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A Shakespeare Makeover in Santa Cruz

Am I in earth, in heaven, or hell? Sleeping or waking? Mad or well-advised?

- Antipholus, in Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors"

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DESPITE the best efforts of theater marketers to keep the classics current, American audiences trying to sort out the "doths" and "wherefores" of Shakespeare are often left babbling like Antipholus of Syracuse, one of Shakespeare's comic heroes.

Bridging the gap between Shakespeare-as-literature and intelligible, soul-rousing theater is the goal of many a summer Shakespeare festival, Anytown, U.S.A. Soaring above other companies toward that lofty goal is Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC), a smaller, less-monied, but consistently successful company of union and nonunion professional actors.

After just a dozen years - beginning with 1981's black-leather "Taming of the Shrew" to this season's hit, "Comedy of Errors," replete with bellboy "porter" and Southern gentleman - SSC has taken its place like a towering redwood among better-known Shakespeare companies in the West.

"They've made it," says A.J. Esta, a director for 37 years and West Coast critic for Back Stage and Drama-Logue, two New York-based theater trade papers. "They are the festival in the West to watch for innovation, chance-taking, and incredible imagination."

Because of a unique affiliation with top Shakespearean scholars on the University of California's Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus, an ongoing relationship with former members of England's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and commitments to demythologize the great Bard with intelligent, often contemporary treatments, SSC is winning praise from local critics, regional actors, and national scholars.

"OTHER festivals get more money and ink with productions that are mercilessly Elizabethan ... like syrup in January," says Judith Green, theater critic for the San Jose Mercury News. "But SSC has become the best in the West. They have an enormously accessible approach that helps the normal theatergoer understand without being condescending."

UCSC professor Audrey Stanley, who directed plays for Shakespeare festivals in Ashland, Ore., Colorado, and Berkeley, Calif., developed the guiding principle at SSC. Her idea was to embrace lay audiences, high-brow critics, academics, and actors alike by beefing up the scholarship and eliminating the "phony Shakespeare voices" that many American actors brought to Shakespeare. Professor Stanley wanted actors to investigate the texts thoroughly to truly understand the meanings behind the stream of glorious

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- but oft bewildering - words.

The summer festival itself grew out of an idea to honor Shakespeare scholar and UCSC professor C. L. Joe Barber, who died in 1980. Now a professional nonprofit theater company, SSC produces three to four plays per season in three theater spaces, one of which is outdoors surrounded by redwoods and breezes blowing off Monterey Bay. SSC attendance has quadrupled in 10 years (from 7,716 in 1982 to 31,013 last year) and is expected to hit 40,000 this year.

Attendance has been fed by a steady stream of hits. In 1984, SSC mounted "Henry IV: Part 1," complete with Prince Hal played as a motorcycling punk rocker.

"From the start we were lucky to be able to rely heavily on members of the RSC in understanding Shakespeare," says Stanley, mentioning RSC actors Julian Curry and Tony Church, who starred in SSC's first production of "King Lear." "That has lifted us from the beginning."

The company mounts non-Shakespeare productions as well: Ibsen's "A Doll's House" (1992) was set in a 1950s TV sitcom a la "I Love Lucy."

According to Paul Whitworth, another former RSC member who is on the university faculty and has starred in several productions, SSC often puts Shakespeare in modern contexts not as gimmicks but "to make people understand in a visceral way why Shakespeare is great. Not because he is English or important, or someone else's cultural property, but a universal writer."

An example of modernization is the current season's "Comedy of Errors." Twins who have grown up separately - one in the provinces and one in a city - are given the American South and New York City as their places of origin.

"Audiences immediately grasp the rural naif vs. the urban sophisticate portrayed by these two characters," says managing director Brian Payne. "It immediately opens up the play to them."

ACTORS are attracted to the SSC because of its reputation and approach.

"For an actor, SSC has become the preeminent summer festival to be in," says Bryan Torfeh, who holds a string of credits from Britain to Broadway and currently stars as Antipholus in "Comedy of Errors." Other festivals have broader repertoire (Ashland), more money (Colorado), or access to more professional actors (California and Utah Shakespeare festivals), Mr. Torfeh says. But none is as consistently fresh in perspective, challenging, or entertaining, he says.

Not every SSC production is a smash of course, and seasonal fare is occasionally uneven, owing to different directorial interpretations of the SSC vision.

"What they are doing doesn't always coincide with what the public likes, but it usually earns their respect at some level," says Allan Dessen, a University of North Carolina English professor, and author of a book on "Titus Andronicus" for a series called "Shakespeare in Performance." Funding limitations, he adds, often force SSC to fill in lesser roles with nonprofessionals, thus lowering the quality somewhat.

Remarking that several productions have been as good or better than RSC productions of the same material he has seen, Mr. Dessen adds: "Their best stuff is as good as the best anywhere. Their occasional miss is still distinctive and real quality work."

Danny Scheie, the new artistic director who this year took over from Michael Edwards, promises to carry forward the image, identity, and reputation hard won by Edwards from 1983 to 1992. By several accounts, his vision of the current "Comedy of Errors" is as winning as the best Shakespeare anywhere.

"I want to continue the juxtaposition of Shakespeare with our world," says Mr. Scheie, who wrote his doctoral thesis at Berkeley on Shakespearean comedy. "Not just the plays, but clothes, props, food, music. It's Shakespeare colliding with now."

r Shakespeare Santa Cruz finishes its season Sept. 5 with a 2 p.m. performance of "All's Well That Ends Well."

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