Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new venue, the Grove at DeLaveaga Park, was planned, funded and built in just over a year. You have to climb hills and traverse a golf course to get there, but you’re rewarded with rustic elegance: a spare stage nestled within a eucalyptus grove.
The fog starts roaring in well before curtain, coursing through the cones of light emitted by the lighting instruments; that’s the perfect effect for the opening moments of “Hamlet,” the second show in the company’s summer season. When Barnardo (Christian Strange) calls out, “Who’s there?” even though, strangely, he’s the one who’s approaching a guarded castle, the fog makes the situation’s confusion all the more real.
This “Hamlet” marks an impressive rebound for the company, which has weathered two huge struggles in recent years. In 2013, UC Santa Cruz announced that after three decades, it would no longer help fund the theater, forcing it to to scramble to form its own nonprofit. (It was then that the company switched names from Shakespeare Santa Cruz to Santa Cruz Shakespeare.) Then, just in March 2015, the company found out UC Santa Cruz would not renew its lease for the Glen, its long-held site on the university’s campus.
But you’d never know the company was recently in dire straits from this production of “Hamlet.” From the beginning, director Paul Mullins makes strong, bold choices. After the company’s artistic director Mike Ryan makes his welcome speech, he goes straight into character as Horatio, Hamlet’s confidant. He hugs his trench coat tighter as he moves into the audience, kneeling to watch the opening exchange between the guards. They’re talking about him, but he bides his time, listening — a canny and unsettling introduction to the show’s theme of spying.
The person everyone’s spying on, of course, is Hamlet, Princess of Denmark — so called in this production because Hamlet is played by Kate Eastwood Norris. (The company has a policy of maintaining gender balance in its casting; in this “Hamlet,” women also play Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as many ensemble parts.) They spy because Hamlet is first thought to be too sad over the death of her father, then, suddenly, mad; she alone learns the truth about her father’s death — that her uncle, Claudius (Bernard K. Addison), killed her father in order to marry her mother, Gertrude (Carol Halstead), and seize the throne — and her reaction is to fall into or perform madness — or both.
Many who play arguably the greatest role ever written emphasize, from Hamlet’s first words, sarcasm and spite. (The Princess’ first two lines are all wordplay, making fun of the queen and new king.) Norris, by contrast, makes the felicitous choice to ground her portrayal in Hamlet’s grief. There’s an insistent goodness to her sadness, which allows for more of an emotional transition when she meets her father’s ghost (also played by Addison) to learn about his murder. That sadness fuels the rest of her performance, making credible and understandable all of Hamlet’s later cruelties and mistakes.
If Mullins doesn’t give the same urgency to the play’s later acts, which get bogged down in the workhorse mechanics of advancing a complicated plot, there are some sterling performances along the way.
Patty Gallagher’s Polonius is a comic revelation; she makes the clueless adviser to the king more like the wide-eyed nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz in “Bewitched.” And as the obsequious servant Osric, Brian Smolin almost single-handedly dispels second-act doldrums, giving his character almost outlandish flamboyance.
But if there are doldrums in the second act of this “Hamlet,” the production as a whole suggests a promising third act for Santa Cruz Shakespeare.