Colorado Shakespeare Festival

By Dave Kopel on July 29, 2005. More theater reviews by Kopel.

Colorado is not only abundant in the natural beauty of high mountains, it has plenty of high culture as well. A case in point in the University of Colorado at Boulder's annual Colorado Shakespeare Festival, which runs through August 13. If you're in or passing through Colorado, you should certainly take in a performance.

I've been attending CSF performances for about a decade; this year's top-seller, Twelfth Night, ranks at the very top. There are a lot of CSF productions that fall in the B+/A- range, a few that are hideous (Cymbeline a couple years ago), and some that are truly superb. This year's Twelfth Night hits the peak.

These days, very few directors stage Shakespeare in the period or costume which Shakespeare originally intended. The CSF, for example, has set the Trojan War's Trolius & Cressida in the American Civil War, put The Taming of the Shrew at a 1950s drive-in, and turned Richard III into futuristic techno-tragedy.

Twelfth Night is originally set in Illyria, and details the adventures of a brother and sister who are separated for years after being shipwrecked off the coast. The CSF production moves them to a Caribbean island in the 1930s, surrounded by calypso music. CSF plays are staged in the outdoor Mary Rippon Theater, under the beautiful Colorado summer sky; the Calypso plus Colorado setting accentuates the script's sense of placeless fantasy.

The cast, including some members of Actors' Equity, is outstanding, and uniformly strong. Sarah Dandridge is particularly charming as Viola--the sister who disguises herself as a male servant of the Count of Illyria, falls in love with the Count, yet must carry the Count's love messages to the Countess Olivia--who in turn falls in love with Viola, thinking her to be a man.

The play is filled with are many other issues of mistaken identity and misplaced love, all of which turns out right in the end. Twelfth Night shows off Shakespeare's comic powers at their finest, and the excellent CSF cast full exploits the script's multi-layered verse.

The only real weakness of the production is one which is recurring problem for CSF: the tendency to push Shakespeare's robustly bawdy scripts far over the edge of vulgarity. For example, Olivia's pompous servant Malvolio is tricked into believing that Olivia has written him a love letter with the line "some have greatness thrust upon them." When Malvolio declares his love to the astonished Olivia, as he repeats the "thrust upon them" line, he thrusts his crotch at her face. Please. There's still supposed to be a difference between Shakespeare and Porky's.

Also playing in repertory this summer at the CSF are Othello and The Winter's Tale. I haven't seen the former, but the latter features a good cast with fine staging. The original script is set in Sicily and Bohemia. The CSF costumes the characters like a medieval fairy tale.

Aimee Phelan-Deconinck, who stars as an excellent Olivia in Twelfth Night, appears here as the Queen Hermione, who is falsely accused of adultery. She's very good in Winter's Tale too, although the script gives her less to work with.

The big weakness is Shakespeare's script itself. The first three acts show how Sicily's King Leontes destroys his family and his kingdom by stubbornly convincing himself that his Queen has been carrying on a affair with his brother, the King of Bohemia. False suspicion of adultery is a powerful motivator in Othello, because the audience can see how Othello's mind is slowly twisted by Iago. In contrast, King Leontes just comes across as a willful jerk, with almost no explicable motivation for his self-destructive jealousy.

After intermission, acts IV and V take up the story sixteen years later. Various improbable events combine to bring Leontes' damaged family back to reconciliation. But it's much harder for the audience to care, because the script is so flat.

If you're a Shakespeare completist, the CSF version of The Winter's Tale is worth your while; it's a strong production of a weak play.

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