Patty Gallagher plays Susan B. Anthony in the The Agitators and Lorenzo Roberts plays King Richard II in RII.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Santa Cruz Shakespeare reawakens: Theater re-emerges leaner yet still oozing with political relevance

Shakespeare returns to the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz for the first time since 2019. The return of in-person theater features a Shakespearean adaptation and a historical play featuring Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

In years past at Santa Cruz Shakespeare — and especially at its predecessor theater company Shakespeare Santa Cruz — the professional actors who arrived in town each summer resembled in number a small army. On stage, in some productions such as “Macbeth,” the army didn’t even seem that small.

By contrast, this summer, the first summer post-pandemic and following a year when SCS didn’t do in-person performances at all, the entire acting company could fit in a Toyota Camry, provided someone agrees to sit in the middle.

Shakespeare returns to the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park in Santa Cruz for the first time since 2019. And befitting a company just emerging from a long layoff, SCS has decided not to go all-out with big shows and casts of thousands. At least, this year.

Getting ready for show time in the grove.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Instead, SCS’s new season kicks off with its first preview show July 20 with two productions, employing between them just five actors.

Still, even with this walk-before-you-can-run approach, the season promises to deliver what its audiences have come to expect: both classic Shakespeare and more contemporary material that is relevant to today.

Playing in rep at the Grove this summer will be:

  • “RII,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play “The Life and Death of King Richard II,” re-imagined by Southern California director Jessica Kubzansky. The language and characters in the play are all Shakespeare. Kubzansky’s adaptation only distills and streamlines the play and recontextualizes its action, all by using only three actors.

  • “The Agitators” by Mat Smart is a dramatization of the decades-long friendship between two of the greatest political activists of 19th century America, the orator and writer Frederick Douglass and the proto-feminist Susan B. Anthony. The actors playing Douglass (Allen Gilmore) and Anthony (Patty Gallagher) are the only actors in the play.

“RII” stars Lorenzo Roberts in the title role, but every other role in the production — that’s more than a dozen — will be played by two actors: Paige Lindsey White, who has wrestled with the demands of this play before, and Mike Ryan, SCS’s artistic director.

Lorenzo Roberts as King Richard II.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Set during the final years of 14th century England, the play focuses on the capricious King Richard and his seizing the estate of his cousin Bolingbroke, who will later become the central character in Shakespeare’s more well-known “Henriad” trilogy. The play is framed with Richard in his jail cell, looking back on the events that brought him from foppish king to prisoner.

“It’s all Shakespeare,” said the production’s director Melissa Rain Anderson. “But (Kubzansky) has just re-edited it, re-arranged it and cut it. So, it’s this kind of ingenious way to look at the piece as a memory piece instead of just a linear trajectory.”

Perhaps every bit as intriguing as the story is the stagecraft involved in producing a complex historical drama with two actors constantly switching roles in real-time. White and Ryan will be involved in an intricate choreography having to change costumes quickly and seamlessly as the action unfolds. Anderson has her small cast in more-or-less constant motion, theater as part dance, part pick-up basketball game.

“For me,” said Anderson, “it’s about a balance between Richard and Bolingbroke and the changing of the guards. So there’s a lot of movement where they sort of cross each other or track each other or take each other’s place on stage.”

Patty Gallaher as Susan B. Anthony.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The second play in SCS’s 2021 season, Mat Smart’s “The Agitators” goes one better with making the most of resourceful casting, with only two actors on stage the entire play. The story traces the long, not-always-serene friendship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

The play traces the relationship between the two American political icons over the course of about 45 years, from the moment they first met as young abolitionists in the 1840s.

“As a friendship, it was a mixed bag,” said the production’s director Paul Mullins. “(At times) it was antagonistic, sometimes completely at odds. But they were real friends.”

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The two were almost exact contemporaries; Douglass was three years older. And they pursued civil rights in their respective lanes. But their interests often coincided.

“They did disagree on, what she said at one point, the ‘method,’ not what they were each fighting for, but the method to get there,” said Mullins.

Mullins and his actors Gallagher and Gilmore are all long-time veterans of Santa Cruz Shakespeare and that familiarity made it easier for them to work together. Mullins said that Patty Gallagher was born in Rochester, New York where Susan B. Anthony lived most of her life. Gallagher even has relatives buried in the same Rochester cemetery that includes the mortal remains of both Anthony and Douglass.

Lorenzo Roberts and Patty Gallagher.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Working with only two actors makes for a uniquely challenging environment on stage, and one way the play addresses those challenges is by putting its characters in many different settings, in different ages and eras. Of course, many of those settings are only suggested and the audience is required to project its collective visual imagination in many cases.

Still, the common thread in both offerings from Santa Cruz Shakespeare this summer is their relevance to the world we all live in today. The crusades for equality championed by Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are still central to the American political spirit, and while so many important activists from the 1800s are long forgotten, those two figures remain a vivid presence in American life.

And “RII” is about nothing more than the exercise of raw political power and what happens when that power is in the hands of those who lack the wisdom and perspective to use it properly. That’s a story we can’t stop re-telling.

IF YOU GO

Santa Cruz Shakespeare

➤ “The Agitators” plays in preview performances Tuesday and Thursday before its Opening Night on July 24.
➤ “RII” plays in preview performances Wednesday and Friday before its Opening Night July 25.
Both plays run through Aug. 29. Go here for ticket information.