Bard Games

The rising tide of William Shakespeare's popularity reached its high-water mark recently with the hit movie Shakespeare in Love, a delightful tale that reshaped the Bard's image from that of a paunchy though brilliant literary lion to one of a hot-blooded, if bumbling, dramatic poet. As refreshing as it was, however, Shakespeare's latest cinematic triumph hasn't had the desired effect of lifting every boat in the theatrical harbor.

In fact, two of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's current offerings make the world's greatest dramatist seem more like the world's most insufferable bore. In the CSF's versions, the pair of lesser-known works--which call for inventive, streamlined approaches--degenerate into one-note shouting matches in which declaiming drowns out eloquence, posturing obscures thought, and mawkishness suffocates feeling. Making matters worse, both shows run more than three hours each and generate about as much excitement as would a daylong symposium on esoteric Shakespearean studies.

In her program notes for The Merry Wives of Windsor, director Robin McKee explains her reasons for setting the comedy about fidelity and deception in post-gold-rush San Francisco. The families of Master Page (Anthony Marble) and Master Ford (Alexander Ward) are meant to be the equivalent of the Bay area's well-to-do merchant class; Doctor Caius (Mark Light-Orr), Justice Shallow (Joey Wishnia) and a parson, Sir Hugh Evans (Alphonse Keasley), represent the foreigners and opportunists who descended upon San Francisco following the discovery of gold in 1849; and Sir John Falstaff (Randy Colborn) and his pals are supposed to be "penniless forty-niners left without means of passage home."

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As McKee's version unfolds on the stage of the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, though, her Wild West setting doesn't always accommodate Shakespeare's sendup of provincial power plays. After all, the playwright intended these characters to inhabit the small town of Windsor, England, which his audiences would have immediately recognized as a sometime royal retreat and, therefore, a peripheral seat of Elizabethan power. But as performed against a rustic backdrop of packing crates, luggage trunks and ships' rigging (a lovely scenic design by Bruce Bergner), McKee's approach takes on a life independent of the play, causing the novelty of her ill-fitting concept to wear off after the first couple of scenes.

For one thing, it's hard to figure out what the San Francisco "suburb" of Windsor has to do with Falstaff's attempts to worm his way into the tightly knit social structure of an established and exclusive satellite court. Sporting a sheriff's badge, a rotund belly and a hearty delivery that brings to mind the vocal prowess (and corresponding lack of subtlety) of Dan "Hoss" Blocker on Bonanza, Colborn's expansive braggart seems more like an entrenched village blowhard than the opportunistic, bamboozling out-of-towner that he should be. To be sure, Colborn elicits plenty of laughter the first time he tries to "woo" Mistress Page (Tiffany Boeke) and Mistress Ford (Ethelyn Friend). But his repeated attempts to bed the pair of society matrons, along with their successive thwarting of his schemes, fail to convey an outsider's attempts to penetrate the walls of influence by compromising its preachy values. As a result, most of the scenes following the wives' initial rebuff of Falstaff seem inconsequential and tedious, and the labored production's disjointed events never add up to a larger, more humorous whole.

By the time Act One approaches the two-hour mark, it feels as if the actors ought to just go ahead and enact a bygone Western TV show instead of gesticulating their way through the mostly prose thickets of Shakespeare's dialogue. That would take better advantage of the riotous redneck antics of a few cowboys, Nym (Andres Saenz-Hudson), Bardolph (Will Chase) and Pistol (Carson Elrod), who seem as though they'd be more comfortable on a show like F-Troop than in a light and frothy Shakespearean comedy. So do a couple of Chinese coolies who dump a basket full of dirty clothes (and, it turns out, a cowering Falstaff) into the murky harbor while one of the shuffling laundry boys (it's hard to tell whether he's supposed to be Hop Sing or Kwai Chang) executes a crane-like martial arts move that would be the envy of the Karate Kid--and that earns the biggest laugh of the night. When theatergoers are treated to jokes about chitlins and a colorful Chinese dragon procession that's meant to lure Falstaff into yet another misstep, it's clear that despite memorable portrayals by Boeke, Light-Orr and Ward, McKee's compare-and-contrast version has reduced Shakespeare the stud to Willy-nilly the dud.

But it might be better for the Bard to be immortalized as an ineffectual wimp with an odd sense of humor than as a long-winded crybaby. That's what he resembles at the end of director Michael Addison's version of Henry IV, Part Two. Admittedly one of the least engaging of the Wars of the Roses plays, the production, which lasts more than three hours, is marked by an unmitigated flow of bombast that, as performed in the relatively intimate University Indoor Theatre, dulls more than stimulates the senses.

To be sure, the actors' yeoman efforts to evoke patriotic sentiment are admirable, but they don't inject much true-to-life feeling into this story about the wayward Prince Hal (Michael Huftile), his dying father, Henry IV (Joel C. Morello) and the roguish Falstaff (Michael Kevin). As in the CSF's production of Henry IV, Part One (which is also directed by Addison), the characters' major traits are emphasized to the point that the drama's conflicts become simplistic, when the task of making everyday decisions--such as following the most effective leader, choosing the right point of attack and reconciling one's defeats in life--is complicated. Indeed, the sixty or so characters in this richly detailed tapestry shouldn't come off, as many do here, like two-dimensional barbarians who would slaughter each other at the first batting of an eyelash. Nor should they bellow and mug through a conversation for the sake of earning a cheap laugh or two from their toothless sidekicks. That treatment works well enough for a handful of minor characters, many of whom are decently interpreted by the exuberant cast. But most of the major players are courtiers, churchmen and clever hangers-on who, like so many life-sized termites, chew through the byzantine social structure of the Lancastrian court until its proverbial pillars are poised to collapse.

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