Shakespeare Santa Cruz

Now in its 21st year, the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival mounts three shows each summer. It’s a shorter season than Ashland (since the Santa Cruz dates must fit within the summer break at UC Santa Cruz, which hosts the series). But Santa Cruz has a track record for attracting smart directors, solid casts with plenty of Equity actors, and mounting impressive (sometimes provocative) shows.

The big surprise this year is the pulse-quickening production of Coriolanus. A neglected Roman play with a dry-as-dust reputation, it’s not often staged. It’s got a difficult story—the title character is an awesome warrior, mighty with the sword, but he’s also proud, tactless, prone to hotheaded outbursts and stubborn to boot. Not a guy who’s easy to admire, especially when he belittles the people in the streets. Shakespeare’s handling further complicates matters: unlike modern Americans (who publicly revere common people and democracy), Shakespeare viewed the Roman masses as the rabble—fickle, small-minded, shortsighted.

Director Kent Gash breaks through all this by staging Coriolanus as a fast-moving, compelling political drama involving war, angry crowds protesting in the Roman plazas, banishment and threats of vengeance, topped off by a domineering mother who emerges as a very strong, memorable character (who gets many of the play’s best lines).

Mixed in are modern touches—live videocams, bullhorns, rifles with laser-spotting sights—that head off any possibility of the production becoming a routine toga party. And the story unfolds at a breakneck pace, with Coriolanus emerging as a powerful (if flawed) central figure, humanized enough through his personal humiliation and mistakes that the incredible attempt at revenge in the second half becomes dramatically plausible.

The result is a revelation—Gash makes a solid case that Coriolanus is a valuable play we’ve basically been ignoring for a long time. It’s well worth driving to Santa Cruz for the experience.

Also in Santa Cruz this summer are two shows that are good, if not quite blockbusters—interim artistic director Risa Brainin’s loving production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which director Sari Ketter sets amidst American kitsch circa the 1950s. —