Bard Games

Scholars and theatergoers will always argue about the legitimacy of setting William Shakespeare's plays in periods other than Elizabethan England. Employing the well-worn device sometimes yields rich rewards, as evidenced two summers back by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's rock-and-roll version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and last season's Civil War-era production of Troilus and Cressida. But as two of the CSF's current offerings attest, imposing an ill-fitting historical framework around the mechanics of a Shakespearean saga can, in some cases, grind an otherwise timeless tale to a twentieth-century halt. As a result, believable characters with simple human frailties occasionally mutate into distorted caricatures afflicted with overblown psychoses--a situation that no doubt would have even Shakespeare scratching his head.

Or, assuming it's true that a playwright's characters are extensions of his own personality, whipping himself silly. At least, that's what a leading character manages to achieve in Act One of director Robert Cohen's Thirties-era production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, now on stage at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre. Vienna's deputized governor, Angelo (Andrew Shulman), takes a piece of horsehide to his own backside on the heels of his initial encounter with a novitiate sister, Isabella (Tyler Layton), who begs the stiff-necked ruler for mercy in a criminal case involving her about-to-be-executed brother, Claudio (David Foubert). Seems that, in violation of existing Viennese law (which no one has bothered to enforce for some "nineteen zodiacs"), the libertine poet Claudio has impregnated his betrothed, Juliet (Anne E. Schilling). The despotic Angelo, having previously been empowered by the absent Duke Vincentio (Mikel MacDonald) "to enforce or qualify the laws/As to your soul seems good," promptly declares that Claudio must die for his offense. Unbeknownst to anyone in Vienna, however, the duke has disguised himself as a friar and loiters about the dark recesses of town (a magnificent set by William Forrester) in order to observe his citizenry's licentious behavior, mercifully intervening only when tragedy looms on the horizon.

Director Cohen's decision to set the action in the days prior to Austria's 1938 anschluss with Germany alternately serves and undermines a play that is the last of Shakespeare's comedies (which was followed by a string of six consecutive tragedies). For instance, in close proximity to Angelo's decision to shut down all of Vienna's houses of prostitution, there's a scene in which several frightened people elude uniformed, armband-wearing officials while sounds of breaking glass echo in the background, bringing to mind the infamous Kristallnacht. Is this juxtaposition of text and action meant to equate Angelo's intolerant morality with the Nazi Party's persecution of "undesirables," with a few sound effects thrown in for historical accuracy's sake? Or are we to assume that Angelo's petty scouring of his town's red-light district parallels the Nazi harassment of Jewish shop owners?

Unfortunately, Cohen's concept of extremes continues to create more ambiguity than it does clarity. For example, Isabella's attempt to persuade Angelo to spare her brother's life isn't quite a meeting of two righteous Christians painfully in need of a pertinent lesson in the act of forgiveness (the play's title is drawn from Christ's Sermon on the Mount). During her first meeting with him, Isabella quickly launches into an unbridled attack on Angelo (seemingly forgetting that the clownish Lucio has accompanied her to Angelo's lair in order to provide an entire scene's worth of much-needed encouragement and support for Isabella). And her subsequent scenes with Angelo, though powerful, become engulfed in a vitriol that appears to be a by-product of the production's Nazi overtones. It's as if Layton is directing her character's anger into an all-out preemptive first strike against atrocities that the Goebbels-like Angelo hasn't yet committed.

Yes, Angelo proposes that Isabella sleep with him in exchange for pardoning Claudio's offense, but such a sin is hardly on par with Hitlerian genocide. If anything, Angelo's reprehensible behavior more closely resembles a mixture of Bill Clinton's alleged improprieties and Rudolph Giuliani's crusading moral overdrive. More to the point, given that Isabella and Angelo's poorly orchestrated shouting matches reach a fever pitch early on, neither performer has a fighting chance of constructing a credible dramatic progression over the course of the three-hour show. (Making matters worse, Cohen inexplicably directs Layton to react to one of Shulman's advances by hobbling upstage on all fours.)

