July 20, 2000 News » Cover Story

Brave New Bard 

All the West's a stage

Illyria is calling. Illyria calls its heroes, its travelers, and its spectators to the pink sandy beach of the heart, where music is the food of love.

It's not unusual to find Shakespearean characters embarking on five-act journeys of one kind or another, whether the physical odysseys of King Lear, the magical journeys of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the introspective soul-searching of Hamlet, or the all-encompassing adventure of The Tempest. Shakespeare wrote at the dawning of the brave new world, when adventuring into the unknown corners of the globe and the human interior was the province of the heroic.

What better way, then, to capture the spirit of his time than to meet the Bard in the badlands of the American West, one of the last-tamed pockets of terra incognito.

The journey starts in the shadow of Pikes Peak where the TheatreWorks Shakespeare Festival has transformed Austin Bluffs into the mysterious island of Illyria and a pair of castaways drift ashore, neither knowing if his twin has survived the shipwreck.

Heading into the frontier, we'll stop in Boulder where the Colorado Shakespeare Festival offers an original staging of Twelfth Night along with productions of Julius Caesar, Henry V and The Tempest.

Finally, we'll descend into the desert to visit the Utah Shakespearean Festival where productions of The War of the Roses (Henry VI Parts I, II, and III), The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merchant of Venice are augmented by "the Shakespeare of other lands," featuring productions of The Cherry Orchard, Noises Off and Peter Pan.

TheatreWorks Shakespeare Festival, Colorado Springs

When Shakespeare is performed successfully, it is often to the surprise of unsuspecting audiences who sometimes approach the Bard with a sense of trepidation and intimidation. We all remember those nonsensical memorization passages from Julius Caesar in high school English. The challenge to make the artist of the millennium accessible 400 years after he wrote throws production companies into conniptions, often looking for interpretative gimmicks -- recreating Oberon and Titania's fairy world in the greaser era of the '50s, turning the shrewish Kate into a saloon girl in a spaghetti Western, or turning his most controversial and politically difficult play into a WWII concentration camp, reinventing The Merchant of Auschwitz.

In a theatrical world that is continually trying to upstage itself, TheatreWorks at UCCS opens their 25th season with a novel approach to their production of Twelfth Night: respect the audience. Give them a little credit for understanding the English language without the necessitiy of slapstick, pantomime, and over-the-top acting to emphasize the meaning in our native tongue.

TheatreWorks has rearranged the "festive" nature of their annual Shakepeare Festival, cutting back from two productions to one, but taking the whole show on the road for a weekend of performances in Grand Junction at the end of their local run. Their Twelfth Night is an essentially straightforward production, coloring the play with some tropical costuming and letting a south-of-the-border -- way south -- live music score of guitar, pipes, and percusssion accentuate the straw hats, sandals and serapes that cloak the cast members.

You can take your pick at interpreting the balmy atmosphere inside their enclosed festival tent as either enhancing the tropical atmosphere on the stage or as accentuating the perception that there is some inherent stuffiness about Shakespeare. With a 7:30 p.m. curtain and a lack of island breezes, the first act is hot. Things cool off after intermission, however, and the simple stage is extremely effective, engaging our imaginations to create the seacoast and all the trappings of Illyria.

With both TheatreWorks and Boulder's Colorado Shakespeare Festival staging Twelfth Night this summer, it's easy to use the twin productions as a barometer of the distinctions between the companies. The set itself gives audience members their first impression, and both companies have chosen to incorporate Cupid's arrow piercing a heart as central components on stage. CSF, which plays in a 1,000-seat theater at least six nights a week and is conscious of drawing in a mass market, designed their stage to resemble an early 20th-century Hollywood studio, with Illyria printed on the side of a great stone gate and the heart and arrow depicted on the other wall.

TheatreWorks has a bigger heart, the entire stage is the heart, and the arrow must be fifteen-feet long, piercing down onto the stage from the upper levels of the tent. It is nevertheless a more subtle heart, easily lost in the traffic of the stage while CSF's graffiti is ever-obvious.

Subtlety rules the day in Colorado Springs, and director Murray Ross patiently lets his cast languish on the lyrical lines of this musical script. The play opens with Jerome Davis taking the stage as Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. Davis sets the tone for the island life, dreamily reflecting on the nature of unrequited love. It's a better part than Davis last played, when he took on the role of God in The Mystery Plays last spring. Orsino is a more flawed, vulnerable, and, well, human role, and Davis takes an enormous leap to endear the audience to a character who sometimes comes off as an obsessive stalker. Instead, Davis gives Orsino the class the character was born to, making him smooth, suave, a lady-killer only slightly out of step in his pursuit of the countess Olivia.

