To Bard or not to Bard: Shakespeare bids adieu?

Actors perform in the Shakespeare Santa Cruz staging of 'The Taming of the Shrew' in the festival's trademark Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen at UC Santa Cruz this summer. (Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)

Everything is personal, even Shakespeare.

Sunday night, my wife and I attended the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of “Henry V” in the festival redwood glen. Chilly, as usual in a Santa Cruz night, but a warm and inviting production, with great acting and staging. That “Henry V”  — the third in a trilogy of plays about the Henrys and how Prince Hal would become a warrior king with a conscience — is eminently accessible seemed to delight the small, but seemingly sold-out, crowd that enthusiastically applauded the cast and artistic director Marco Baricelli — who took on the narrator’s role, albeit in modern dress — to great effect in the production. There were none of the gimmicks or over-the-top modernizations that have sometimes made SSC productions painful to sit through. It was just a professional, and passionate, play that left us thankful we live in a community with a top-notch university able to offer so much.

Poll: Should Shakespeare Santa Cruz be saved?

All the more stunning the next afternoon to learn that UCSC was shutting down Shakespeare Santa Cruz after this season. Here is the Sentinel editorial about this sad turn in the plot:

We can’t help but mourn in advance the impending curtain call for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, even if the reasons to end the theater troupe’s 32 years of performances are perfectly understandable.

The announcement Monday by UC Santa Cruz arts dean David Yager that Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s chronic financial problems have reached a point of no return came as something of a shock to the arts community, even if they’d had years to prepare themselves for just such a possibility.

The bottom line is that in a time when UCSC has struggled to offer a full complement of classes and keep its expenses in line, SSC has continued almost in a midsummer night’s dreamworld where the difference between revenue and expenses would somehow be rewritten or upstaged in a deft stroke of the pen.

Isn’t that what happened five years ago, when the university, realizing it could no longer support SSC, was ready to dim the stage lights on the celebrated theater company?But Santa Cruz, the community, rallied and was able to raise enough money to keep Shakespeare Santa Cruz alive.  But apparently, that reprieve was not accompanied by an acknowledgement a new fiscal discipline would need to be imposed.

According to the university, nothing much changed, financially, as SSC’s cumulative debt increased an alarming $500,000 in the fiscal year that just ended, to a total of nearly $2 million. And that figure becomes even more dramatic considering UCSC contributed $250,000 to Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s operating budget and expenses during the year. Without that contribution, SSC’s expenses would be $750,000 over revenues, which include ticket sales, sponsorships and donations.

Yager acknowledged that the timing of his announcement was awful — SSC’s final week of the summer season concludes this weekend, but that it was better to inform all parties sooner than later, although we have to wonder considering the size of the deficit, why it was allowed to get worse.

But no longer. This time, Yager said, there will be no second life for SSC. After years of trying to find a way to keep SSC running, the prospect of choosing between cutting arts classes and continuing to prop up the theater group was no choice at all.

It’s a painful loss.

For many Santa Cruz County residents, their main interaction with UCSC has been Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Many families made the summer plays an annual outing, and the holiday plays — this season’s will proceed — always seemed to draw a contingent of delighted younger theatergoers and older audience members. At the same time, 32 years is a lot of plays, a lot of Shakespeare — and the audience for SSC isn’t getting any younger, especially since a post-literary generation might not have the same appreciation for Elizabethan drama and comedy, no matter the staging or modern retellings.

What’s also sad is that this year’s summer season — featuring the Bard’s “Taming of the Shrew” and historical piece, “Henry V” — have drawn nearly universal praise, much to the credit of SSC’s artistic director for the past five years, Marco Baricelli, who took on the narrator’s role in “Henry V.”

Baricelli told the Sentinel he was surprised to be told about the impending demise of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, but that the decision won’t affect this summer’s final performances. “The work is the work,” said Baricelli. “At least we’ll have that three hours a night on stage to pour our hearts and passions into.”

Parting would be such bittersweet sorrow.

Or, as his father’s ghost would implore Hamlet, “Adieu, adieu, adieu! remember me.”


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