In a theater company named after the most famous dead white male in Western literature, perfect gender equality may never be attainable. But that’s not stopping Santa Cruz Shakespeare from getting as close as possible.
Of all of artistic director Mike Ryan’s seemingly superhuman contributions to his company—reviving it from the ashes of the defunct Shakespeare Santa Cruz, developing a new funding model, establishing a picturesque new home—his policy of gender equity in his acting troupe may be the most radical.
Mandating an equal balance between men and women in his casts is about more than giving female actors opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It also means re-imagining male roles for women, which requires doing something Ryan’s predecessors considered taboo: changing Shakespeare’s text, even if it’s only pronouns.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s fifth season, which starts this week, can best be described as an exploration of the eternal dance between “he” and “she.” It features the world’s most famous doomed romance Romeo and Juliet, the often-overlooked rom-com Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the season’s non-Shakespearean offering, David Ives’s explosive two-person (yep, one man and one woman) drama Venus in Fur.
Each play confronts the dynamics of male and female desire; where those two implacable forces mesh, and where they clash. Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s best-known work, and maybe the world’s most famous story of untamable love breaking through tribal hatred. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy about four guys renouncing love in favor of study until they meet four gals who put their vow to the test. And Venus is an intimate battle between a man and a woman that pits male expectations against female vulnerability.
Ryan says the theme of the 2018 season is the “undeniability of desire,” and he relates it to the drama that played out five years ago when UCSC extinguished the debt-ridden Shakespeare Santa Cruz, prompting the creation of the newly independent Santa Cruz Shakespeare. The season’s theme, says Ryan, “also celebrates the fact that this community refused to be denied its desire for its Shakespeare festival.”
This summer’s festival goes into September to allow for a new education program, in which back-in-session schools can bring students to the festival’s grounds at the Grove at DeLaveaga Park for reduced-price (and, in some cases, free) tickets. “Our ultimate goal with this program is to ensure that every student who graduates high school in Santa Cruz County has the opportunity to see a live performance of Shakespeare,” says Ryan.
What those students (and everyone else) will see is an equal number of men and women on stage. That necessarily means that several roles that Shakespeare envisioned as men are going to be “re-gendered” as women. In Romeo and Juliet, those include Juliet’s hot-headed cousin Tybalt, and Romeo’s would-be peacekeeper cousin Benvolio. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the French lord Boyet and the schoolmaster Holofernes will both be women.
Michael Warren is SCS’s textual consultant and head of dramaturgy, a role he’s filled since 1982—the original company’s first season. He was part of the company’s brain trust when the idea of changing Shakespeare’s text was unthinkable. Now, he’s helping the festival’s directors tweak the text to conform to the new policy.
“In the last 10 years,” says Warren, “we’ve moved into a much more flexible approach. There are a lot more signs of adaptations going on now. The scholar in me, the historian in me, wants to see something that is a representation of the Shakespearean original. At the same time, I accept that theater artists are interested in doing something that renders the work in immediate engagement with social conditions in the 21st century. In that regard, I see exactly what the theater is trying to do. It’s seeing it as a mode of revitalization and fresh thinking not only about the particular play, but about theater’s role in the community and in political life.”
The “new” characters open up unforeseen possibilities in otherwise well-known Shakespearean plays. “I’ve made a joke about this, but it’s true,” says Romeo and Juliet director Laura Gordon about the female conversion of Tybalt and Benvolio. “When we were trying to figure out what world we would set this in, the main motivating questions were: What weapons would they fight with? And what will Tybalt as a woman wear to the party?”
‘All are punished’
With the possible exception of Hamlet, there is no more familiar play in the Shakespearean canon than Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy of the two star-crossed young lovers in Verona has been told in countless versions and from countless perspectives. But, says Gordon, the play is a classic because it is so masterful.
“The more you get into it, you see it’s just a brilliant play,” she says. “It’s so incredibly well-written. The poetry is unbelievably beautiful. The psychology of the characters and the compressed time frame of the story—it all happens in three or four days—is so well done.”
“It’s a dazzling piece of work,” says Warren. “It’s very tightly plotted. The verse is extraordinarily inventive. Shakespeare was moving around various kinds of human speech within it. It’s immensely dynamic.”
Gordon’s gender-balanced 16-member cast (which includes Mike Ryan as Friar Laurence) will be costumed by SCS’s redoubtable veteran B. Modern. The setting of the new production tries to thread the needle between the past and the present. The look and costuming style will be, says Gordon, “inspired by the Italian Renaissance,” which doesn’t mean it will be a period piece. Gordon says that she was influenced by Renaissance-style fashions by designers Alexander McQueen and Alberta Ferretti, looks that evoke the Renaissance while still maintaining contemporary aesthetics.
