When Timothy Orr, then the assistant director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, was called on to take over the whole thing following the departure of CSF artistic director Philip Sneed in early 2013, he found himself immersed in what he now calls — in a profound understatement — “a very interesting year.” Company auditions were less than a week away, and he needed to find a director almost immediately for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Sneed had been slated to direct. Orr offered the slot to Geoffrey Kent, who had worked for the festival as an actor but never as a director; Kent quickly accepted. “We had about five days to think about the concept and what we would be looking for at the auditions,” remembers Orr. “It was tough.” He laughs. “It was harder than the last year of grad school.”
Still, the 2013 season was a success: Dream won critical praise, as well as a Best of Denver award. The upward trend continued through the next two years, and now, with the 2016 season opening this weekend with The Comedy of Errors, Orr’s hand on the tiller is steady. “This season is selling better than last,” he says, “and last was the record breaker.”
This season is a risky one, however. Shakespeare companies almost always rely on sunny works like Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to fill seats, along with the best-known tragedies: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. The CSF’s selections this year are less well known and more difficult, including Troilus and Cressida, a tragedy featuring lovers sadder, older and less romantic than Romeo and Juliet and a heroine who’s either faithless or the victim of a patriarchal society, take your pick. The play is rarely shown, and was last seen in Boulder in 1964 — “the same year the Beatles landed in America,” Orr observes.
Carolyn Howarth, who’s directing, was nineteen when she first saw the play in London in 1986, with Alan Rickman playing Achilles. “It was a life-changing experience,” she recalls. “Something about that production touched me so deeply. I fell in love with Shakespeare and with the play.”
Her chance to direct it came about unexpectedly. She and Orr had been discussing a different play, she explains, “and I happened to text him: ‘If you ever do Troilus and Cressida, you have to let me direct it.’” He got back to her immediately with his approval. “I’m really excited,” she says. “I love how cynical Troilus and Cressida is, and how modern. I have always gravitated to the way the heroes fail and the military leaders lie and the lovers betray each other.” As for faithless Cressida, “I think she’s misunderstood,” Howarth says. “I think she’s a very strong, smart woman who susses out her situation and reacts accordingly.”
Then there’s the comedy Cymbeline, which has a convoluted plot that seems made up of half-developed bits and pieces of other plays, and which George Bernard Shaw dismissed as “stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order.” The play can be interpreted in various ways, however, some of them highly entertaining.
This year’s contemporary play is Equivocation, by Bill Cain. In it, Shakespeare is asked to write a play about the foiled Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament; it’s a dangerous assignment, since James currently occupies the throne. The play is erudite and funny, and also deals with the ethics and difficulty of speaking truth to power. It is “full of so much heart,” Orr says. “There are lots of dumb comedies that make fun of theater and Shakespeare, and that didn’t feel right for this summer and the 400th anniversary of his death.”
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The season opener, The Comedy of Errors, is a tried-and-true audience-pleaser, to which director Kent is adding a new dimension: He’s switching the sexes of key characters, and the results should be both surprising and enlightening. The season also includes a one-night-only reading of Henry VI, Part 2.
“Tim trusts and believes in his audience,” Howarth says of this fascinatingly offbeat season. “I think he feels these lesser-known plays have every bit as much right to be seen.”
As Orr himself explains: “The whole season is curated and put together like a five-course meal. It’s going to be a great summer.”
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival runs Friday, June 3 through August 7 at University Theatre and Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado Boulder campus. For more information, call 303-492-8008 or go to coloradoshakes.org.