Bard Games

But if Cohen's overwrought approach exaggerates the basic conflicts of Measure, director James Symons's foggy version of Richard II flat-lines the opposing forces in Shakespeare's history play. The first installment of a planned eight-play War of the Roses series for the CSF (Shakespeare dramatized the 85 bloody years that followed Richard II's demise by writing Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III), Symons's production is set in a techno-spare environment commendably designed by David Barber for the University Theatre's indoor stage. Clad in mostly traditional Renaissance garb and black leather (a series of attractive costumes by Janice Benning), the actors perform the bulk of the two-and-one-half-hour drama in front of an enormous brushed-metal backdrop of steel plates. It's an innovative choice that stands in sharp relief to the plentiful images of nature that permeate the play (the doomed monarch's own garden is represented here by just two measly potted plants), offering us a chance to examine a theatrical poet-king's ability to function under the harsh glare of a sterile industrial world (splendid lighting by Richard Devin).

However, Symons fails to fully capitalize on his intriguing idea when he directs actor William Westenberg to portray the title character more as a downtrodden Beat poet than as a narcissistic, romantic performer. It's a choice that vitiates the play's essential conflict and renders Richard's eventual capitulation to Henry Bolingbroke (Randy Howk) a foregone conclusion almost at the outset. Such an interpretation runs counter to much of Shakespeare's text. In fact, whether in moments of defeat, conflict, intimacy, joy or contemplation, the scripted Richard maintains the vigorous attitude of a matinee idol who's always on stage--and whose private thoughts are as couched in high language as are his public pronouncements.

For instance, when the deposed king rhymes his final farewell to his adoring wife ("One kiss shall stop our mouths and dumbly part/Thus give I mine, and thus I take thy heart"), the moment is intended to be more ceremonial than personal. Furthermore, Richard is evidently vain enough to keep up the self-dramatization when he's alone in his prison cell, where he creates an invisible audience for himself during a beautifully written aria of some 65 lines of verse. To his credit, Westenberg does his best to pump some lyricism into the dry well of Symons's minimalist approach. But as focused and deliberate as Westenberg's portrayal is, the capable actor too often falls prey to a monotonous and cold-hearted delivery that belies a vibrant (though admittedly ineffectual) man's intent to make a grand spectacle of his life and death. After all, Richard's tragedy isn't that he struggles with a lifelong identity crisis, but that he discovers his weakness for self-deception only when it's too late.

On the brighter side, Howk's athletic bearing and resonant voice lend authority and weight to his well-crafted portrait of Bolingbroke (who becomes King Henry IV when Richard surrenders the crown), and as Richard's Queen, Kaitlin O'Neal locates qualities in her character that permit her to scorn her husband's weakness in one breath while reaffirming their undying love an instant later. Ray Kemble is satisfactory as an equivocating Duke of York, alternately sputtering and cajoling his way through the jungle of insurrection. And despite the fact that Chuck Wilcox invests John of Gaunt's famous paean to English patriotism with more lukewarm sentiment than virtuous defiance, the veteran performer nonetheless delivers a portrait of the lone defender of proud tradition that arouses our empathy.

So ends a somewhat disappointing summer of plays for the CSF, in which directors have chosen interpretations ranging from Shakespeare the omniscient social scientist to Shakespeare the prescient sitcom writer. However, as the CSF's talented company of actors and designers has proved time and again this season, nothing is as interesting as the idea of Shakespeare the quintessential humanist, whose only knowledge of psychology was of the sort that's evidently not in directorial fashion these days.

Measure for Measure and Richard II, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 15 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre and the University Theatre, CU-Boulder campus, 492-0554.

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