Henry IV, Part 1. King Henry IV gained the throne by deposing his predecessor, Richard II, and having him murdered, and in Henry IV, Part 1, the crown lies uneasily on his head. Men who aided his insurgency have turned against him, and there's rebellion brewing throughout the kingdom. Worst of all, his son, Prince Hal, is a disreputable layabout who spends his time with whores and a fat, dissolute old knight named Falstaff. Harry Percy — Hotspur — the hot-headed young fighter leading the charge against him, is an enemy, but he's also the ideal warrior the king would have wanted as his own son. The play has all kinds of echoes and resonances. While Henry is Hal's flesh-and-blood father, his chosen father appears to be Falstaff. The scene in which Henry berates Hal for the company he keeps is mirrored by another in which Falstaff satirizes the king and lavishly praises himself. The concept of honor provides another — and unlikely — parallel, this one between Hotspur and Falstaff. For Hotspur, honor is a gleaming ideal, something for which he'd lay down his life. Contemplating the carnage of battle, Falstaff has a different take: "What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? ... Air." The primary characters are brilliantly drawn, complex, entertaining, tantalizingly morally ambiguous. Appealing as he is, Hal's a schemer. You want to love Falstaff, but he's just as ethically ambiguous. Only Hotspur has real integrity, despite the fact that he's a quarrelsome hothead and has a deep love for violence — and that's because he's so purely, honestly and simply himself. Sometimes the rhythms in this production feel off or a scene seems rushed. The costumes are deliberately anachronistic, with period and contemporary bits and pieces mingling. Perhaps this is supposed to make the action seem timeless, but it distracts. These are small criticisms, however, of a well-acted and sometimes inspiring production. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 10 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 24.
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I Hate Hamlet. I Hate Hamlet is a bit like the curate's egg: hilariously funny in parts, and in others so idiotic that you're embarrassed for the actors. Why is the radiant Jamie Ann Romero wasting her talents wafting about as Deirdre, a stagestruck 29-year-old virgin who'll have sex with her boyfriend Andrew only if he plays Hamlet in Central Park? Why is the redoubtably talented Martha Harmon Pardee sporting an excruciating New York accent as real-estate agent Felicia and uttering cries like a calf stabbed in the neck while supposedly conducting a seance intended to summon the ghost of her dead mother and — with Mom's help — also that of the great American actor, John Barrymore? Andrew, star of a television series called L.A. Medical, has been hired to play Hamlet not because of his talent, but because his fame will swell the audience. Andrew is aware of this, hates and is intimidated by the play, and – most important -- has a major case of cold feet. He's moving into an apartment once inhabited by Barrymore for the duration — hence Felicia's seance. Of course, Barrymore shows up. And at this point, the evening becomes — at least for a while — both smart and laugh-out-loud funny. First, because author Paul Rudnick finds his feet here. Second, because Sam Gregory plays Barrymore, and from his first entrance — "Am I dead or just incredibly drunk?" — he pulls out all the stops. Steven Cole Hughes is equally riveting as television producer Gary. When it comes to Shakespeare himself, Rudnick seems to want to have it both ways. He provides lots of easy wisecracks, but when Andrew asks for acting advice, Barrymore's response is a quietly moving rendition of Hamlet's "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you." What you ultimately get here is a mix of cleverness, cheap shots, dopey visual jokes, some astonishingly good comic acting, and a whole bunch of scenes that go on way too long. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.For some in a Phamaly Theatre Company production, just getting out of bed, dressing and arriving at rehearsal is a grueling ordeal. The group — once known as the Physically Handicapped Actors and Music Arts League — comprises performers with all kinds of physical problems, some more visible than others. There are actors in wheelchairs, actors who limp, actors suffering from invisible problems and diseases. Director Steve Wilson understands not just how to overcome physical problems, but how to make creative use of them. The music in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is bright and tuneful, cheerfully satirizing genres from cowboy to rock to calypso to French ballad. The Phamaly version begins in an institution where the members of the cast are confined, symbolizing the isolation and disconnection that can come with disability. At the beginning, performers move in ranks, each in turn picking up a small paper cup holding medications intended to pacify and dull the senses. Left alone, Daniel Traylor's Joseph laments his existential loneliness with "Close Every Door." And lo and behold, a magical Narrator appears, played by Leonard Barrett. The Narrator tells Joseph the story of another outcast, his biblical namesake, who, because his father favored him and gave him the colorful coat, was hated by his brothers and eventually delivered by them into slavery. He's ultimately elevated to a high position in Egypt. Wilson and choreographer Debbie Stark elicit an astonishing level of precision and unison from the cast, and the actors work with beautiful concentration. Traylor reveals a pleasant tenor; his Joseph has sprightliness and humor as well as pathos. Barrett's presence is powerful, and he has a fine voice. Everyone in the cast contributes a unique presence, creating a musical tapestry as many-colored as Joseph's coat. And the evening flies on the sheer verve of musical director Donna Koplan Debreceni and her players. Throughout, there's a kind of transcendence in the glow on the actors' faces, the way each plays his or her part as an affirmation of the sheer joy of being alive, making art and coming together. Presented by Phamaly through August 10 at the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-365-0005, phamaly.org. Reviewed July 24.
The Merry Wives of Windsor.The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays. Unlike the Sir John Falstaff we know from the history plays — the cunning, cowardly, zesty, twistedly wise old fool who served as a kind of father figure to young Prince Hal — the character here is just a buffoon who, motivated by greed and lust, attempts to bed two virtuous wives, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford...and the latter has a crazed, irrationally jealous husband. Revolted by Falstaff's advances, the women plot revenge, and Master Ford, his suspicions aroused, also sets a trap. Falstaff's punishment, like most corny stage jokes, comes in threes. First he's hidden in a laundry basket filled with smelly clothes and tipped into a muddy river. The second mishap involves his escape dressed as a washerwoman while being beaten by Ford. There's a supernatural element to the third trick, involving scary fairies in a dark woodland. Director Seth Panitch has set this tale at a Catskills hotel in 1962; Falstaff is a standup comic on the circuit. The production includes lots and lots of '50s songs; sometimes it feels as if every on-stage event is framed or punctuated by a familiar, rocking tune. Also thrown in are all kinds of shticks and bits: some quite wonderful, some less effective. Anachronism and pop-culture references are everywhere. It's all very frolicky and jolly, but periodically you get so caught up wondering at all the antics that you forget the gist of the story and who on stage is whom. Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org. Reviewed July 3.
Shrek: the Musical. There are a lot of things to like about Shrek: The Musical at Boulder's Dinner Theatre. They include the Dragon, created by Cory Gilstrap and manipulated by a handful of actors. Blessed with the rich, seductive voice of Amanda Earls, she's a riveting, literally huge presence. And there are many other spectacular special effects. All the leads are excellent. Even as written, Fiona is no regular fairy-tale princess. But Norrell Moore takes the role several steps beyond whatever the script requires, endowing Fiona with huge amounts of spring, cheek and sheer verve. Seth Caikowski plays Shrek with a pleasantly slight Scottish accent, and the kindness and diffidence he projects provide a fine contrast with all the cavorting going on around him. In his furry gray Donkey suit, Tyrell Rae is the perfect foil, preening, whining and strutting. Trapped on his knees, his lank black hair falling around his face, Scott Severtson has loads of evil fun as Lord Farquaad. The script is by Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire, which means that Shrekis way less dumb than the average Disney musical and full of clever, silly references; a couple of moments are downright Monty Python-esque. Though the songs tend to be mediocre, they're delivered with such verve it almost doesn't matter, and the entire production is a delight. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through September 6, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder. 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed May 29.