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Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo

Fool's Gold: Director Paul Whitworth and writer Kate Hawley are in charge of the antics of Chester the Jester in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'The Princess and the Pea.'

Jestering Wildly

Now more than ever--and especially in this year's local holiday productions--the fool reigns supreme

By Mike Connor


This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise as full of labour as a wise man's art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint
Viola, 'Twelfth Night'

After he overthrew the British monarchy in 1649, Oliver Cromwell, a fundamentalist Christian, dispensed with the court jesters that worked to keep the humours of his royal predecessors fair and balanced.

More than 350 years later, many Americans believe Fox News now plays the fool to a would-be king, thereby claiming the mantle last held by Muckle John, jester of Charles I's court. There may be some truth to that claim, but it's officially incorrect. Just this year, a 37-year-old math teacher named Nigel Roder, a.k.a. "Kester the Jester," was named the first official jester of the British court since Charles I was beheaded in 1651. Asked how it feels to be selected for the job, Roder said, "It feels good. I am a national fool now. It is the best thing a man can be."

Granted, not all the fools of yore were witty wordsmiths like Shakespeare's Feste of Twelfth Night. Some jesters in medieval times were mentally ill, and were enjoyed solely for their unusual behavior. For his part, Roder specializes in juggling and pretends buffoonery.

But in literature, the dual traditions of the clever clown who masterfully manipulates the egos of the elite and the bumbling fool whose honest mistakes make everything turn out right in the end are two beloved archetypes that add to the conflict of any plot, even as they steer it away from cynical resolutions--hence the continuing use of the fool as a plot device.

Case in point: the fool plays an critical role in two of the major local holiday productions--Tandy Beal's Mixed Nuts and Shakespeare Santa Cruz's The Princess and the Pea.

Mixed Nuts

Beal's Mixed Nuts is an updated version of The Nutcracker featuring a huge cast of over 60 circus clowns and dancers, as well as all-new musical accompaniment by SoVoSo, whose a cappella arrangements are loosely based on Tchaikovsky's original score. In last year's show, titled The New Nut, Beal abandoned the first act entirely for the simple reason that, traditionally speaking, it's boring. This year, she's had a change of heart.

"I had one child come up to me at the end of the production last year and say, 'I don't understand. Where's the Nutcracker story?'" says Beal. "She was right. There's something about the young girl awakening to love, there's something about the conviviality of people coming together at a holiday time, there's something about ... tradition!"

To preserve the characteristic charm and whimsy of her productions, though, Beal brought in--what else--a jester, in the form of skillful slapstick comedian Iman Lizarazu, to narrate the first act. The show also features the exciting antics of Flying Karamazov Brother Rock Lerum as the amazing Uncle Drosselmeyer. Beal herself will play the role of Clara's mother, as well as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the second act. Other cameos include rhythmic gymnast Saki Sakamoto as the rag doll, plus 10 young gymnasts from the Santa Cruz Sports Central Gym.

"I'm just glad to be able to make this kind of mischief in our community," says Beal. "It crosses all the boundaries, and it's about joy. Not about sarcasm, not about deep thought, it's about joy."

Of Princesses and Peas

Shakespeare Santa Cruz has once again enlisted writer Kate Hawley and director Paul Whitworth--the wife-and-husband team behind two previous holiday shows, Cinderella and Gretel and Hansel--to flesh out Hans Christian Andersen's one-page fairy tale into a full-fledged musical production, complete with mistaken identity plot, English pantomime-style audience participation and, of course, the bear.

When Hawley began the task of adaptation, she was quick to identify the fundamental problem of the story's lesson. In the original version, the test of a "true" princess is whether she can feel a pea beneath 10 (or 20) mattresses, the point being that only a princess possesses the requisite sensitivity. Or, as Hawley puts it, "If you're spoiled enough and if you complain enough, you'll get the prince."

So what did Hawley do to fix it? Without spoiling any surprises, let's just say she found the little grain of truth in the tale and built her story around that, filling it in with a colorful cast of human and animal characters. Leading the pack is Chester the Jester and his bobble-head Bill, performed by Mike Ryan, who will once again play the role of conduit to the audience.

"What character better than a jester to be slightly outside the social life of the court?" asks Hawley. "Feste is that character in Twelfth Night--slightly an outsider."

Ironically, Ryan's "Chester" is not a funny jester; in fact he's the last one to get the jokes, which are often made by his bobble-head alter-ego Bill at his expense. And if there's one thing true in this world, it's that kids love schizophrenic self-deprecation.

For the adults in the audience, we get the Starlets--a sexy chorus coming from the same exuberant tradition of the sexy sheep in Cinderella and the Glamour Pusses in Gretel and Hansel.

"You have to keep everybody interested," Hawley insists. "The trick to writing these pantos, I think, is to make them fun for everybody, from 3 [years old] to whatever age, so that people don't even feel that they have to have a kid to come, that they just enjoy being there."

For many adults, 'tis the season for the humors to careen out of balance. Here's to the jesters (and Starlets) of the world, who help to set us straight.


Mixed Nuts will be performed Nov. 26-27 at 2 and 7pm and Nov. 28 at 2pm at the Mello Center, 250 E. Beach St., Watsonville. Tickets are $15-$30; 831.763.4047; www.mellocenter.com. The Princess and the Pea premieres Nov. 20 and runs through Dec. 4 at the Theater Arts Center, UCSC. Tickets $18-$32; call 831.459.2159 for complete schedule.

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From the November 17-24, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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