On the road

Shakespeare Santa Cruz

Ryan Artzberger in Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s production of <i>Hamlet</i>: “Nay, then, let the devil wear black.”

Ryan Artzberger in Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s production of Hamlet: “Nay, then, let the devil wear black.”

Photo by Steve Dibartolomeo

Hamlet, listening gloomily to CDs using earbuds and a Walkman? Comedy of Errors with surfboards, roller skates and Razor scooters? It’s Shakespeare Santa Cruz, a festival renowned for innovative shows that combine smart and modern interpretations, strong casts and classic texts in a way that no other Northern California festival does. This summer, Santa Cruz again sets the high standard against which other festivals are compared.

Artistic director Risa Brainin’s outdoor Hamlet draws on one great strength: Ryan Artzberger’s fascinating performance in the title role. He’s almost punkish, his demeanor flashing from melancholy to rude to giddy. He enjoys the rush as his emotions abruptly swing this way and that. He’s easily discouraged and too smart for his own good, and you never feel he’s in serious danger of losing his sanity. There’s a nimble, late-adolescent energy that lifts the “museum” aspect from the play’s famous scenes. Hamlet’s loopy conversation with the gravedigger sounds spontaneous, and his famous soliloquies—delivered in the aisles, as he speaks to the audience—are done with fresh, impulsive, revealing honesty. There’s also a fine supporting performance by Carl Cofield as hotheaded Laertes.

Comedy of Errors is a surf-city romp on wheels. Director William Partlan affectionately skewers golfers, street people, fitness fanatics and dubious new-age healers through the use of wild costumes, constant action and overflowing comic shtick. If anything, it’s a little too busy. But Partlan grounds all this craziness in a shrewd interpretation of the script. Its edgy extrapolation draws on Shakespeare’s intent, not just a pop-culture theme superimposed. And the script is classic farce involving two sets of identical twins, constantly misidentified, with hugely chaotic results.

The “retro” entry is Noel Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Kent Gash, who’s one to watch. Set in the fading British Empire, it features two faintly bored, fabulously wealthy, globe-trotting couples falling in and out of love—cocktails and divorce, evening gowns and arguments, with devastatingly funny comeback lines in the dialogue. It’s the comic opposite of the destructive elite in Brainin’s Hamlet. Actors Jacqueline van Bennen and John G. Preston are priceless as they duke it out with funny words and, eventually, fists. There are also musical interludes with Jonathan Brody impersonating Coward at the piano.

All three shows are worthy, with Private Lives sparkling the most.