Henry VIII. Shakespeare's Henry VIII is not the licentious, swollen-bellied, wife-dispatching monster we know from Hollywood. When we meet this Henry, he's relatively young, under the thumb of the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, and still consorting with his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. As the action proceeds, he'll divorce Katharine for Anne Bullen (Boleyn), learn to see through Wolsey's wiles, and gather the confidence, power and cruelty that characterized the real-life Henry's reign. This play, which scholars believe is the result of a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, doesn't fit easily into the categories to which we usually assign Shakespeare's works, and it's rarely performed. Which is a good thing, judging from this production, one of the most misconceived I've seen in ages. The set design is rudimentary, neither eye-pleasing nor evocative, and the costumes are really troubling. Their materials look cheap; the lines are ghastly. Everyone wears what appear to be canvas boat shoes under tights. White is one of those colors that pulls the eye, and you can't help noticing who's toeing in, who out, who walks gracefully and who like a bouncy college freshman. Director James Symons has peopled the stage with many actors who seem unready for prime time, and some of these actors perform pivotal roles. Often the scenes play like parodies of Shakespeare, with actors gabbling incomprehensibly at each other, never seeming to consider the meaning of the words flying out of their mouths. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 12, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 24.
The Hot L Baltimore. Director Terry Dodd has arranged one of the sweetest, smartest, loveliest evenings of theater you'll ever have, by staging Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore in the lobby of the Barth Hotel. The play is a kind of extended tone poem about life in a seedy hotel filled with society's rejects — hookers, dreamers, drifters, a wise one-time waitress, a kvetchy old man, a young man haunting the lobby in search of his own past, and the low-wage desk clerks and managers who keep the place going. The nineteen-year-old Girl (that's what she calls herself, having tried and rejected several other names), who represents the soul of the piece, has traveled all over the country and is in love with railroads; she grieves for their demise. But the play is not just a bloodless paean to times past and lost places; it is also a very lively piece of theater. The intertwining stories keep us emotionally involved and the action humming along, and Wilson's technical innovations as a playwright — he frequently has two conversations going on at once, or several sallies overlapping — work brilliantly to evoke a sense of intertwined and communal lives. The cast ranges from good to excellent, with some of the best performances in the smaller or less obviously dramatic roles. No other local director has the understanding of place and its effect on people that Dodd has, and no one else can suggest depth and complexity in quite the same quietly unpretentious way. Through August 23, Barth Hotel, 1514 17th Street, 303-595-4464 ext. 10, www.seniorhousingoptions.org. Reviewed July 31.
Love's Labour's Lost. Director Gavin Cameron-Webb has set this production in a summer house in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1917, just before America's entrance into the First World War. The proceedings open with a long mime sequence, showing the flirtatious Jaquenetta being courted by her two swains — the absurd Don Armando (here a Cuban rather than a Spaniard) and the clownish gardener, Costard — and thoroughly enjoying their attention. The plot involves four wealthy young students who swear to retire for three years to a life of study, abstinence and contemplation. Barely have their oaths been spoken than the Countess of France enters on a financial mission with her retinue of beautiful young women — and love is in the air. All of the lovers are fairly generic except for Berowne and Rosaline: He is skeptical and moody and has the play's most beautiful speeches; she's cranky and cryptic. Since the romances hold little suspense, much of the focus is on a group of comic characters — Costard; Armando, with his hilariously mispronounced verbal flourishes; Holofernes, a pedantic schoolmaster; the aptly named policeman Dull; and the smooth diplomat Boyet. The humor is very much of its time, with punning and allusions that would have had Shakespeare's audiences howling with laughter but are pretty much incomprehensible now. Still, the production does a good job of keeping things lively and funny. Much of its lift and energy comes from Geoffrey Kent as Dull, Stephen Weitz as Costard, and Seth Maisel, who plunges into the role of Moth with a cheeky, crazed, all-stops-out physicality. But the tone shifts abruptly in the fifth act, when a messenger arrives from France to tell the countess that her father has died. This is an odd transition, but Ted Barton has a voice and presence strong and fine enough to signal the movement from youth to sober adulthood, and from spring to shadowed fall. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 15, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 10.