While this interpretative turn is effective in softening the Duke, similar diversions among the play's other characters have the effect of lightening the comic intensity of what should be a very funny play. David Wild's Feste, the fool, is as contemplative and meditative as a "corrupter of words" can get, stripping much of the character's antic clowning down to a more cerebral trickster. Similarly, Frank Dwyer's Sir Toby Belch is as sober a souse as has ever trod the boards, turning one of the great theatrical drunks into a poster child for designated drivers.

Much of the play's comedy is left in the capable hands of Steve Wallace as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tom Paradise as Malvolio. Wallace is hesitant at times, but never out of character with the socially ambitious Aguecheek, stumbling over manners and lamenting his diminishing wit. His loud costume, with Leprechaun-lime-green shoelaces and pantcuffs, balance his understated character, and his expressive face can communicate the pangs of his heart in the midst of one comical rejection and failure after another.

Paradise has the inverse challenge of breaking out of his sober trappings to emerge as a cartoonish caricature of his staid old steward, brightening the stage with the idea of yellow stockings, even when they can't clearly be seen beneath his long robe. Paradise aptly journeys with his character into a state of increasingly unbridled foolishness, knowing how to work a scene right up to the final gesture in the midst of an exit.

It isn't unusual for Shakespeare productions to include a wide range of performers, running the gamut from the hired-gun professionals in the most demanding roles to the emerging Thespians taking on some of the bite-sized parts. Twelfth Night captures this varied approach to casting, and although the company as a whole appears seasoned and capable, there are some notable gaps among the key roles. Perhaps the most impressive is Dawn Stern, the class of the cast in the role of Olivia, elevating the part to leading lady status. Conversely, Shandra Noll's reach in the role of Viola slightly exceeds her grasp, a shortcoming only made evident because she so frequently plays in the shadow of Stern and Davis.

While too many comic productions of Shakespeare tend toward an overboard approach to camping up the comedy with bawdy gestures and ludicrous costumes, this is one production where the excess of restraint may prevent some of the humor and revelry of the play from reaching the audience. It's a much funnier play than the cast seems to think, but the able ensemble shows signs of continuing to rise to the spirit of the play as they become more comfortable gauging the response of their audiences.

TheatreWorks offers a solid Shakespearean evening, held back only by an abundance of good taste in a comedy calling for a dash more of frivolity.

Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Boulder

Once-idyllic Boulder may be the festival site offering the best chance for theatergoers to wander through stray police fire while making their way from the parking lot to the theater. For three years in a row, I've encountered some kind of police activity on the Hill across the street from the CU campus. This year featured a dozen officers aiming pistols and rifles at a local apartment building with apparently no regard for the 50 or so people gathering behind the police -- in the line of fire -- to watch the unfolding sting on what turned out to be a bogus complaint about a weapons stash.

For the more traditional green show, CSF offers picnic dinners and pre-show activities ranging from a tour of the "Shakespearean Gardens" to an Elizabethan chamber music concert or an elementary school-aged Wild West production of As You Like It. CSF also features backstage tours, Sunday Series discussions about the plays and other topics, and a Working Stages series of three original plays -- workshop productions by the festival actors following a one- or two-week residency.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has developed a reputation for erring too far in the opposite direction of TheatreWorks, rarely passing up the opportunity for a cheap laugh and consistently playing down to their audiences, a pattern justified by consistent box office sales in their large outdoor theater tucked up against Boulder's Flat Irons.

The routine at CSF is to reconceive the play in settings that presumably help bring the plays alive for their audiences. In addition to their Hollywood heyday rendition of Twelfth Night, their season offers a blending of a contemporary dress Julius Caesar with cloaks and wraps that evoke the Roman-era of 2000 years past while highlighting the personal politics of contemporary culture.

Aside from the challenge of appealing to a large audience from June through August, CSF has a few built-in challenges in the Mary Rippon Theater. The theater is set in the large stone courtyard of an academic building, and the open-air courtyard is probably twice as wide as the stage, necessitating a flurry of sprinting entrances from the wings some 40 or 50 yards offstage. These wings are filled with towering spruce and fir trees, which lend the theater its distinctive mountain atmosphere while simultaneously serving as acoustical sponges, absorbing the actors' voices and making projection a significant challenge. It's no wonder that there is a tendency to overplay lines and staging on this stage. It takes a certain level of overplaying simply to be heard.

Nevertheless, CSF's newfound maturity in their 43rd season has enabled their creative teams to approach comedies without resorting to a search for the least common denominator. Their Twelfth Night has an ominous look to it with the Hollywood set, complete with silver palm trees and a cutout moon hanging in the background, but director Mark Harrison keeps his cast in check.

