A corporate sponsor's flattering comments and a University of Colorado official's town-and-gown speechifying delayed the start of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's opening show by nearly 25 minutes. Shortly after the Boulder bureaucrats finished droning, however, audience members who had paid upwards of $40 apiece to see a professional-caliber production of Twelfth Night discovered that, except for a couple of amusing scenes, director Mark Harrison's pre-WWII-era version wasn't much more entertaining than the earlier propaganda.
Those lucky enough to avoid the opening-night hemming and hawing aren't likely to fare any better with an announcement-free performance of the Bard's comedy, either. The performers' enthusiasm and charisma notwithstanding, their verse-speaking -- as basic a skill for classical actors as scales and arpeggios are for musicians -- proves considerably subpar. Unwarranted pauses and choppy delivery disturb the dialogue's flow and dilute its meaning. Purple passages and set speeches, which need no more dressing up than, say, the sublime arias in Mozart's operas, are all but destroyed by excess movement and generalized declaiming. (Viola's "willow cabin" speech, for instance, becomes a rapturously intoned, wildly danced piece that traverses the far reaches of the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre's expansive forestage.)
Moreover, the show's pace is soporific: Cue pickup is nonexistent or overly anticipated, even though the length and placement of pauses can be easily determined by scanning Shakespeare's text for missing or extra beats. And the music composed for the play's many songs -- which feature some of the most poignant lyrics the playwright ever set down for singing -- hardly reflects the rich improvisatory invention of an era when swing was king.
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, CU-Boulder
Through August 19
Most damaging of all, though, Harrison's overall "concept" never takes hold. He's set Shakespeare's fantastical story in a mythical locale that, according to the director's program notes, has been inspired by vintage images from Hollywood's golden years but isn't supposed to actually be Hollywood. The setting consists of a few bare platforms, a pair of curving walls and some iron gates that look like the entrance to a movie mogul's mansion. There's also a remote, silver-plated palm tree that looms over the set without ever figuring prominently in the action, and a scaffold with a klieg light that's randomly trained on the proceedings by this or that actor.
But save for the role of Malvolio (who's played as a hopelessly out-of-place, veddy British sort), none of the characters in Harrison's show-business world takes on a familiar identity that corresponds with -- and therefore casts new light on -- the distinctive types who inhabit Shakespeare's original. As a result, the director's choice of time period proves more confusing than illuminating, and his commentary about a "media-driven society" shaping our collective sense of self fails to resonate.
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In fact, most of the portrayals tend to emphasize each character's obvious traits at the expense of their underlying, more humanizing ones. For example, the central role of Viola, who washes up on Illyria's shores following a cleverly staged shipwreck, comes off as that of an ordinary girl ambling through a not-so-strange, though moderately challenging world. But while Sara Surrey's performance radiates well enough on the surface, she fails to plumb the depths of a woman who's been separated from her beloved brother, stripped of her identity, forced to adopt a new, ill-fitting persona, consumed by a love for her boss that she dares not acknowledge yet cannot suppress, and pursued by a vain drama queen smitten by her manly disguise. Unfortunately, there's not much chemistry -- either romantic or comic -- between Viola and Orsino, the man she loves, or Olivia, the woman whose advances she's (temporarily) forced to abide. Likewise, there's not much dimension or texture to be found in the roles of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek or Feste.
On the brighter side, actors Jon Dolton and Jamie P. Moss intrigue as the delightfully mismatched Antonio and Sebastian, Erin Moon is a spunky presence as the lusty maid, Maria, and guest artist Roger Forbes earns a few well-deserved laughs with his blustery rendering of the priggish steward Malvolio. Easily the most fully realized of the performances, Forbes's ticklish turn is nonetheless compromised by Harrison's direction: In the original, Malvolio's tragicomic insanity is hastened along by the other characters' hilarious efforts to circumscribe him. Here he blows a mental gasket more or less on his own.
Most theatergoers brave enough to see the near-three-hour show through to its anti-climactic conclusion (on opening night, scores of patrons left at intermission) will find it uncommonly easy to sympathize with his feelings.