Monday, August 17, 2015


Onwumere and Smolin: lie coach
If you're one of those slightly benighted folks who think Santa Cruz Shakespeare would be so much fun, except for, you know, all that Shakespeare, then the current SCS production of The Liar is for you.

On the other hand, if you can't get enough of Shakespearean-style wit and wordplay, then The Liar is for you. In fact, if you're breathing, The Liar is for you.

Yes, it's a play you've never heard of, based on a French farce from (eek) 1643. Yes, the entire play is in verse. But this outrageously clever 2010 update by American playwright David Ives uses modern idioms and vernacular throughout (references to Twitter, etc.), to make sure that everyone gets all the jokes.

The farcical plot revolves around Dorante (Brian Smolin), a young man from the provinces on his first day in Paris who's quick to embroider the truth for the sake of expedience. He has no malicious intent; rather, say, he can't be bothered with the boring (or inconvenient) truth when a good lie, ingeniously crafted on the spot, is so much more satisfying.

Or, as Dorante puts it, in one of Ives' slyest lines, "the unimagined life is not worth living!"

Jolene and Cavett, with Smolin: effortlessly fun
 In short order, Dorante hires a manservant, Cliton (Toby Onwumere), unable to speak anything but the truth, falls instantly in love with one of two ladies (but mixes up their names), weasels out of a marriage plot arranged by his father, and fights a hilarious duel of words (which he narrates like an ESPN play-by-play), swords undrawn.

Did I mention the twin serving wenches (one lusty, one pious)? As soon as Dorante boasts to Cliton about his "Memory—keystone of the master liar!" you know he's heading for trouble.

A show that depends so completely on verbal dexterity needs an adroit cast, and SCS has put together an exceptional one. Toby Onwumere gets things off to a rollicking start before the show begins, as Cliton, wandering through the audience with a "Man for Hire" sign, offering to juggle fruit, sing songs or recite for pay. Onwumere is so powerful as the tragic but fierce Macduff in this season's production of Macbeth, it's great to see him shift gears in such a boisterously comic role.

Brian Smolin's Dorante is an utterly charming scapegrace, delighting himself (and us) with his extravagant fabrications, soaring to ever new heights on the addictive helium of his own tall tales. Smolin delivers his lines with clarity, precision, and impish glee, to match the flamboyant grace with which he prowls the stage; he's effortlessly fun in a demanding role.

Smolin and Parret: must be the lusty twin
The ladies, sassy Clarice (Mary Cavett) and quiet, but smoldering Lucrece (Sierra Jolene), keep the action hopping along, putting their suitors through their paces. Darek Riley scores as Alcippe, Clarice's other suitor (and Dorante's dueling/sparring partner in that great, er, wordfight scene). Allen Darby makes a droll impression as his friend, Philiste, and Kurt Meeker is the imposing voice of authority as Dorante's father.

Melina Parret is terrific fun as both twin servants, Isabelle and Sabine. SCS audiences may (or may not) recognize her from her other role this season as Lady Macbeth.

David Mickeklsen's vivid costumes vaguely recall the Musketeer era of the original French play (with a few cartoony/Commedia del'Arte flourishes), and Art Manke's smart direction is frisky, but never so frantic that we can't appreciate the jokes or the splendid performances.

This is probably the funniest play I've seen in the Glen since Danny Scheie's original production of A Comedy of Errors, back in the Stone Age. It's what live theatre is all about, and it only plays four more times through August 29, so get your tickets now.

Why are you still sitting there?

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Dressed to thrill: Parret & Pickering
William Shakespeare might as well have written Macbeth for the Festival Glen at UCSC. Who can resist witches, ghosts, blood and mayhem under the towering redwoods at night, under a canopy of stars?

The new Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of the play could not be any more atmospheric. Director Kirsten Brandt's staging of the durable drama of ambition, murder, and revenge in ancient Scotland comes roaring out of the trees and down the aisles, across Nina Ball's splendid stage and the ramparts above.

Rodolfo Ortega's sweeping, Game Of Thrones-like music soars over all, while the sound and lighting designs of Ortega and Kurt Landisman keeps thunder and lightning rumbling ominously through the trees between scenes. (Although, perhaps not as ominously as the real-life lightning storm that blew over the Glen Thursday night, canceling the last preview performance.)

B. Modern's costumes are a Shakespeare fangirl's dream of kilts, tartans, leather leggings, and velvet medieval gowns worked in gold.
Wohlrabe as Banquo's ghost

The show begins with a bang: the three shrieking witches are hauled down the hill and onto the stage by soldiers, who denounce them with Biblical quotes ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!"), and lock them into horned, cage-like headdresses.

This sets up the conflict between mysterious female energy and male military power when the witches are encountered by the troops of old King Duncan (Kurt Meeker), returning from a victory at the front.

Speaking in riddles, the witches prophesy that Macbeth (Steve Pickering), Thane of Glamis, will be king, and that his comrade-in-arms and fellow thane and general, Banquo, will found a dynasty of kings. Banquo is usually a male role, but in this gender-bending season, the general is a woman.

Greta Wohlrabe looks great in the part, strutting around like Brienne of Tarth, but since Banquo functions as the conscience of the play, the moral force that Macbeth abandons for glory, it's too bad she and Macbeth don't establish a deeper camaraderie from the outset.

Melinda Parret is a bold and effective Lady Macbeth. She starts plotting the minute she hears about the prophecy, calling on the gods and spirits to harden her natural female tendency toward mercy to do away with the old king while he sleeps under her roof, so Macbeth can ascend to the throne. Her murderous plan shocks her husband, at first, but ultimately seals both their dooms.