CSF has a tendency to let props, sets and costumes tell the stories, while TheatreWorks relies instead on its actors. A good example of a contemporary flourish that is neither included nor necessarily excluded from Shakespeare's text is CSF's depiction of the shipwreck that strands Viola and her brother Sebastion on Illyria. The wordless scene begins with a puppet boat sailing along the onstage wall, and develops to a crescendo as a stage-length blue fabric representing the churning sea is brought billowing onto the stage, seizing the ship, clefting it in two, and spitting out brother and sister to separate fates on opposite parts of the stage. The inventive stage work draws applause from the audience, a clever piece of movement with minimal technical requirements but maximum clarification of a plot point often lost in language.

The pride of the CSF roster this season is their traditional production of Henry V, the culmination of a three-year project in producing the Bollingbroke tetralogy (including the previously produced Richard II, and Henry IV Parts I and II) and the midpoint in an effort to complete the history cycle that continues next year with an adaptation of Henry VI Parts I, II, and III and finally Richard III. Henry V is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, picking up on the two-play ascension of Prince Hal to the throne and weaving the tuteledge he received from the boisterous Falstaff into his common-man approach to his role as king and his relationship with his men on the field of battle.

If ever a play called for a minimal, traditional production, it is Henry V, whose prologue accepts the limitations of the stage and charges the audience to "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them/Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth;/For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings." For the most part, this bedecking is left to the audience, but with so many offstage battle scenes, director James M. Symons makes excellent use of both sound and pyrotechnics to enhance the atmosphere.

An enormous part of the appeal of Henry V is its use of "commoners" as major characters, both individually and collectively. Early in the play, the French Dauphin mocks Henry's wild youth, only to discover later that he had underestimated what the king had learned from his barroom escapades. A marvelous sequence on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt uses two politically incorrect scenes of the French royalty's lusty overconfidence as bookends surrounding the solitary Henry as he makes his way through the English camp at night, engaging the foot soldiers in discussion without revealing his identity. His affinity for his countrymen is crucial in their St. Crispin's Day victory when they suffer only 25 deaths while the French, led by the Dauphin's boasting about his horse that "when I bestride him, I soar. The earth sings when he touches it," lost 10,000 souls.

The play is carried by Michael Christian Huftile as Henry, reprising the role he played in both Henry IV plays last summer. The chance to watch the character progress over the course of three plays, with the same actor charting the course, has been a rare pleasure for the CSF faithful. Huftile's Henry is humble and human, heroic with words both in his court and on the battlefield, and humorous in his vulnerability when wooing his future wife, Katherine. Other standouts in the cast include Chip Persons as Nym, Laiona Weaver as Mistress Quickly, and Chan Casey as Fluellen, the proud Welsh officer.

At CSF, each cast acts in two plays, and the Henry V cast doubles in the roles of Julius Caesar. The play is a rhetorical tour de force, featuring an abundance of eloquent speeches from the days when backstabbing politicians took their characterizations literaly. Though Jeremy Stiles Holm has a headstart at stealing the show in the role of Marc Antony, his solid performance lacks spark or fire. His Antony is a wonderful speaker, but he is less magnetic once he steps down from his various public pulpits. John Tessmer and Timothy Carter, on the other hand, provide a fascinating psychological study of the brothers Brutus and Cassius, ill-fated senators/assassins who find the best they can offer their country is to die on their own swords.

Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City

The Western muse rides a fickle wind, and while last summer's local festival with Titus Andronicus and Kiss Me, Kate may have been the envy of theater producers throughout the Rocky Mountains, this summer's gem bed lies in Cedar City, Utah.

At first and last glance, Cedar City is far too small a town to host something as significant as the Utah Shakespearean Festival. It's smaller than Durango. It's a Gunnison-sized town where every third house is for sale and every fourth house is a real estate broker. It is also the home of a Tony Award--winning regional theater company that lives up to its reputation and is well worth the cross-country drive to the far western reaches of the state.

When considering a trip to USF, getting there should certainly be of paramount concern. It's a quick 600 miles from Colorado Springs along the interstates, easily achieved in under 10 hours if you stick to the well-worn route that takes you from Colorado's gargantuan mountain passes to the canyon cliffs of southern Utah. But note thee well: the backroad journey from Canyonlands and Capital Reef to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, alongside everything from Hobgoblin State Park to the Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument, is as beautiful a desert drive as you can navigate without having to lock your hubs. From Green River to Cedar City is three hours on the interstate and at least six on the back roads, but you'll thank yourself every mile along the road less traveled, offering the closest experience to hiking through a desert canyon without actually having to get up off your duff.

People go to Cedar City in the summer for two reasons. To see the parks within a couple hours of town and to see the Shakespearean Festival. As one spectator noted, "It isn't like going to the theater, it's more like moving in."

