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A textbook double play 

With Hamlet and Antonio's Revenge, Theatreworks offers a once-in-a-lifetime Elizabethan experience

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Murray Ross, artistic director of Theatreworks, arrives mid-morning to the stage for a long day of rehearsals. His disheveled appearance, slightly resembling that of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, may signify one of two things: burnout, or an extreme surge of creativity.

Ross' current work in progress not a time machine, but a trek back to the 1600s suggests the latter.

The Theatreworks co-founder is currently directing William Shakespeare's Hamlet, along with John Marston's Antonio's Revenge, to be seen in back-to-back professional performances.

"It's been mostly insane," Ross says, laughing. "But also insanely fun."

And if it's true that "there is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so," then it must also be true when Ross states his biggest challenge as dealing with the "best play ever written."

"It is always evolving," says Ross. "You're in mid-rehearsal, and you think maybe you've found a rich vein or you're going in the right direction, and sometimes you find that was a dead-end and you have to stop yourself and go someplace else. And sometimes, you find all of the sudden you break through and you enter into a world of terrific riches and fabulousness."

Seeds of time

Hamlet, clearly the more familiar of the two plays, is strikingly similar to Antonio's Revenge. For one thing, as Ross says, "They're both too bad to be true."

Both of the plays begin with fathers who are secretly murdered. Both have avenging sons, namely Hamlet and Antonio, to whom the ghost of their father appears. In both cases, the villain of the play courts the mother, and the hero has a girlfriend who dies.

Yet "they are also incredibly different," Ross reminds us. "I mean, you would never mistake Antonio's Revenge for Hamlet, even though they're telling the same story. Hamlet is like going around the world, and Antonio is like going to another planet."

Ross explains that in this dichotomy, there's a hint of what Theatreworks, now entering its 33rd year, is trying to bring to UCCS and the larger community.

"Theatreworks has two primary directions," he says. "One is to really take on and explore what we think are the best plays ever written. And at the same time, I think we also want to reinvent the old. We want to be very much a theater of discovering, of exploration, of taking chances and not just producing upholstered classics."

At least one renowned Shakespeare expert is impressed with how Ross is pursuing those ends.

"I think it's a great idea [to run them together], because it puts the plays into a contemporary context, rather than just classics out of a textbook," says Stephen Orgel, Stanford professor and author of three Shakespeare books since 1996. "It gives us a sense of the plays responding to each other, and that it's a very lively and active theater scene."

Orgel recalls a successful, similar double-bill at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2003. Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew was shown alongside the lesser-known sequel, The Tamer Tamed, by John Fletcher.

But the relationship between Hamlet and Antonio's Revenge is more fuzzy than that of original and sequel. Antonio's Revenge seems a satirical imitation of Hamlet, according to Orgel: "It's generally assumed the two plays are similar because Marston saw what a success Hamlet was, so he wrote a Hamlet-like play."

But, as Ross notes, "They may have come at exactly the same time, and both patterned after a lost Hamlet play that had been written earlier."

He, along with his colleagues, believes this to be the first professional production of Antonio's Revenge in 400 years, although they can't be absolutely sure.

The teeming autumn

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This is the third time Ross has directed Hamlet. One performance in 2005 was at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., with Khris Lewin cast as Hamlet. At Theatreworks this season, Lewin plays both Hamlet and Antonio.

"I thought Hamlet was going to be a piece of cake because we've done it before," says Lewin, a New York actor who trained at Duke University and Denver's National Theatre Conservatory. "But what Murray and I found, to our surprise and delight, is it's a completely different ballgame."

Ross describes Antonio's Revenge as "Hamlet's twisted little sister," or an "Elizabethan cartoon."

Comparing the parody to Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, he says it displays "an outrageous spectacle of violence combined with irony and humor."

Award-winning professional actors from around the nation will play parallel roles in both productions.

"Hamlet is all about, "Should I do this?' and the great human struggle, whereas Antonio is a prince, but he's also all about action and bloodthirsty revenge, like cutting people's tongues out," Lewin says.

While Theatreworks is starting the season with a bang, Ross doesn't intend to discredit the rest of the schedule.

Next up is a new adaptation of Zorro.

"It's especially commissioned by a Latino playwright from L.A.," he says. "Also, we'll have a Latino director. I'm very excited that it will begin to address the Hispanic community, which I think has been theatrically ignored for the most part in Colorado Springs."

Another project is the Colorado premiere of Doubt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about religious sexual abuse in schools.

Two plays about the Middle East, Dal Al-Harb and 9 Parts of Desire, will be done in the spring.

But first things first.

"In doing this Antonio-Hamlet double bill, I think we're doing something completely unique in the nation," Ross says. "And I think it's genuinely unprecedented."

scene@csindy.com Antonio's Revenge

The Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive

Aug. 16 through Sept. 1; Aug. 16, 18, 22, 25, 30 and Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 19, 4 p.m.

Tickets: $12-$22 reserved seating; limited general admission, free; visit theatreworkscs.org or call 262-3232 for more. No children under 5.

Hamlet

The Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Cragwood Drive

Aug. 9 through Sept. 2; Aug. 9-11, 17, 23-24, 29, 31, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, Aug. 18, 25 and Sept. 1, 2 p.m.; Sundays, Aug. 12, 26 and Sept. 2, 4 p.m.

Tickets: $12-$22 reserved seating; limited general admission, free; visit theatreworkscs.org or call 262-3232 for more. No children under 5.

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