There are two traits anyone playing Macbeth needs—fire and tragedy. But Pickering seems a little complacent in the role. He never quite musters the intensity of a good man fatally tempted to hazard all for the sake of ambition. As a result, his waffling over his part in the bloody deed doesn't have the weight of a moral crisis, of a man grappling with the destruction of his own soul. He just seems wishy-washy.

However, Toby Onwumere (above) has fire to burn as Macduff, Thane of Fife, onetime ally and ultimate adversary to Macbeth. The production jolts to life whenever he's onstage. Brian Smolin (such a hit in this season's hilarious farce, The Liar), is very funny as the cranky Porter of the castle in the play's one comic scene.

And the witches (Patty Gallagher, Suzanne Sturn, and Mary Cavett, right) are pretty fabulous, draped in rags and flotsam and moondust, their voices amped up with an eerie reverb effect that echoes through the trees.

The entity formerly known as Shakespeare Santa Cruz is playing the last four productions it will ever give in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen this month. (The word is, the company will relocate to Delaveaga Park for the 2016 season.)

Since this production makes such excellent use of the Glen in all its wild, spooky glory, it serves as a fitting way for fans to bid a fond adieu to this marvelous performance space.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


"You can't spit on board a ship and not hit eight fellows called 'Jack.'"

So says the pirate hero of my first swashbuckling novel The Witch From The Sea. My Jack chooses the name for anonymity in his dubious trade, as he explains to my heroine, runaway and accidental pirate-in-training Tory Lightfoot.

In swashbuckling fiction, on land as well as sea, characters named Jack seem to have all the fun. (Unless they're named James, like my other pirate hero, James Hook.) I'm partial to my Jack, of course, but since it's summer reading season, here are some of my other favorite literary rakes and rogues named Jack, with one more Jamie thrown in. Enjoy!

MASTER AND COMMANDER  The first volume in Patrick O'Brian's beloved 20-volume adventure series introduces Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, and his best friend and shipmate, Dr. Stephen Maturin, Irish-Catalan surgeon, naturalist, and spy.

Called "Lucky Jack" for his genius in out-maneuvering enemy ships and earning prize money (yet all at sea in attempting to manage his financial and social affairs on dry land), big, bluff, hearty Jack and small, dark, wry, and learned Stephen sail all the world's oceans throughout the Napoleonic Wars, facing every sort of peril, in a friendship that deepens and matures over time.

Launched with this book in 1970, the series has become the gold standard of modern seafaring fiction.

JACK ABSOLUTE  In the kind of breakneck adventure for which the term "rollicking" was coined, C. C. Humphreys embroils his protagonist Captain Jack Absolute—onetime officer, full-time rake, and part-time spy—in  a duel, a chase, witty repartee, sex backstage (and onstage) at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and guest appearances by General Burgoyne AND Richard Brinsley Sheridan. And that's just the first three chapters.

In 1777, Jack and his Mohawk Indian blood brother, Ate, are ordered back to America to serve Britain in the fight against American independence. They soon find themselves battling ferocious colonial militiamen, British incompetence, and their own doubts about which master they serve.
Write what you know: Humpheys as Absolute

 The audacity with which Humphreys purloins a character out of Sheridan's classic stage comedy, The Rivals, for his own devices, is matched only by the skill with which he pulls it off—with plenty of dash, wry cynicism, bloody action, and a surprisingly tender and gripping love story that sneaks in the back door and turns the entire enterprise on its ear.

Actor, swordsman, and fight coordinator Humphreys knows whereof he writes. He first became acquainted with Jack Absolute when he played him in a stage production of The Rivals in 1987; since then, he has shepherded the character through three volumes of adventures, including The Blooding of Jack Absolute, and Absolute Honor.

PLAYING THE JACK  Mary Brown's vivid and ripping romantic adventure has justifiably become a cult favorite among thinking women everywhere. In rural England of the early Napoleonic era, teenage runaway Zoe, disguised as a boy, is discovered in a ditch by a ragged troupe of traveling performers.

Taken in and educated in stagecraft, cunning, and the school of life, eager young Zoe is spellbound by the troupe's leader—wily, enigmatic, flamboyant Jack, a complex, and conflicted man at war with himself who harbors as many secrets as Zoe herself.

From the rollicking start of their relationship on the road, Zoe evolves through a few more incarnations (including boudoir seductress), while the oh-so-fallible, yet noble-hearted Jack drops a few masks of his own, on their way to a climax full of skullduggery and redemption.

Lively dialogue, deeply faceted characters who never stop growing, and a riveting pas de deux between well-matched romantic partners make this an unforgettable (if shamefully unknown) classic.

OUTLANDER With a hit TV adaptation of her first novel on STARZ, Diana Gabaldon needs no introduction from me.

In this first (and arguably best) book in Gabaldon's time-traveling romantic adventure series, Englishwoman Claire Randall, a former nurse in bleak, postwar England, is vacationing in Scotland with her husband, recently returned from the front. At a group of eerie standing stones, she tumbles 200 years back in time to meet the soulmate of her life.

As heroes go, Jamie Fraser is the real deal: moral, courageous, good-humored, compassionate, and sexy in the best way—he doesn't know it. At only 24 years old Jamie is also a virgin—in a nifty twist on the old romance novel cliché about the tremulous virgin bride who has to be mastered by a more experienced husband. But there's nothing tremulous about Jamie; "I'm a virgin, not a monk," he tells Claire.

Packed with tumultuous history, hair-raising action, wry banter, compelling drama, and incendiary love scenes, Outlander is an exhilarating feast of a book.