With a full slate of six plays offered on three different stages, USF complements the productions with morning seminars ranging from literary and production seminars to musical, costume, and acting seminars. There is a nightly Royal Feast, Green Shows, pre-show orientations, and one or two matinees a day, making use of both the Randall L. Jones theater and the "rain theater" used in the event of inclement weather for the outdoor Adams Shakespearean theater. There is also a New Play Series featuring staged readings of four works in progress.

The jewel in the crown of USF is its Adams Shakespearean theater, a near replica of Shakespeare's original Globe theater that the BBC once claimed was the most authentic replica in the world. The 800-seat open-air theater houses exclusively traditional, Elizabethan productions of Shakespeare's works while the indoor Randall L. Jones hosts non-traditional productions as well as work by other artists, including Anton Chekhov, J.M. Barrie, and Michael Frayn this year.

The outdoor theater offers as authentic a Shakespearean production as you can get, although "you never get that sense of 3,000 boisterous noisy people standing in front throwing oranges and talking to the actors," according to Literary Seminar Director Jerry Crawford. "You never get that authentic."

In addition to winning the Tony for outstanding regional theater this year, USF achieved another milestone with their production of The War of the Roses, completing a 39-year effort to produce the entire canon of Shakespeare's plays. The feat has been accomplished by a small number of companies worldwide -- when CSF completed the canon in 1975, they were only the seventh company to ever do so.

The War of the Roses is a whirlwind adaptation of Henry VI Parts I, II, and III. It is extremely fast-paced, paring down a nine-hour trilogy into one three-hour evening spanning 50 years of feuding between the houses of York and Lancaster, battling for succession to the crown in a prolonged civil war. It is a barbarous play, filled with battles replete with blood spurting forth from jugular veins and decapitations of familiar characters. It also features two strong female roles, Joan of Arc and the fiery Margaret, Henry VI's queen.

There are times when the pace is laughably fast, and those who haven't prepared themselves by at least reading a plot synopsis are likely to feel dizzy and disoriented in the opening scenes, but the meaning comes through vividly, and the charge to trust your instinct as well as the cast is well-heeded. Standout performances include Rick Hamilton as Richard Plantagenet, Anthony De Fonte as Duke of Gloucester, Corliss Preston as Margaret, and Michael A. Harding as Richard, soon to be Richard III. Harding in particular makes a fascinating study out of the early years of the mean-spirited crooked-backed Richard, managing to make an enduring impression of his developing character amidst the storming progression of this unstoppable play. The play is less than a third the length of the original material, but the cast manages to make the characters crystal clear and indelibly printed in our consciousness.

The other two Shakespearean productions were also first-rate, though considerably less challenging. Director Elizabeth Huddle deserves praise for letting the cartoonish nature of The Merry Wives of Windsor speak for itself, restraining herself from overdoing Dennis Robertson's scaled-down Falstaff. Ina Marlow, on the other hand, has stirred up controversy with her production of The Merchant of Venice, noted for the insertion of considerable Jewish subtextural detail in the play, along the lines of adding Hebrew songs.

Without a doubt, the most intriguing production at USF this year is The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's innovative comedy that strikes a chord in any person who has ever cared about place.

The indoor theater was in fact designed with Chekhov in mind, and the set is beautifully surreal. What passes as elegantly spare in the first act is gradually transformed to skeletal by the play's end, symbolically reflecting the disintegration of a way of life in a disappearing Russian homeland where life literally takes place. "My little boy drowned here, you know," says Lyuba Ranevsky, the family matriarch. "Without the cherry orchard, life has no meaning for me. And if it must be so, then sell me along with it." There are few theatrical moments as riveting as the sound of a sickening smack of an axe on a cherry tree late in the play.

With a masterful cast and artistic team seamlessly creating a world of memory and surreality, there is little choice but to be boggled by a production whose memory will last a lifetime. As the cast took their curtain calls, I desperately clung to every face, every color, every expression, refusing to release that experience. Like Shakespeare's plays before him, Chekhov's play makes us feel things we can't always understand -- Will and Anton remind us that understanding is not a prerequisite for feeling.

For the most part, Shakespeare was not a writer concerned with a sense of place. His plays are entirely about character, and with notable exceptions like The Tempest, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, place rarely affects character. In that respect, the Bard distinguishes himself as particularly un-American, and most certainly un-Western. What would he have thought had he ever come to the Rocky Mountains, we wonder, or ventured into southern Utah? For an England deprived of the natural grandeur we enjoy in our backyards, there was no choice but to find contentment in the touch of the master's hand on a writer unsurpassed in any language.

But out here, we can have it all.


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