Two weeks before their first performance, Shakespeare Santa Cruz cast members were running on caffeine, adrenaline, and cheese curls.

Anyone who has seen Shakespeare Santa Cruz knows it's a transporting experience, but the cast works hard to achieve the effect. When audiences finally see Love's Labor's Lost starting July 21 and running through August 29, they will see the end-product of endless adjustments, revisions, and changes of heart.

Each cast member, selected from nationwide auditions, rehearses 85 hours for Love's Labor's Lost, and does double-duty as a cast member of Othello, which requires another 85 hours of work. During an all-day rehearsal on July 7, the cast practiced the bittersweet "Spring Song" and a madcap dance routine again and again, changing the shape and texture with each repetition.

"Let's pick this up from the beginning of the song," said Love's Labor's Lost director Scott Wentworth, a Tony-nominated stage, TV, and screen actor. "If everyone will take their positions."

Hinting at antics to come, someone had left a heap of props on a long table: two plastic serpents; two bullhorns; five Groucho glasses; three parasols; and a vuvuzela, a plastic noisemaker straight from the World Cup matches in South Africa.

As the cast sang the "Spring Song"--"cuckoo, cuckoo!"--Wentworth rearranged the players. Nervous energy filled the room.

"Cooper," Wentworth said, pointing to a cast member. "I'm taking you out of the ..."

"Taking you out of the entire play," a cast member/heckler shouted.

The spirit of the practice session was sometimes irreverent, but there was no mistaking the concentration. Such focus is necessary to pull off Shakespearean comedy, said Emily Krakowsky, 21, a UCSC graduate who plays Moth in Love's Labor's Lost.

"The language is so elevated," Krakowsky said. "You've got to be completely clear in your intentions. People sometimes think they're not smart enough to understand Shakespeare. If that happens, it's not you. It means the actors aren't doing their jobs."

Wentworth spoke of the challenges of staging this play.

"Shakespearean comedies tend to come out of real, human situations, unlike French farces, where there is a kind of heightened style and satirical vein," Wentworth said. "It's not about gags or funny walks. We encourage actors to play it seriously. That being said, there are some extravagant characters in this play."

The play, one of Shakespeare's early comedies, concerns King Ferdinand and his three lusty lords, who swear off women for three years so they can focus on their studies. Then a delegation of beautiful women shows up and derails the plan.

The play is part of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 29th season performance line-up. In late 2008, the prestigious festival survived budget cuts when loyal fans rallied to make up the difference during an aggressive, grassroots fundraising campaign, netting 2,000 new donors in a record period of time.

That afternoon, Wentworth instructed four of his actors--the king and his lords--to practice a dance routine. The characters dressed up as cocky Russian soccer players to get close to women. For the next hour or so, there was plenty of jumping, kicking, and wiggling to the sounds of electronic music.

"Arms, arms, arms!" the director demanded.

As the practice continued, the dance became more baroque, more over the top and ridiculous until everyone, even a couple of stone-faced observers watching from the sidelines, busted up.

Meanwhile, out of doors, below the practice space, a team of workers created a different kind of magic. Builders filled the glen with the sound of jigsaws and hammers. They hauled lights high into the branches of redwood trees.

The glen and the trees always play supporting roles. The forest contributes to the festive atmosphere of comedies like Love's Labor's Lost, and adds to the foreboding of tragedies like Othello.

The trees don't just loom above the stage. They grow right through it. Strategically placed holes in the base stage make it appear that several redwoods are vaulting out of the set. But that feeling of enchantment doesn't come easily. Workers must deal with the elements, including thick mists that can force them to haul heavy equipment indoors between performances to prevent it from getting damaged.

A "base stage" remains in the glen year-round, but builders add ramps, hidden staircases, a deck, fencing, platforms, props, and ominous towers that appear only in the Othello production.

The hard work pays off when the audience members take their seats.

"It's a magical space out there," Wentworth said. "The stage seems to grow out of the forest."

The 2010 summer festival season runs July 20-August 29 and features The Lion In Winter starring Marco Barricelli, Love's Labor's Lost, and Othello.

For more season and ticket information, visit the SSC web site or call the UCSC Ticket Office at (831) 459-2159.




Related link:

Shakespeare Santa Cruz kicks off 2010 summer festival July 20