“We’re trying to allow the story to speak to both its own time and to reach us in ours,” she says.
Ryan points to the play’s setting of Verona, paralyzed by a blood feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, as an uncomfortable allusion to current political divisions.
“We’ve never lived in a more polarizing time, at least not in my lifetime. And that seems very much a parallel with Shakespeare’s Verona, which is a town completely polarized. There are also deep parallels between the play and the contemporary slaughter of children by children we see in these school shootings. In this play, all the young people die, killing each other or themselves.”
“I wasn’t interested in having a very contemporary setting,” says Gordon, who also directed SCS’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2015, “where all the Montagues are Republicans and all the Capulets are Democrats, or vice versa, and try to make it super specific. Because I lose the Shakespeare in that.”
At the same time, she says, the Renaissance vibe also allows her to avoid one chilling reflection of modern times: “I really wanted us to fight with rapier and dagger, so we wouldn’t have to deal with guns.”
‘Love is a Devil’
In any contemporary ranking of Shakespeare’s comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost would likely rank well behind a number of other touchstones like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. But that, says Michael Warren, is an injustice.
“It’s an incredibly funny play,” he says. “The plot is not very elaborate, but there is a lot of wit in it.”
Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, written some time in the mid 1590s when Shakespeare was around 30. It is centered on a king and three lords who have all devoted themselves to three years of study and contemplation without the company of women. Those vows face a trial when the king’s camp is visited by the beautiful Princess of France and her three ladies. The men are hopelessly smitten, but don’t want to let on to one another that they have broken their oath.
“Shakespeare did this amazing thing with this play,” says the production’s director Paul Mullins, in his fourth season at SCS. “He made it about language. It’s an explosion of language and poetry and the ways we communicate, especially when it comes to love and desire. There’s a great deal of rhyming in it, a great deal of sonneting in it. Some of it might be difficult for our modern ear to take. But it’s a wonderful and exuberant story about love and how, when you try to deny it, it will out.”
Mullins says that the play will be set in 1915, “without a lot of modern things, like telephones. We liked the way that looked.”
‘I Shall Deny Myself Nothing’
The third play of the season, Venus in Fur by David Ives, dates back only to 2010. But it alludes to source material that is much older, Venus in Furs (note the plural), a 19th century novel by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose surname gave us the word “masochism.”)
Ives’s play is a two-person back-and-forth set during the end of a long day of unsuccessful auditioning for a demanding theater director. Just as he is finishing up his day, a woman bursts in, soaking wet, apologizing for being late, and begging for a chance to audition. The woman is obviously all wrong for what the director has in mind, but slowly her position of powerlessness becomes an asset in her struggle to change his mind.
“This play has nothing to do with theater,” says director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, a SCS first-timer. “It has to do with what it’s like to be afraid of failing, and it has to do with what it means to be perceived solely as an object.”
Myrick-Hodges says that Venus will particularly resonate with women who have to navigate a world of unrealistic expectations from privileged men in positions of influence.
“The play is about male fantasy and female reality,” she says. “The perception of how this cisgender straight male looks at the female is based on something that isn’t real. She’s a real woman. He thinks the ideal woman is a 24-year-old saint/sinner fantasy girl. And she’s just an actress trying to get a job.”
Mike Ryan saw the play at ACT and realized that unlike a lot of other two-person plays, it had the power to fill the outdoor space at the Grove. “It starts out with the most unbalanced power dynamic you can imagine. I mean, it doesn’t get any more lopsided than that. With the #MeToo stuff going on, this play is particularly timely.”
As artistic director, Ryan knows that his selection of plays is what sells a season. But he’s also eager to point to other new considerations: a more comprehensive shade structure for those hot summer days at DeLaveaga, and a new license to sell beer and wine.
Mostly though, Ryan wants live theater fans to settle in for a season where the drama is mostly on stage, and not in the struggle for the company to survive. “In the early days, there were a lot of questions about us: Can they make it work? Is it going to last? Will they have a new home? Thank goodness for the amazing donors who stuck with us. But I’m hopeful now that some of the people who took a wait-and-see approach will go ‘OK, those guys have figured it out. Let’s do this.’”
Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2018 Season
Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Venus in Fur by David Ives
July 10 through Sept. 2. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 7 p.m. Weekend matinees, Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m.
The Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. $20 to $56. www.santacruzshakespeare.org. Box office: 460-6399.