The Colorado Shakespeare Festival has been around a long time, but though a lot of people support the noble cause, many more do not. There are just too many agonies associated with attendance at CSF.
Every year, those of us who do show up try to forget the grotesque discomfort inherent in attending the fest and try to remember instead an interesting performance or a bit of directorial insight. But sitting through three and a half hours (give or take a few minutes) of Hamlet in the debilitating heat on the purgatorial stone seats of the Mary Rippon Theater this season, it all came flooding back: the horrible acoustics, the too-large yet paradoxically cramped space, the discomfort of outdoor theater in the Colorado weather, the broad, often academic approach to Shakespeare that tends to defy subtlety, the penchant for casting some of the stiffest actors in North America in key roles, and the tedium of waiting to get out when it's all finally over--long lines of exhausted patrons returning their rented seat backs and useless cushions. This is no way to see Shakespeare, no way to inspire love for him in the next generation. Somebody has to do something about the region's worst theater: The Mary Rippon is a royal ripoff.
This year the Melancholy Dane is played with ferocious wit by Christopher Evan Welch. In a truly interesting take on the role, Welch zeroes in on the madness thing: Is the suffering prince really just pretending to be nuts, or has he dived off the deep end and moved from eccentric to clinical? But because Welch has to battle the acoustics at the Ripoff, even his complex interpretation becomes declamatory at certain points. Welch is the only performer in the play who can be clearly understood through the entire show; every little gust of wind carries away the voices of all the other actors. And even when the wind dies down, everybody has to shout to be heard.
It's hard to convey layers of feeling under such circumstances, and Welch has to resort to an interesting bag of physical tricks (his backward crab walk is fairly funny). The trouble is, after a while all those mannerisms look tricky. It becomes harder and harder to feel anything at all for the petulant Hamlet or for his dilemma (i.e., why does he hesitate to bump off Claudius, who murdered Hamlet's father and married his mother?).
Sarah Hartmann has the necessary powers of projection to make Gertrude practically the only other fully audible character in the show. Hartmann has plenty of personal magnetism, but not even she can muster the lung power to make the layers show in her character. As a result, Gertrude becomes tangential rather than central to the story. Florencia Lozana moves with grace as poor, beleaguered Ophelia, but she just can't make herself understood. Her mad scene fails to move us, because the Rippon swallows up all delicacy--she might be a terrific little actress, but it's impossible to tell. Mikel MacDonald (an Equity actor brought in to give the show class) as Claudius might be all right on a real stage. On the Rippon's, though, his performance is ramrod stiff and flat as stale seltzer. It looks like he's trying for icy deliberation; what we actually see is vacant indifference.
And acting isn't the only problem with this production. Director Patrick Kelly's approach is largely conventional, and there are simply no surprises beyond Welch himself--no little moments of epiphany when we are allowed glimpses of the sublime. Hamlet is the most famous work of art in the history of theater, and many of us have seen it a number of times. Yet the greatness of the work lies in the fact that there's always more to it--depending on the director's imagination and insight.
Christopher Selbie in the recent Compass Theatre production in Denver essentially reconceived the piece and made it dance with vitality. Even in the inadequate surroundings of the small Dorie Theater at the Denver Civic, with no scenery at all and only modest costumes, Selbie gave us a new understanding of the play. Truth in art has to arrive as news--as if we've never before heard the universal insights included in a play. That's what one should be able to expect from Hamlet.
And that's the sort of artistic breakthrough one can still expect from the CSF on occasion--especially when it has the good sense to move things indoors. In a stroke of programming brilliance, the festival this year has mounted Tom Stoppard's dazzling, difficult Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a complement to Hamlet. The contemporary play runs in the University Theatre. And despite the stifling heat that threatened to gag even the heartiest among us (either the theater is not air-conditioned or somebody in maintenance is a sadist), it's CSF at its best.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern concerns the fate of two of Hamlet's most ambiguous characters--school chums of Hamlet sent for by Claudius to spy on the sick prince. The two are rather nondescript in Shakespeare's story, so Stoppard uses them to explore the cosmic buffoonery of those who play minor parts in other people's dramas. The pair come and go, stumbling on the laws of physics in the neverland of existence, not knowing who they are, what anything means or why things are happening to them. As in Hamlet, death is the great obsession. But there are no "flights of angels" to sing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their rest when at last they are hanged--the same fate, by the way, that awaits them in Hamlet. It's a dark, funny, existentialist view of art, life and death.
Director Gavin Cameron-Webb has a piquant wit and an excellent sense of timing that never once bogs down. He understands the nuances and flights of fancy that Stoppard intended, and he anchors the play's intellectual insights in physical comedy. The cast is virtually the same as Hamlet's, with a few exceptions. Brooke Behmke is especially delightful as the brighter Guildenstern--he has a bag of choice tricks of his own. Ted deChatelet makes an excellent companion as the dim bulb Rosencrantz, and the two play off each other in fine comic symbiosis. Randy Colborn as The Player brings force to the role, but it's Maiz Lucero as Alfred, the cross-dressing actor, who spikes the production with his delightful presence.
As with last year's Twelfth Night, which also played in the University Theatre, every word of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is comprehensible, every piece of business is visible and, rather than seeming academic, it's lively and fresh. A decent space does make a difference.
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To be fair to the Rippon, before the agony of the stone seats sets in, there is always a moment when being outdoors is terrific: The set looks beautiful in the failing light of a summer's evening, and the first few moments of every production seem stirring. But the feeling soon wears off. Coloradans love the outdoors, and everyone would like the theatrical experience to offer what, say, an outdoor concert offers. But concerts are properly miked, and the music has a way of overwhelming any acoustical problems. Elizabethan language under the best of circumstances presents a challenge for everyone but the college professors who teach it.
The argument for the Rippon, of course, is that in Shakespeare's day, there were none of the technical luxuries we enjoy today in the theater. There were no lights, costumes or sound systems in the Globe Theater. But audiences then already understood the Queen's English. And the Rippon in no way reproduces the original experience of the Globe.
The CSF organizers should recognize by now what Shakespeare really needs. It's time to let the past go, boys. Close down the Rippon and move the festival indoors. Or if you can't bring yourselves to do that, at least rip out the stone benches and replace them with ergonomic benches designed to keep your minds on the stage, not on your...seats.
There's no lack of love or respect for the Bard in this culture. We just need to cut him a break, give him a proper space, and play his words for the very human, very real truth that still lives in them.