Santa Cruz Shakespeare setting up for its 2023 season at DeLaveaga Park
Santa Cruz Shakespeare setting up for its 2023 season at DeLaveaga Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

With one foot in the past and another in the future, Santa Cruz Shakespeare presents a pivotal season of theater

“The Book of Will” opens the summer this week for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, with “The Taming of the Shrew” and “King Lear” to follow as the company marks a change of artistic directors, the return of a local acting legend and a renewed focus on expanding the audience for the Bard of Avon.

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Anyone who is attempting to write the 40-plus-year history of Santa Cruz Shakespeare would be wise to mark the 2023 summer season on the calendar, perhaps with a circle — because it certainly feels like the closing of a circle.

The new season, which officially opens this week, is the final act for the leadership of Mike Ryan, the company’s artistic director during its most consequential decade. Ryan is sharing AD duties this summer with Charles Pasternak, the man chosen to be his successor and a fellow actor with whom Ryan has developed some considerable on-stage chemistry. Then, he’s off to a well-earned retirement while Pasternak takes the reins going forward.

This summer, Ryan is closing his tenure as the de facto face of SCS with a bold move — hiring the actor who was also once the primary face of the company. That would be Paul Whitworth, the accomplished, classically trained, British-born actor who himself piloted the plane as artistic director for a decade. What’s more, Whitworth is being brought back after many years away from the local Shakespearean stage to take on what is often viewed as a pinnacle role in an actor’s life, the title character in the eternal political family tragedy “King Lear.”

If the new season feels like a punctuation moment in the context of the company’s long history — which includes more than 30 years in its previous incarnation as Shakespeare Santa Cruz — then to more casual fans, it’s merely a chance to see three expertly mounted productions of still-relevant plays on the outdoor stage at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park.

The season officially begins with the first two productions of its three-play slate. Opening Night is Thursday for “The Book of Will” (2017) by Lauren Gunderson, a comedy about the efforts of two Elizabethan actors to publish the plays of William Shakespeare just seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The lead roles will be played by Ryan and Pasternak. The next evening, Friday, July 14, is opening night for Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Two weeks later, on Friday, July 28, comes Whitworth leading the ensemble in a new production of “King Lear.”

Charles Pasternak (left) and Mike Ryan (center) in a Santa Cruz Shakespeare production
Incoming Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Charles Pasternak (left) is teaming up with outgoing AD Mike Ryan (center) to lead the 2023 season. The two performed together (with actor Cedric Lamar) in 2022’s “Twelfth Night.”
(Via Santa Cruz Shakespeare; photo by Shmuel Thaler)

As is often the case at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, the non-Shakespeare wild-card play could emerge as the most talked-about production of the season. “The Book of Will” is inspired by the real-life tale of the publication of the First Folio, a crucial pivot point in Shakespeare’s rise as the greatest playwright in the English-speaking world. This year marks the First Folio’s 400th anniversary.

The play is also symbolic of the working relationship between the outgoing artistic director and the incoming one. “Mike and I chose ‘The Book of Will’ together,” said Pasternak, who plays actor Henry Condell in the play opposite Ryan’s John Heminges.

The two ADs quickly determined that they should play the lead roles, largely because the parallels were too obvious to resist. “There’s a wonderful meta-theatrical aspect to it,” said Pasternak. “[On stage], we’re two actors endeavoring to save Shakespeare’s work. And [off stage], we’re two actors who are endeavoring to lift up this festival, and it’s a great way to mark the passing-of-the-torch moment.”

Two weeks after the opening of “The Book of Will,” Whitworth returns to the local Shakespearean stage for the first time in more than 20 years. It’s also the first time he’s played Lear in a theater career that goes back more than 40 years. His history with both local Shakespeare and “King Lear” in particular, however, is rich and complex.

Paul Whitworth will play King Lear for the first time this summer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Whitworth first burst onto the local scene as a leather-clad biker version of Prince Hal back in 1984 in a production of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s “King Henry IV, Part One.” From that moment forward, he became one of the most commanding actors in Santa Cruz history before stepping up to lead the company as artistic director in the mid-1990s. (The difference between Shakespeare Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz Shakespeare is more than just syntax. The former was established in 1981 by the late Audrey Stanley under the sponsorship of UC Santa Cruz, and performed in the famous Redwood Glen on campus. In 2013, UCSC’s Arts Division dissolved the company, and many of the actors and crew followed Mike Ryan to move off campus and establish Santa Cruz Shakespeare as a fully independent company.)

In 1995, Whitworth appeared in SSC’s production of “King Lear” as the Fool opposite Shakespearean veteran Tony Church as Lear. Whitworth said that, for logistical reasons, he had turned down the chance to play Lear twice over the years. But the play, and the role, had always loomed large in his imagination.

“It was the first Shakespeare play I saw live,” he said in his library at his Westside home. “I was about 11. I was at boarding school, and I was taken from the junior school to the senior school to see their summer production. All the women were played by boys whose voices hadn’t broken, and Lear must have been all of 17. The blinding of Gloucester, and Lear storming away on the heath, and the weird Fool … I was just sort of horrified and fascinated, and it continued to haunt me long afterward.”

With the current president and his predecessor both entangled in melodramas with their adult children, and with the resounding success of HBO’s “Succession,” which wrestled with the same theme, “King Lear” and its questions of love and loyalty between powerful parents and their children are as relevant as ever.

Why does the mystique around “Lear” continue to entrance audiences? “Partly it’s the scale of the poetry,” said Whitworth. “So, poetically, it’s a huge thing to get your heart around, rather than just your head around or your voice around.”

Among Whitworth’s many accomplishments as artistic director from 1996 to 2007 was to hire a young Mike Ryan for the part of the ensemble cast. In the years after he left the job as AD, Whitworth decided not to cast his shadow at Shakespeare Santa Cruz or its second incarnation, and accepted acting jobs only outside Santa Cruz.

But in recent years, Whitworth has appeared in several productions at Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre. And his sabbatical from local Shakespeare ended when Ryan asked Whitworth to take on Lear in what would be his final season. At Jewel, Whitworth had worked with Paul Mullins, the director Ryan wanted to helm “Lear.” So the two Pauls met to talk it out.

“Well, he said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’ and I said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’” remembered Whitworth. And that’s how that happened.”

Santa Cruz Shakespeare setting up for its 2023 season at DeLaveaga Park
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though it is shaping up to be a grand farewell for both, this summer’s season might not be the last time local audiences see either Ryan or Whitworth. Pasternak has said that if he has his way, Ryan will be back performing as an actor on SCS stages in the future. As for Whitworth, he’s not ready to say that “Lear” is his last hurrah. Though he said, “I’m not very good at having a wish list of things I would still like to do,” he did express a desire to play perhaps the greatest Shakespearean character he has not played yet, Sir John Falstaff.

He is, however, still focused on ways to keep Shakespeare alive, even as its traditional audiences age.

“We’ve got to find a way to bring more young people into Shakespeare,” Whitworth said. “It was true for me and it was true for tons of people I know, that the first time they saw it, it made a big impact on them. And they didn’t quite know why. Shakespeare’s handling of language and the theater experience itself — people making decisions and changing and exploring weird bits of human experience through role-playing — is something that still has a big grip and makes a big impression on young people.”

After previews Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Santa Cruz Shakespeare opens its 2023 season Thursday at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park; performances run through Aug. 27. Click here for more information and tickets.