A Bard Day's Night

Michael Huftile and Neil Hopkins in Henry V.

Actors who portray Shakespearean villains, heroes or clowns are sometimes tempted to overinflate the dialogue for epic effect or add tiny mannerisms to humanize larger-than-life characters. But neither approach, by itself, does dramatic justice to men and women who are part invention, part human, and whose needs, wants and desires are expressed in language that's both conversational and high-flown.

The challenges of mixing everyday behavior with lyrical speech are brought home in a pair of productions being presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Whether they're leaping over time and space on the battlefields of France or cooking up mythical moments on Prospero's magical island, the actors do their best to bridge each play's fantasy-reality gap -- a goal that a couple of actors manage to achieve. Too often, though, men of eloquent feeling merely sputter and shout, intriguing heroines behave like dizzy beauty queens and the Bard's beloved clowns verbally hack and bludgeon where they should lightly thrust and parry. And while both shows radiate with promise, neither realizes its full potential.

Actor Michael Christian Huftile, who portrays the title character in Henry V, displays more insight and a greater command of technique than he did when playing the princely version of the king in both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV for the CSF last season. The appealing performer strides about the Mary Rippon Theater's outdoor stage with conviction, launching into Henry's famous speeches with admirable gusto. He also proves a warrior capable of modest introspection, constantly checking his fierce impulse to lead with a measure of ingratiating self-doubt. And Huftile's ability to toss off humorous comments and observations serves him well in the final wooing scene with his French bride-to-be.

However, Huftile frequently plays Henry more like a thug with a chip on his shoulder than a leader of tremendous, if occasionally strained, vision. When Henry is presented with the French king's insulting gift of tennis balls, for example, Huftile grits his teeth and grumbles, "We hope to make the sender blush at it." Rather than show us a man who flexes his muscles before embarking on a carefully conceived show of force, Huftile reveals a petulant boy-king bent on teaching his rival a schoolyard-style lesson. Later, when Huftile leads his soldiers into battle, he shouts the thrilling, "Once more unto the breach" speech as if he were more angry with his compatriots than desperately in need of their valor.

Part of the problem is that director James M. Symons emphasizes the play's down-to-earth aspects at the expense of its glorious heroics. Throughout, it seems as though Symons wants to demonstrate what a regular, ordinary guy Henry is instead of showing us someone who, flawed though he might be, rises head and shoulders above the crowd to a place of foreordained honor. John F. Kennedy, the man who's most often cited as Henry's contemporary equivalent, didn't always behave like the saint that some have made him out to be. But any actor who portrays JFK must embody the qualities that separate him from the rest of the human race as well as those that knock him down a peg or two. Likewise with England's most lionized monarch.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens here. Henry's gripping Saint Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") is broken up with an overabundance of cloying handshakes and generalized emoting. Symons also di-rects Huftile to speak whole passages of his great campfire monologue ("Upon the King!") to his cloak instead of addressing his concerns directly to the audience, as almost always should occur with Shakespeare's monologues.

Muttering at length to a cloak makes the great Plantagenet -- who speaks in magnificently clear verse -- sound a bit daft instead of prone to cosmic wonder on the eve of the battle of his life. And his reaction to the murder of a young stable boy -- which spurs Henry to slaughter the French in an act of all-out vengeance -- is undercut by the director's decision to depict the boy's demise on stage rather than, as scripted, conveying its horror through Henry's volcanic response. Overall, there's not much sense of the enormity of Henry's victory (much less its absolute necessity), nor of the magnitude of loss that lies on the other side of the blood-soaked battlefield.

That said, Symons and company infuse the near-three-hour proceedings with a hearty appreciation for the colorful types who linger on the drama's perimeter. John Tessmer brings a wealth of comic sympathy to the role of Pistol, one of Henry's former drinking buddies, as does Timothy Carter, who plays the obliquely communicative French herald, Montjoy. Chan Casey is mostly all accent as the phlegmatic Welshman, Fluellen, but he lends the part a lovable feistiness that's lacking elsewhere. Stalwart character actor Terry Burnsed makes a fine pygmy French king, Eric Lawrence and Matthew C. Dente do a capable job playing several roles on both sides of the action, and Laiona Weaver is a lusty presence as Mistress Quickly. And the many battle scenes convey wartime's random horrors and short-lived victories.

