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The Real Thing

New theater company raises the curtain for Tom Stoppard

therealthingSanta Cruz has long been a haven for theatrics (both on stage and off). The town is hardly lacking in drama. While virtual “plays” are often seen downtown everyday amongst our colorful cast of locals, theater companies in town also keep audiences delighted.

In a coastal community that’s saturated with creativity, our actors, playwrights, directors and their ilk are a close-knit crew. Many of these artists and the companies they perform with are firmly rooted in town, sort of like concrete. They’re not going anywhere.

So, from the depths of no particular theatrical void, arises Red & Black Stage, a new entity with two long-time local thespians at the helm: Judith Wellner and Daniel D. Hughes. The pair has been involved in varying levels with groups around town. But now, it’s time for these friends to plow ahead into their own uncharted territory—launching a theater company.

“We want to see people come back to the theater,” Hughes says of his company’s manifesto.

It’s not that people don’t go to see theater, mind you. Shakespeare Santa Cruz has full bragging rights, as does Cabrillo Stage and a number of other companies producing work here in Santa Cruz.

And, may it be known that Wellner and Hughes are in no way hoping to scoot other companies aside, but rather, they wish to join the ranks and introduce their fresh vision to the “theater scene.” That “vision” means going back to the basics—straight up plays, a la Tom Stoppard and Arthur Miller.

Their first play, which opens on Feb. 23, introduces Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” at the Actors’ Theatre. This tried-and-true script by a classic playwright is a sure fire way to forge an impression. Ultimately, the story is about a writer, Henry, who is married, with a child. He meets a woman named Annie, they fall in love, and Henry’s family dissolves. From there, Annie and Henry try to live a happily ever after existence, only to find out that things don’t always turn out that way. Henry is played by Hughes (who is also directing the play) and Annie is played by Wellner. Rounding out the cast are April Bennett, Aimée Shunney, John Burke, Steven Macramalla and Mark Palmtag.

Interestingly, the idea for producing this play as the company’s first production has long been in the works. Rewind to 2004. Wellner and Hughes are deep in the trenches of acting class with respected local instructor Ian McRae. They’re in his advanced class pounding out a scene from “The Real Thing.” Apparently, as they tell the story, things were going so well that the idea came up that the pair should, in fact, produce the entire play.

“It tells the truth about relationships—about love,” Wellner says of the play. “What ties people together and what separates them, even if they still love each other.”

This idea of truth, of integrity, is what propels the founders of this company. It’s also their foundation; and it seems to be what they’re seeking when choosing plays and deciding on production value.

“We want to produce a great show,” Hughes says. “To me, that is enough. ‘Integrity’ may seem like a bold generalization, but it is what we want to bring to the stage. If we have a niche, it is yet to be discovered, and like Pisces Moon or ScripTease, I believe our audience will be an integral part of that discovery.”

And while the audience may be crucial in discovering what Red & Black Stage becomes, the company itself has been enmeshed in the discovery process.

It all started about 10 years ago when Wellner was studying in England. Originally from Hungary, the doe-eyed actress was awarded a scholarship to study Stoppard’s plays.

“I read everything he ever wrote,” she says of her theatrical idol.

During her stay in the U.K., a friend introduced her to the playwright at a reception. “It was fascinating,” Wellner says, reminiscing about that memorable day. “He was very quiet and very graceful, subdued. He seemed like someone who doesn’t say more than he really needs to say. I remember him in his long, dark trench coat, being very much a writer.”

Years later, Wellner and Hughes would go on to perform Stoppard’s work in their acting class. Like a tumbleweed, Red & Black Stage began to roll from that point on. Now, in 2007, the story comes full circle, as Wellner and Hughes perform that same scene, but in a full-length play.

“We wanted to pick a play that is very reputable,” Hughes says of the company’s debut performance.

And how about that name? Red & Black Stage?

“It’s not that cryptic,” Hughes says. “We went and bought some office supply notebooks. One was red and one was black. We each kept our notes in those notebooks, and that’s where [the name] came from.”

The name, the groundwork for the company, the artistic partnership, it’s all been simple, really—just like Wellner and Hughes’ philosophy on theater.

“We’re obsessed with finding the truth in theater and in real life,” Wellner says. “I think that’s a main motivation—theater that is accessible. When people talk, you listen and it makes sense. It’s not pretentious. It tells the plain truth.”

“The Real Thing,” written by Tom Stoppard is directed by Daniel D. Hughes and produced by Red & Black Stage. It will play from Feb. 23 to March 24 at the Actors’ Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Show times are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $17/general, $15/students and seniors. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium or by calling 420-5260. For more info, call 425-7529.
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