At the Audrey Stanley Grove on Monday night, Santa Cruz Shakespeare Artistic Director Mike Ryan called local theater icon Paul Whitworth “my mentor, acting idol and friend.” It sounds like the kind of description that might come before the announcement of what would be a much-deserved career-retrospective award.
But this was something better—instead of looking back, it was looking forward. As part of SCS’ 2023 season reveal, Ryan announced that Whitworth will return to the Shakespeare stage next summer to play one of the Bard’s most famous, demanding and complex roles: King Lear.
The 72-year-old Whitworth is Santa Cruz’s most renowned Shakespearean actor. He started performing with SCS forerunner Shakespeare Santa Cruz in 1984, and became its artistic director in 1996, serving in that role until 2007. In that time, he left an indelible mark—no one who saw him play Richard III, for instance, will ever forget it, and I personally consider his embodiment of George in SSC’s 2004 production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to be the single greatest dramatic performance I have ever seen.
King Lear has never been performed in the Grove, and this will be Whitworth’s first time performing with Santa Cruz Shakespeare, which was founded in 2014 after UCSC infamously withdrew support from SSC. The last time Shakespeare’s tale of political madness was produced in Santa Cruz was 2005, and on Monday, Ryan commented that “the intervening 17 years have made it more relevant than ever.” The production will be directed by Paul Mullins, who wowed audiences this summer with an incredible take on Twelfth Night.
The other Shakespeare play Ryan announced for next summer is The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare Santa Cruz produced in its final season in 2013. It’s a bit of a daring choice for these times, which Ryan acknowledged when he called it “a challenging play to do in our modern age” and teased a production that will entertain and “ask tough questions” about the play itself.
Another intriguing casting surprise came with the announcement of next season’s third play. Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will is a meta-comedy (not unlike, in some ways, Shakespeare in Love) about Henry Condell and John Heminges, two Elizabethan actors who are credited with preserving the Bard’s works as we know them today by putting together the First Folio. In a brilliant bit of casting, Ryan—serving his final year as artistic director next season—will play Heminges; Charles Pasternak—joining Ryan as co-artistic director beginning in January, and taking over the role fully after next summer’s productions—will play Condell.
Their real-life roles add a whole other level of meta to what is already, as Ryan put it, “a love letter to Shakespeare.”
“I can think of no better way to celebrate this transition,” he said Monday.
SCS Board President Rick Wright told the crowd that this had been a successful season for the company, which hit its goals after selling 15,000 tickets to almost 50 performances over two months. SCS’s 2022 season of Twelfth Night, The Tempest and The Formula has its final performances this week.
More information at santacruzshakespeare.org.