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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."

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.

Part of the problem is that Addison stresses a few textual elements while ignoring others. For example, rather than portray the character of Rumor as "painted full of tongues," as is indicated in the script, Addison chooses to have a raspy-voiced, bent-backed peasant woman mutter the play's prologue. Though seemingly minor, that decision substantially alters the tone of the play from the very first line. Instead of depicting the systematic deterioration of a kingdom that's crippled by "surmises, jealousies [and] conjectures," Addison focuses on a realm wracked by physical ailments and material concerns.

And even if that literal approach is the director's way of foreshadowing Henry's sickbed demise and Hal's invigorating ascent, it nonetheless undermines Shakespeare's larger theme about the temperament, moral sense and, yes, physical prowess that all determine one's fitness for kingship. In fact, nowhere does Addison's touch seem more infectiously false than during the deathbed reconciliation scene that occurs between Hal and his father, one of the greatest father-son scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote (the Dover Cliffs episode between Gloucester and Edgar in King Lear is similarly moving). As staged by Addison, though, Morello's Henry seems resigned to die as painful a death as possible instead of fighting against the weight of his ailments, while Huftile's Hal seems content to wander in and stare at his bedridden patriarch; both should exude greater ambivalence as well as a nobler fighting spirit when faced with such a monumental, life-changing moment.

Furthermore, rather than resist the impulse to weep (or take his cue from the text, which indicates that the heroic Hal goes into an adjoining room to cry out his grief in private near the end of the scene), Huftile blubbers his way through Hal's lines, while Morello wheezes and speechifies through a tongue-lashing of his favorite son that should sound more like a heart-to-heart plea. As a result of the actors' ill-advised emoting, there's not much quiet grandeur to be had when Hal receives the crown from his father's trembling hands, just a rudimentary passing of the torch that hardly seems divinely inspired. Nor is Hal's final dismissal of Falstaff as poignant and contrapuntal a moment as it's intended to be. Instead of treating his former drinking buddy with a formal, carefully considered compassion, Huftile handles the first challenge to Hal's royal authority by delivering a stern, cold rebuke to the now-servile Kevin, who in turn abruptly abandons Falstaff's Epicurean ways and sinks in a sea of contrived Addisonian emotion.

For the second year in a row, the CSF has presented a mediocre season of plays in which directorial caprice--and, in some cases, sheer ineptitude--have prevailed over sensible interpretation. That's a shame, given that the plays can be credibly performed by casts of student performers, especially when they're given half a chance to remain true to the Bard's text. Any argument that the CSF's vast outdoor theater presents too daunting a challenge is simply hogwash: The group became nationally recognized by performing in that same space for over four decades. And since the CSF's top ticket price rivals that of the fully professional Denver Center Theatre Company, audiences have every right to expect that the CSF's final product will be comparatively compelling--which, with rare exceptions, it hasn't been for years.

By contrast, TheatreWorks in Colorado Springs, which, like the CSF, employs a mix of students, community actors and Equity guest artists, recently completed a successful run of the Bard's difficult revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Led by James Gale's splendid rendering of the title character, whose volatile mixture of calculated mania, murderous rage and abject despair has proved the undoing of many a veteran performer, the plucky troupe conveyed the solemnity of a play that typically provokes fits of inappropriate laughter. The character of Lavinia, for instance, is raped, mutilated and later forced to hold a dismembered human hand between her teeth. But amid the episodes of near-Monty Python-like carnage, actress Shaundra Noll's portrait was heartrending, quietly lyrical and beyond her performer's years. And despite the drama's stilted verse, abundance of plot contrivances and, at a recent performance, a driving rainstorm that threatened to swamp the group's circus-tent home, the accomplished ensemble delivered a chillingly believable production. Director Murray Ross's approach was innovative in the same way that classic fashions and tastes periodically resurface as each generation's freshly minted inventions. Always relying on Shakespeare's text as their guide, Ross and company lent insight and immediacy to a centuries-old tale while maintaining integrity of style and dignity of tone--qualities that, in its heyday, the CSF once held dear.

The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Part Two, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 14 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre and University Indoor Theatre, CU-Boulder, 303-492-0554.