Bard Copy

William Shakespeare was, above all else, a practical man. The sheer majesty of his verse notwithstanding, the Bard of Avon became the world's greatest playwright because he told his versions of borrowed (some would say stolen) stories better than anyone else. Which is why those who would improve upon Shakespeare's plays should at least try to tell the stories better than he did. It's a challenge that has attracted everyone from composer Giuseppe Verdi to Broadway tunesmith Cole Porter to actor and director Kenneth Branagh, all of whom have used Shakespeare's immortal words as foundations for their own artistic statements.

And then there's English playwright Bob Carlton, who has pushed the idea of adapting Shakespeare to its outer limits in his campy musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet. Carlton's show is a takeoff on the 1956 sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet, a futuristic Walter Pidgeon-Leslie Nielsen classic loosely based on The Tempest. Complicating matters further, Carlton's version features a cavalcade of vintage rock-and-roll hits that divert our attention from the twice-purloined, thrice-convoluted storyline--and that's not such a bad idea. After all, anyone who remembers his first visit to The Rocky Horror Picture Show should realize that following the storyline is sometimes secondary to participating in the event itself. Indeed, a current production of Carlton's show in Cape Town, South Africa, is said to be rife with audience participation, including vodka-swilling spectators who shout lines of dialogue along with cast members in a drunken twist on the Rocky Horror tradition.

Instead of relying on the unpredictable effects of alcohol to fuel audience members' enthusiasm, though, a new Actors Ensemble production of Forbidden Planet in Boulder relies on a first-rate band and a series of amusing special effects to propel the show. And though director Lynn Nichols and his actors sometimes fall short of their goal of boldly going where no local theater company has ever gone before (this regional premiere at the Guild Theater in Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts has been eighteen months in the planning), their efforts nonetheless make for a vigorously entertaining evening.

In fact, if the cast can overcome its occasional tendency to lapse into group comas, this production has the potential to become a local cult classic in the tradition of Carlton's original London production. That memorable effort nosed out Miss Saigon to win Britain's Olivier Award for best musical in 1990, proving that no matter how politically affecting Miss Saigon might be to mainstream audiences, a mere helicopter is no match for rock music and mid-calf Naugahyde boots.

As might be expected, the Boulder production actually begins at the box office, where patrons encounter the benign smiles of two attendants dressed in a strangely tasteful combination of Elizabethan clothing and Star Trek-inspired garb. Directed to the theater's entrance (thankfully, it's not labeled "air-lock" or "transporter room"), audience members are met by a costumed "crew member," a performer who pleasantly guides them to their seats and then departs with the words "Enjoy your flight." After everyone is seated, the actors assume their launch positions on a two-tiered stage that's a combination of bandstand and spacecraft, standing at attention while two video monitors display the talking head of the Newscaster (Ray Kemble). Boasting a resonant voice patterned after the declaiming singsong of a Fifties Laurence Olivier, the Newscaster welcomes us aboard Scientific Survey Number Nine and quickly informs us that our destination this evening is the famously off-limits asteroid D'Illyria (a comic corruption of Illyria, the setting for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, itself the subject of a short-lived 1968 Broadway musical set in a discotheque).

Realizing that audience members not attuned to the bizarre quirks of science fiction might at this point begin to plot their exit from the theater, Nichols and crew quickly shift their show into high gear. Drummer Pete Roos begins the familiar intro to "Wipe Out," and the performers dance a crossover step to the pulsating surf tune. To the accompaniment of flashing lights and eerie sound effects, the ship simulates liftoff and proceeds to the planet inhabited by Prospero (Tom Joyner) and his daughter Miranda (Carrie Symons). After a video clip introduces us to Prospero (who croons to us, "Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood"), we discover that the ship's Science Officer (Dawn Beck) is in reality Prospero's ex-wife, Gloria.

In a flurry of dialogue that brings to mind the stellar performing talents of William Shatner (who was a classically trained actor before devolving into his role as Captain Kirk), Captain Tempest (Greg Ungar) and his cohorts toss around Shakespearean lines as if reading from a collection of the Bard's best-loved quotes. As an added attraction, a card with a complete list of Shakespeare's plays is included in the program, and patrons are encouraged to check off as many as they are able to recognize throughout the course of the evening. In addition to setting the show's cut-and-paste tone, this brief collection of Bard-bites acquaints us with the Bosun (Wade Livingston), the ship's mess officer, Cookie (John Saunders), and the craft's Navigation Officer (band leader and keyboard player Larry Morrison). And without further ado, the cast launches into a spirited rendition of "Great Balls of Fire."

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