To their credit, Layton and Shulman manage to summon much of the passion inherent in both Shakespeare's play and Cohen's version of it. And both actors are especially effective during comic moments that are lightly colored with a transparent tincture of tongue-in-cheek commentary, such as when Isabella wryly informs the condemned Claudio, "Lord Angelo, having affairs to heaven/Intends you for his swift ambassador." Ironically enough, the skillful MacDonald delivers a highly entertaining, even-handed portrayal of the pivotal duke, owing mostly to the fact that the duke is an observer of this twisted society instead of its authoritarian architect. (MacDonald also earns some empathy for his character's restrained responses to a few of Lucio's jokes.) Similarly solid and believable portrayals are crafted by performers in supporting roles: Troy Dunn is a measured, reasonable Provost, Alexander K. Ward earns a healthy share of laughter as the criminal Bernardine (who flatly refuses to be executed when his time is up), and Joey Wishnia is amusing as the constable Elbow. Which seems to indicate that the characters on the perimeter of Cohen's vortex of a concept fare much better than those unlucky souls marooned near its unforgiving center.

But if Cohen's overwrought approach exaggerates the basic conflicts of Measure, director James Symons's foggy version of Richard II flat-lines the opposing forces in Shakespeare's history play. The first installment of a planned eight-play War of the Roses series for the CSF (Shakespeare dramatized the 85 bloody years that followed Richard II's demise by writing Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III), Symons's production is set in a techno-spare environment commendably designed by David Barber for the University Theatre's indoor stage. Clad in mostly traditional Renaissance garb and black leather (a series of attractive costumes by Janice Benning), the actors perform the bulk of the two-and-one-half-hour drama in front of an enormous brushed-metal backdrop of steel plates. It's an innovative choice that stands in sharp relief to the plentiful images of nature that permeate the play (the doomed monarch's own garden is represented here by just two measly potted plants), offering us a chance to examine a theatrical poet-king's ability to function under the harsh glare of a sterile industrial world (splendid lighting by Richard Devin).

However, Symons fails to fully capitalize on his intriguing idea when he directs actor William Westenberg to portray the title character more as a downtrodden Beat poet than as a narcissistic, romantic performer. It's a choice that vitiates the play's essential conflict and renders Richard's eventual capitulation to Henry Bolingbroke (Randy Howk) a foregone conclusion almost at the outset. Such an interpretation runs counter to much of Shakespeare's text. In fact, whether in moments of defeat, conflict, intimacy, joy or contemplation, the scripted Richard maintains the vigorous attitude of a matinee idol who's always on stage--and whose private thoughts are as couched in high language as are his public pronouncements.

For instance, when the deposed king rhymes his final farewell to his adoring wife ("One kiss shall stop our mouths and dumbly part/Thus give I mine, and thus I take thy heart"), the moment is intended to be more ceremonial than personal. Furthermore, Richard is evidently vain enough to keep up the self-dramatization when he's alone in his prison cell, where he creates an invisible audience for himself during a beautifully written aria of some 65 lines of verse. To his credit, Westenberg does his best to pump some lyricism into the dry well of Symons's minimalist approach. But as focused and deliberate as Westenberg's portrayal is, the capable actor too often falls prey to a monotonous and cold-hearted delivery that belies a vibrant (though admittedly ineffectual) man's intent to make a grand spectacle of his life and death. After all, Richard's tragedy isn't that he struggles with a lifelong identity crisis, but that he discovers his weakness for self-deception only when it's too late.

On the brighter side, Howk's athletic bearing and resonant voice lend authority and weight to his well-crafted portrait of Bolingbroke (who becomes King Henry IV when Richard surrenders the crown), and as Richard's Queen, Kaitlin O'Neal locates qualities in her character that permit her to scorn her husband's weakness in one breath while reaffirming their undying love an instant later. Ray Kemble is satisfactory as an equivocating Duke of York, alternately sputtering and cajoling his way through the jungle of insurrection. And despite the fact that Chuck Wilcox invests John of Gaunt's famous paean to English patriotism with more lukewarm sentiment than virtuous defiance, the veteran performer nonetheless delivers a portrait of the lone defender of proud tradition that arouses our empathy.

So ends a somewhat disappointing summer of plays for the CSF, in which directors have chosen interpretations ranging from Shakespeare the omniscient social scientist to Shakespeare the prescient sitcom writer. However, as the CSF's talented company of actors and designers has proved time and again this season, nothing is as interesting as the idea of Shakespeare the quintessential humanist, whose only knowledge of psychology was of the sort that's evidently not in directorial fashion these days.

Measure for Measure and Richard II, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 15 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre and the University Theatre, CU-Boulder campus, 492-0554.

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Jim Lillie