Quick Take:

Tickets go on sale next week for a historic comeback season for Santa Cruz’s most prominent theater company. Productions at the iconic Grove at DeLaveaga Park will see spare casts performing before smaller audiences, but after a year off, “I’m going to try not to cry when it happens,” artistic director Mike Ryan says.

Compared to past offerings in, say, 2018 or ’19, the upcoming season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare might seem a bit diminished. But compared to last summer? It represents the best parts of a family reunion, a birthday party and a release on parole from house arrest.

Tickets for the new season go on sale Tuesday, and though opening night is still a solid seven weeks away, Mike Ryan, SCS’s artistic director, is already saying, “I’m going to try not to cry when it happens.”

In what will likely be the first live, in-person theater event in 16 months, Santa Cruz Shakespeare is scheduled to open July 20 with two plays, both with small casts, at the company’s beautiful outdoor venue, The Grove at DeLaveaga Park.

Whether or not Santa Cruz Shakespeare will be required to observe pandemic protocols of masks and distancing — and it appears that it will not — Ryan said the company is imposing restrictions anyway, “because (a) I’m a cautious person, and (b) we had already planned the season to be done that way.”

That means The Grove’s regular capacity of 425 will be reduced to less than half, about 180. Groups of up to six people will be welcome to sit together, but with 6 feet of space from the closest party. Given that reduced capacity means fewer tickets to sell, livestreaming options are available this summer as well.

Regardless of the seating arrangements, Ryan said his crew is looking forward to an emotion-packed return to The Grove for the first time in two years.

“It’s going to feel really, really amazing,” said Ryan, who founded Santa Cruz Shakespeare in 2014, a year after the demise of its long-running predecessor, Shakespeare Santa Cruz. “Around the world, the theater industry and many other live performance companies as well, we’ve just been crushed. No one’s been able to work. No one’s been able to make money. Last year, I think it was around this time, about 1% of actors in the United States were under some sort of employment contract. So it’s not only good to get back to what we do, it’s good to get back to our livelihoods.”

The Grove at DeLaveaga Park.
The Grove at DeLaveaga Park. Credit: Courtesy Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Ryan, a veteran actor in his own right, will perform as one of only five actors in this year’s season. “I’m playing all the old guys,” he cracked.

In keeping with longtime SCS tradition, a Shakespeare play will be presented with a more contemporary play that draws on similar themes. In the case of 2021, the Shakespeare is a bit of a curveball. It’s called “RII” (read “Are-Two,” like the Star Wars droid). It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” by Pasadena-based playwright and director Jessica Kubzansky. “RII” is a stripped-down distillation of the Shakespearean history play about a leader woefully ill-equipped to lead (insert your preferred contemporary political parallel here). Though it has only three actors, the play has plenty more roles than that, requiring a deft kind of plate-spinning by the actors involved.

The other play is even more spare in its cast. It’s a one-on-one relationship play about two well-known figures in American history. “The Agitators” by Mat Smart tells the story of the real-life relationship between 19th-century civil rights figures Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, from their first meeting in the 1840s as young abolitionists to his death nearly 50 years later.

For “The Agitators,” Ryan opted for two familiar faces to SCS audiences. Longtime local actor Patty Gallagher, who is also faculty at UCSC’s Theater Arts department, takes on the role of Susan B. Anthony. Allen Gilmore, whose roles at SCS have included “The Winter’s Tale,” “The 39 Steps” and more, will step into the shoes of Douglass.

“Knowing that there are people here I can trust is important,” Ryan said of casting familiar names. “We were also extremely limited in the amount of auditioning we could do this year.”

As for the casts of hundreds, the giant battle scenes or crowd scenes, the lavishly staged Shakespeare epics, all that will have to wait until 2022 or beyond. “Well,” Ryan said, “we may evoke that in your imagination. It’s like the prologue of ‘Henry V’ asks the audience that, for each person you see on stage, to imagine a thousand more soldiers represented behind them.”

For more information and tickets for Santa Cruz Shakespeare, go to the company’s website.

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...