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Macbeth. As the action begins, Macbeth accidentally kills a young boy on the battlefield; he cradles the lifeless body and shrieks with grief. Almost simultaneously, we hear a piercing scream, and Lady Macbeth flies down the castle steps carrying a swaddled dead baby, which she fondles dementedly, then leaves on a ledge. As the play progresses, we realize that her grief for the loss of this child is what drives her lust for power. This Lady Macbeth is no cold-blooded viper, but a half-mad harridan who melts long before the famous sleepwalking scene. Her psychic disintegration begins right after her husband's first murder — that of King Duncan, which she has instigated — when she sees Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, and suddenly grasps the extent of their loss. The image of the doomed child isn't confined to Lady Macbeth's fevered brain, but becomes a trope that's used again and again, from the nameless child killed by Macbeth at the beginning to the vicious murder of Macduff's young son. The insistent focus on children and the father-son bond strengthens the play's themes of succession and underlines the Macbeths' barrenness and their drive to exterminate the future. This is not a revelatory Macbeth that will stir your imagination or trouble your dreams, but it's clear, solid and often intelligent. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 16, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 3.
West Side Story. Back in the '50s, the idea of updating Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — setting it on the mean streets of New York and having gang members substitute for the battling Montagues and Capulets — was daring and revelatory. At the time, West Side Story's liberal humanism — why couldn't these kids recognize that the ills that drove them crazy were social and structural and just learn to get along? — would have been widely seen as progressive rather than hopelessly naive. And while today the script, with its ancient slang, is unquestionably dated, the issues it explores are still very much with us: violence, xenophobia, poverty, hopelessness, and the plight of our country's immigrants, who are simultaneously used for cheap labor and reviled as the cause of unemployment and economic failure. Bernstein's score holds up, too, transforming what might have been just a fifty-year-old artifact into a genuine work of art. Gregory Turay, who plays Tony, has a melting, expressive tenor, and Sarah Jane McMahon's rich soprano moved me to tears on Maria's "I Have a Love." Jerome Robbins's choreography, re-created by Daniel Pelzig as faithfully as possible given the small stage he had to work with, still sometimes zings. But though the opening dance number is appropriately explosive, these dancers just don't come across as gangbangers. The acting throughout is at best prosaic, and at worst purely awful — with the notable exception of Mark Rubald, who owns the stage every time he strolls onto it as the corrupt cop. And the fake Puerto Rican accents of all the Sharks simply set your teeth on edge. Presented by Central City Opera through August 9, Central City Opera House, 303-292-6700, www.centralcityopera.org. Reviewed July 10.
The Will Rogers Follies. This musical, which premiered in 1991, gives us Will Rogers's life in a series of Ziegfeld-style acts, supposedly being performed in the present time: over-the-top musical numbers featuring lots of leggy showgirls, monologues and family scenes, all reshuffled and redirected at will by the intrusive voice of an unseen Florenz Ziegfeld. The format allows the action to go backward and forward in time, and the characters to comment on their actions for the audience even while performing them. In a bit of foreshadowing, aviator Wiley Post sits in the audience, rising periodically from his seat to invite Rogers to take a trip with him. (In 1935, Rogers joined Post for an attempted flight around the world; their plane crashed in Alaska, and both died.) The songs in The Will Rogers Follies aren't really that memorable, but the numbers are toe-tapping, energetic parodies of Ziegfeld's style, and often very funny. A.K. Klimpke gives a low-key, affable performance in the title role, periodically throwing in a crack that carries some penetrating truth or has a little sting in its tail. And we really don't mind when he gets more serious toward the end, singing a gentle song called "Look Around," about preserving the environment, then delivering a radio address on the effects of the Depression and the terrible discrepancies between rich and poor. If you tire of Rogers's musings, there's plenty to keep you interested. Shelly Cox-Robie, for instance, as Rogers's wife, singing sweetly about "My Unknown Someone" and torching through "No Man Left for Me." Director-choreographer Scot Beyette's big numbers, particularly the fast-moving, precision-requiring "Our Favorite Son." Or the glitzy and often comical costumes of Linda Morken — in one number, the women are dressed as sunflowers, with perky little sunflower breasts. And Christianna Sullins as Ziegfeld's Favorite, a minxy little blond who sashays on and off, shamelessly stealing scenes.. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through August 31, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed June 12.