Colorado Anti-Shakespeare Festival

 Posted by on 2 August 2007 at 10:15 am  Uncategorized
Aug 022007

Since I find plays difficult to read, I’ve been making a modest effort in recent years to see productions of worthwhile plays (read: the classics, particularly Shakespeare) when possible. The Denver Center Theater Company’s winter production of King Lear was excellent. I plan to see its production of The Merry Wives of Windsor next spring. (One Shakespeare per year seems to be the tradition.) Last year, Paul and I also saw Twelfth Night at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. It was enjoyable, largely due to the fidelity of the production to the original. (The director merely made an insignificant change in setting.)

This summer, I was hoping to attend all three plays of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Julius Caesar. I was particularly eager to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since my eighth grade class produced it. (It was an all-girls school: I played the king.)

My hopes for Midsummer and All’s Well were pretty solidly squashed last week in reading the reviews. All were substantially changed to some point beyond rational comprehension.

The review of Midsummer begins as follows:

To quote poor Hermia, “I understand not what you mean by this!”

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival opened its 50th season Saturday with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it would take a magic potion to decipher what was going on.

From what I’ve gathered from various sources, the director made the play a dense commentary about theater itself. Ick.

As for All’s Well, all is not well. According to this review, the play includes gender-swapping gimmicks:

Prior to King Charles II’s decree that reversed the order in 1660, women were not allowed to act on the stage in England. In CSFs “All’s Well,” what we’re witnessing when the lights come up is an acting company rehearsing “All’s Well” circa 1660.

In the first scene, an actor/director gives orders and male actors squeeze into corsets and wigs preparing to play women’s roles, while women are relegated to sewing costumes pieces or helping with makeup.

The rehearsal is soon interrupted by the King’s declaration that women are no longer banned from the stage. The news is met with both merriment and consternation, and quickly, the show is recast, with women taking the female roles.

It’s a surprisingly visceral moment. When Motyka moves from seamstress to Helena, we witness both the realization of a dream and the birth of a character.

Oy, give me a break! Can’t the play just be what the play is about?

I was hoping that the production of Julius Caesar would be more traditional, but the review in the Denver Post showed it to be the worst of the lot. As if making Cassius a woman and drawing inapt parallels between Caesar and George Bush weren’t enough, just consider the following:

If only [director] Croot had left well enough alone. Instead she piles layer after layer of impenetrable interjections, starting with a bizarre set design: A couch. Harsh fluorescent lighting. A massive drawing of a lion (Caesar?) that from left to right fades from a regal, fully fleshed head to a skeletal tail. Massive mounds of rubble and discarded junk, mostly old black and white TVs that occasionally flicker but are put to no other discernible use.

Random visuals like Antony’s first entrance as a studly jogger; a “Minority Report” “pre-cog” soothsayer who’s half-human, half-machine — and half-blind. A huge, sliding shower curtain that seems utterly incongruous until the action in front of it turns into a “bloodbath.” (Get it?).

Wait, it gets stranger: Just as Caesar is about to be set upon, the action freezes. Thieriot is made to step out of character and announce the intermission as if teasing the next episode of “Bat Man.” Totally off-putting. Worse, when we return for the killing, suddenly, for those few, odd seconds, we’re at Lipgloss: Trance music and flashing lights. It ends as soon as Caesar does. The audience has no choice but to guffaw, and do you really want your audience laughing – the one time they will laugh all night – as Caesar is being slain?

There’s more “stuff” – A stuffed lion (or is it a deer?) is gutted simultaneous to the gutting of Caesar. A stuffed Caesar body-double substitutes for Buckley during Antony’s big speech, and Thieriot is made to bandy it about as if he were in a “Monty Python” skit. And at the end, an “Indiana Jones” visual gag trashes another death scene. None of these carried out with confidence or obvious meaning.

I think I understand Shakespeare well enough, but after an equally head-scratching “Midsummer,” I’m not much understanding what the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is doing with him this summer. Whatever happened to making Shakespeare easier to understand, not harder? Whatever happened to “serve the story first”?

I would offer my usual “Blech!” but a friend with far more expertise in such matters told me that seemed “far too laudatory.” So it is.

If only the world of theater could find some genuinely daring directors to produce actual Shakespeare, as in this hysterical story from The Onion: Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended!

I’m not wholly opposed to Shakespeare modernizations. So long as the language and plot remain faithful, a somewhat more familiar setting can make the characters and events of the play more clear. For example, I do like the uber-modernized 1996 Romeo + Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. It made clear to me the exact nature of the blood-feud between the Capulets and the Montagues for the first time: it’s gang warfare, plain and simple. The uber-modern setting is also uber-stylized, which I definitely like.

If the reviews are even remotely accurate, no such virtues can be found in the productions of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival this summer. It’s Shakespeare — filtered though Lois Cook’s less talented little sister.

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