveiled its soon-to-be trademark avant-garde production values and featured unconventional interpretions of Shakespeare's classic works.

An invigorating piece of theater was born.

FRIENDSHIP AND curiosity brought actor/director Paul Whitworth to Santa Cruz in the early '80s when he sojourned to this seaside town to see two fellow actors and friends, Church and Curry, perform in one of the festival's first productions. He met up with Church again in 1984, when he was invited by the festival to play Prince Hal in the punky production of Henry IV, Part I, an unconventionally attitudinal take on Shakespeare's historical work that made audiences and SSC organizers take notice of the English actor. They knew he was a keeper.

Steeped in the Royal Shakespeare Company's acting tradition, Whitworth has become a fixture in SSC life, proving his professionalism and awe-inducing command of both the Bard and the craft of acting with roles like the medieval misfit king, Richard II, a tuxedo-clad Hamlet, and last year's chilling portrayal of the spider-like Richard III. This year, he again dons his acting cap when he undertakes the fascinatingly complex Iago in this season's production of Othello.

Now the festival's artistic director--a position he's held since the fall of 1995--Whitworth plays an integral role in divining each Shakespeare Santa Cruz season.

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A brief glimpse into the not-so-confusing world of Shakespeare.

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"The artistic director chooses the plays, auditions the actors, picks the directors, the set designers," Whitworth says. "We've grown tremendously over the past years, and we intend to keep growing in all aspects of the productions."

Whitworth searched far and wide on this year's actor quest, auditioning professional actors and community theater types, as well as students in Master of Fine Arts programs at schools as diverse as Yale, Juilliard, the University of Washington and UC-Irvine. These months of fastidious searching yielded a bumper crop of talent, like Othello and Much Ado About Nothing's Lise Bruneau and Ursula Meyer, Othello's Robert Jason Jackson (all Equity actors) and scores of others.

"We traveled across the country to nine different cities," Whitworth remembers, "and auditioned 1,200 actors. We have casting directors in various spots helping us out, and people will be surprised with the range of talent we found."

The recruitment of professional actors from all areas is but one way the festival has grown over the years. "When it began, Shakespeare Santa Cruz didn't involve Equity actors at all," recalls Whitworth. "Now it's grown enormously, attracting the highest-caliber actors and directors in the field."

Whitworth also has the task of choosing each season's plays, a responsibility he finds both exciting and challenging. "In creating the season," Whitworth explains, "we like to choose works that resonate with one another, not just three separate plays, but ones that in some way illuminate each other."

This illumination goes beyond mere storylines and plot twists. "The plays should enlighten each other not just in themes," he says, "but in how the actors, direction, set designs carry through from one play to the next."

For their newest season, Whitworth, Willy and the crew tackle the very complex relationships of men and women with three plays--Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro--very different in tone and language but all centered around one thing: the passions of jealousy.

"This season we have three themes that tie together through three very different types of drama," he goes on. "We have a mature Shakespeare comedy, perhaps one of his greatest tragedies, and the first great modern comedy."

The love and lust, betrayal and sexual jealousy that permeate the plays make for a season that is at once delightfully sexy and decidedly destructive. It's this complexity of Shakespearean works that thrills Whitworth, and he talks dreamily of the joy the Bard brings to the stage.

"There's still an element of people who feel Shakespeare is remote and too culturally elevated," he laments. "And while it can be hard to read, it is very accessible to see on the stage. Once people realize how tremendous it is, they'll see it really is the most wonderful theater in the world."

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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