Shakespeare himself wasn't part of our Shakespeare Santa Cruz experience this summer but it didn't matter. The magic was still there.
Centuries-old redwoods surround the outdoor stage in this celebrated festival now in its 31st season on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Shafts of sunlight, or even fog hanging low on their trunks give the sense that you're in a natural cathedral as much as an amphitheater, adding a divine dimension to the lighting design of the whatever production is being staged there.
I have personal history with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, having been actively involved at its inception. I would wager a guess that the Hawaii plate on my truck is the only one in the state surrounded by a Shakespeare Santa Cruz license plate holder.
Philippe (Charles Pasternak), in the world premiere of “The Man in the Iron Mask” at Shakespeare Santa Cruz.
Photo courtesy Shakespeare Santa Cruz
As it turns out, the play we were seeing last Sunday - Scot Wentworth's "The Man in the Iron Mask" - was brand new. It was marking its world premiere performances in the sylvan setting, although its origins date back to the 17th-century legends of the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.
More recently the story had been a major motion picture in 1998 with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeremy Irons heading the cast. But the SSC production, directed by John Sipes, staked out its own creative territory with a unique blend of melodrama and poignancy; social awareness and comedy; 17th-century courtly mannerisms and thoroughly modern resonances.
While the sweep of the action felt rollicking and cinematic, the concept owed as much to the Globe Theater of Shakespeare's day, relying on the actors and the playwright's words to make the audience "see" the 17th-century "age of Louie" - from the opulent court to the cells of the Bastille - on the multitiered, minimal stage set.
Like a classic French version of one of those reality-TVs about aging rock stars, when the story starts the legendary trio of swordsmen are aging parodies of their former selves. Aramis (V. Craig Heidenreich) has become a man of the cloth, the Abbe d'Herblay. Athos (Dierk Torsek) is the willful Compte de la Fere. And Porthos (Ted Barton) is the portly sensualist, the comic buffoon. Only D'Artagnan (Kit Wilder) is still in his majesty's service as the captain of the royal musketeers, but he's somewhat conflicted since King Louis (Charles Pasternak) is one of those bad kings you've got to keep your eye on.
Pasternak sees double duty, also playing Louis' twin, the young fellow mentioned in the play's title, who's been kept imprisoned in the Bastille for the last decade. His headgear looks like the sort of thing Hannibal Lecter or the villain of the new Batman movie should be wearing although his mask, we eventually learn, is for his own protection.
The leads in the theatrical adventure, many of them members of Actors Equity, are surrounded by a colorful supporting cast led by Lisa Kitchens as the virtuous maid, Louise de la Valliere. Louise gets a lot more interesting when she trades her gowns for a soldier's tunic, showing herself the musketeers' equal with a sword.
Wentworth's writing manages a tricky balancing act, making the conventions of the French court accessible to the modern audience at the same time it's making its themes echo those playing out in this year's presidential campaign.
While the festival was inspired by the language of William Shakespeare and the amazing roadmap of human nature it provides, this production follows last year's "Three Musketeers," adding a French accent to the equation.
This language is more accessible for modern audiences, its storytelling easier to follow. But especially at its end, it strikes a rich, deep emotional chord. For all the comparisons to cinema this production generates, as its characters exit the stage and pass through the audience at its conclusion, we are reminded that this entertainment form is alive.
In Dumas' day, theater was the ultimate in fantasy that an audience could be shared by an audience.
In our times, with so many other technologically powered alternatives, it is a glorious reminder of the enduring benefits of going "live."
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com