Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Santa Cruz Shakespeare may not be staging "Henry V" this summer, but that rallying cry certainly captures the feisty mood at the newly reborn troupe.
The beloved company, which died last year after the university cut all support, has returned to life with a new business model and a revitalized sense of its mission. The community rallied around the troupe with more than $1 million in donations to stage a two-play repertory of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "As You Like It" in its iconic redwood glen.
Richard Ziman's devilish Falstaff steals the show in a jazzy Roaring '20s-era "Merry Wives" in which the prancing potbellied rogue gets his comeuppance for a lifetime of knavery.
An ensemble of consummate actors, from Mark Anderson Phillips as the furiously jealous fool Ford to Allen Gilmore as the chipper Page, the Ned Flanders of this world, elevates Kirsten Brandt's cheeky if not quite hilarious staging. Julia Coffey and Greta Wohlrabe, who also star in "As You Like It," sparkle as the nimble-witted Mistress Ford and her BFF Mistress Page, two middle-class ladies who join forces to take down one of the most lovable degenerates in all of English literature. Coffey in particular adds zing to the play's many scenes of tongue-in-cheek wooing and cooing.
While not all of the slapstick lands, and shticky nods to everything from Betty Boop to "Singin' in the Rain" fail to spark, this is a smart and lively staging brimming with slamming doors and bawdy malaprops. There are some lackluster spots and some unfinished performances, particularly in the first act, but there are also some real gems in this frothy farce of flappers and dandies.
Elements to savor include Kit Wilder's (associate artistic director of City Lights) prissy Welsh parson, Mike Ryan's deadpan Bardolph and, of course, Ziman's rambunctious turn as the infamous fat knight chasing skirts and slugging mead despite his tremendous girth. Ziman radiates mischief in a gleeful performance that never sacrifices the elegance of the verse for laughs.
Brandt (formerly associate artistic director of San Jose Rep) wisely plays to the beauties of the glen. The closing moments of the show revolve around a legion of adorable tykes decked out like fairies scampering about the mist-drenched redwood grove. Fans of the festival will delight at the marriage of setting and theme.
Certainly a wacky comedy about our wicked world is an appropriate way to celebrate this inaugural season. For the record, the troupe is now run by Ryan and former artistic director Marco Barricelli, but Ryan plans to take over the reins on his own next season as this venerable company continues to reinvent itself.
At a time when the Bay Area theater community is still reeling from the loss of San Jose Rep, this is a heartening comeback for a local treasure. Indeed, the reincarnated company has joined the ranks of local theaters, including TheatreWorks, San Jose Stage Company and City Lights Theater Company, that have offered to honor tickets from the now defunct Rep, a bright spot for all concerned.
By William Shakespeare, presented by Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Through: Aug. 10, in
repertory with "As You Like It"
Where: Festival Glen, Theater Arts Center, UC Santa Cruz
Running time: just under three hours, one intermission