When all is said and done, though, it seems a shame that director Symons couldn't better distinguish between the commonalties that bind monarch and subject and that which is merely commonplace.

In the University Theatre across the quadrangle, director Gavin Cameron-Webb faces a similar sort of challenge -- and gets similarly mixed results -- in his production of The Tempest, a late play in the canon that's generally regarded as Shakespeare's farewell to the theater. Thinly veiled valedictory or no, Cameron-Webb exploits the play's theatricality and rich imagery to maximum effect, starting with a storm scene that begins when the eccentric Prospero strikes a toy ship with his bejeweled staff. Too bad the powerful wizard doesn't possess the same sort of control over the indoor theater's sound system: For the next several minutes, actors thrash about and speak as loudly as possible while valiantly trying to avoid being drowned out by a pre-recorded din of thunder and ocean waves. Sadly, there aren't any survivors in that regard.

Once things quiet down, we're introduced to the exotic creatures that people the island ruled by Prospero, the wrongfully deposed (and exiled) Duke of Milan. Of these, the most interesting and fully developed portrayal belongs to Erin Moon, who plays Ariel, a spirit figure who's able to (de)materialize at will. The lithe actress moves about the stage with ease and grace, even when she's spiraling down or climbing up a ten-foot pole. She also integrates voice, movement and song into her portrait with impressive artistry: No gesture seems superfluous, yet all seem spontaneous and revelatory, especially when Prospero, her master, brands Ariel a liar and Moon recoils as if struck at the core of her being. Combined with her firm command of the dialogue, Moon's ability to play the flute and croon a few bars makes her portrayal all the more enjoyable to behold.

Among Moon's colleagues, only Joaquin Torres as the long-lost Sebastian and Jon Dolton as the conniving Antonio manage to render decently realized portraits. Prospero's daughter, Miranda, comes across more as brain-damaged than unschooled; the clownish pair of Trinculo and Stephano shriek and stumble their way through nearly every scene to the point that nothing they say, do or suggest is worth the audience's attention; and the actor who plays Gonzalo isn't able to project his lines past the fifth row of a relatively small auditorium. Making matters worse, guest artist Roger Forbes plays Prospero with a vocal vigor that, despite his best efforts, obliterates meaning and quickly grows tiresome.

In his first scene, for instance, Prospero recounts past events for exposition's sake, an unenviable task that any actor would do well to make as interesting -- and expeditious -- as possible. But Forbes needlessly drags out the informative episode by inserting pregnant pauses between phrases. He also yells at his daughter for not listening to his umpteenth-told tale when gentle reproving would nicely foreshadow Prospero's ability to later choose forgiveness over revenge. Given that Forbes bellows and rants for much of the evening, however, Prospero's late-play conversion seems more of a relief to one's senses than a moving, purposeful sea change. Indeed, Prospero should give the impression of being one who's fully entitled to his revenge, but who chooses not to take it out on his deserving enemies. As played here, though, it seems a blessing that the insufferable codger finally quits talking. And although his love of Shakespeare's language clearly shows, Forbes breaks up Prospero's famous speeches with still more unnecessary pauses and, in a rare moment of quiet, fails to adequately project a couple of important lines.

The 140-minute even-ing is buoyed by a marvelously evocative production design. Scenic and costume designer Carolyn L. Ross provides a beautifully simple setting that utilizes a giant sail as a kind of fantastical act curtain: Each time another group of characters "arrives" on the island, the sail rises at the rear of the stage to herald their entry. The fabric is frequently graced by patterns and designs that are the brainchild of lighting designer Richard M. Devin, who once again demonstrates his first-rate ability to sculpt and illuminate the stage with a painter's flair and a poet's sensitivity. In the kindest way possible, one wishes that Devin, who also serves as the festival's artistic director, will in the future channel his enormous creativity into finding ways to shore up the CSF's inadequate verse-speaking skills.

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