Jul 14, 2017 08:30AM ● Published by Randy Robinson
Festival also comes full circle: you’ll want to be there.
The “there” in question is in Boulder on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. Specifically at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, an idyllic open-air setting where Shakespeare is performed under a canopy of stars. It’s quite fitting, then, that Shakespeare’s tale of two star-crossed lovers was the first play to be performed on the stage. The 1944 production of Romeo and Juliet was a precursor to the creation of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, a professional theater company in association with the University of Colorado Boulder established in 1958. That first year, a cast of unpaid students directed by CU theater faculty performed the company’s first summer program on the grass. All the world is a stage, you know. Perhaps As You Like It, the play where that saying originated, was too obvious a choice for that inaugural season. Instead, the lineup featured three of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works: Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Julius Caesar.
What’s past is prologue still. Those three celebrated works are the centerpieces of CSF’s 60th season, and shows run through August 2017. The company is now comprised of an independent troupe of professional actors, set designers, directors, and stage hands. Many of their interns come from CU, but they’ve taken on students from around the world, too. This summer, alongside Hamlet, they will also present Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a comedic modern retelling of Hamlet from the perspectives of the tragedy’s two least consequential characters. It was written by Tom Stoppard, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Shakespeare in Love. The cast of Hamlet also stars in Rosencrantz, in effect telling the same story twice, once as a traditional tragedy and again as a (relatively bloody) comedy.
Henry VI, Part 3—the last play in Shakespeare’s War of the Roses chronicle—rounds out the 2017 season with two Original Practices performances. The limited-run OP shows aim to “do Shakespeare the way Shakespeare did Shakespeare.” To thy own self be true, after all. To recreate the 15th-century theater experience, OP sets are as basic as can be, with no lights or sound systems. The costumes are just whatever’s on hand. Actors don’t even get a full script; they are given a rolled-up scroll with their handwritten lines and cues, and they have just 20 hours to rehearse.
When the show opens on August 6, CSF will become only the second Shakespeare festival in the country to complete Shakespeare’s entire 37-play canon for the second time—a milestone moment during a banner diamond anniversary run.
And while Shakespeare’s works are centuries old, they still hold relevancy today. Timelessness was one of the playwright’s many gifts; an ability to weave creative, complex tales in rhyming iambic pentameter was another—and that talent was a game changer. In part because he sometimes literally changed the game and coined a new word if the one he needed for a certain line of prose didn’t exist. Of the 17,000 words he employed over his entire catalog of works, nearly one out of every ten words was one he invented—and this says nothing of the turn of phrases he introduced to the lexicon in “one fell swoop” (that’s one) by “playing fast and loose” (there’s another) with the English language. He really was “the be-all and the end-all.” (I’m done, I promise.)
Now imagine it’s 400 years ago, and the educated English royalty are watching his plays while the uneducated peasantry stands below the decks. Both groups are scratching their heads at the first utterances of terms like “obscene,” “elbow,” and “bedazzled.” Shakespeare can be intimidating but shouldn’t be avoided.
“I would say give it a try,” says Timothy Orr, the festival’s producing artistic director. Theater is his life—he joined the festival as an actor in 2007—and he’s seen Shakespeare performed across every demographic imaginable. “These plays were not meant to be read. They were meant to be seen and heard, performed by professional actors. We’ve performed them for third graders, and they get it. They understand plot points I didn’t get when I was younger. Shakespeare is quite accessible when done right.”
Colorado Shakespeare Festival is one group that does it right. If you go to one of the many performances, you’ll want to arrive early to enjoy the complete midsummer night’s dream-like experience. Settle onto the grass for a picnic, or enjoy a glass of wine in the gardens. Select performances include pre-show entertainment; almost all include an informal talk held by the producing artistic director or other expert who shares info on the characters and plot and offers insight into the contextual background of the play that’s about to start; afterwards, cast members answer questions during a “talkback” session. Best to get there three hours too soon than a minute too late.