The 2009 Colorado Shakespeare Festival season, on the University of Colorado campus at Boulder, presents three Shakespeare productions of which two—both performed at the venerable outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre—are strong and respectable outings.
Along with many other arts organizations, CSF has been affected by the recessive economy. Visuals reflect some belt-tightening, such as somewhat simplified set designs in comparison to last season that are changed over less often, although with no real loss in effectiveness to the eye. Costuming is less elaborate, but the conceptual choices for the Shakespeare plays—along with an adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—requires less elaborate designs than in past seasons. The performance calendar is also trimmed by a few nights.
Festival Producing Artistic Director Philip C. Sneed’s Hamlet opened the season. Perhaps cut a bit too heavily to bring it in at under three hours, the production dispenses with Fortinbras as well as Cornelius, Voltemand and Reynaldo, pretty much eliminating any larger political context (and ending the play with Horatio’s “flights of angels.”) In keeping with Sneed’s concept of “a kingdom in transition,” Andrea Bechert’s set depicts an Elsinore seemingly under renovation, and Clare Henkel’s costumes are a postmodern hodgepodge in an apparent effort at timelessness.
Stephen Weitz’s performance in the title role is strong, very sensitive to the language values and credible in the thoughtfulness that prevents Hamlet from taking precipitate action. The “antic disposition” aspect of his assumed madness could perhaps profit from a bit more black humor and a sense of manipulation of those about him. Weitz is strongly supported by intelligent performances from the Polonius family (Sam Sandoe as Polonius, Mat Hostetler as Laertes and Jamie Ann Romero as Ophelia), though the early picture of them as a loving and harmonious family seems contradicted by Polonius’ later treatment of his daughter. Tammy Meneghini’s Gertrude is adequate without being truly memorable, and Dennis Elkins as Claudius is less effective, seeming determined to present a King more conflicted and tortured than the title character.
An ensemble approach to the beginning and ending, with the entire cast on stage—the living and the dead together in the play’s final moments—increases our consciousness that we are watching a performance, but robs the first appearance of the Ghost (Gary Alan Wright) of some of its sense of horror and uncanniness. Wright is more persuasive as a relaxed, laconic Gravedigger; Karyn Casl and Matt Mueller provide cogent support as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The festival’s second outdoor production, Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Lynne Collins, is quite enjoyable largely because of the fine work by Geoffrey Kent as Benedick and Karen Slack as Beatrice. Andrea Bechert designed an attractive patio set, though the transplanting of the action from Messina to Barcelona, justified in a director’s note by proximity to the Spanish Civil War, adds little to the interpretation. Cutting is moderate, generally preserving the structure and emphasis of the original.
Beatrice and Benedick’s “merry war” is the chief strength of the production, with both Kent and Slack clear in intention, working well with the text, and maintaining a strong sense of their attraction to each other. Sam Gregory as Leonato and Steven Patterson as Don Pedro anchor the supporting cast with strong, centered performances, while newcomer Ben Bonenfant gives a good account of callow Claudio. Dogberry is played by Chip Persons, a good comic actor, but the director’s choice to frame the character as a comic-opera Spaniard ignores much of what gives the character his texture, making Persons overly reliant on funny pronunciations and shtick for his comedy. Michael Kane, is amusing as Verges, but he fails to produce much menace as Don John, rendering the play’s darker tones less than altogether convincing.
Two Gentlemen of Verona plays indoors at the smaller University Theatre space, and it is the least effective. Perhaps seduced by the success of the pastiche The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) brought back this summer following a few very popular performances at the end of the 2008 season, director Tom Markus chooses to create an elaborate frame involving a pompous English stage director (Gary Wright) who presides over a run-through of the play in rehearsal clothes, interrupted by fights with the actors over interpretation, off-color jokes, limericks, gags and an extended jape involving the hokey-pokey.
Amid all this tomfoolery one can catch glimpses of a potentially serious reading of the play with Matt Mueller (Proteus), Mat Hostetler (Valentine), Jamie Ann Romero (Julia) and Alexandra C. Lewis (Silvia) striving to lend some weight and sincerity to their characters, and some deft comic work from Timothy Orr as Speed and Benaiah Anderson as Thurio when the concept doesn’t call on them for extraneous and self-referential high jinks.
Most of the laughs from the audience at the performance I saw proceeded from the superfluous material and its jarring anachronisms rather than from the text of the play. There is even an invocation of Hamlet’s advice to the players from across the way, “And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,” --though both in Hamlet and in Two Gents, the subsequent lines are omitted:
“…for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider'd. That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”
Good advice, if taken—but maybe that would cut too close to the bone.