In this age of MTV’s Jersey Shore — or for that matter an age in which Pauly Shore still gets work in direct-to-video dreck like Adopted — a mockumentary about Shore trying to follow in Angelina Jolie’s footsteps by adopting an African child — we must circle the wagons around what’s left of true, classical culture. We must praise and protect the Vonneguts from the Dan Browns, the Mozarts from the Ke$shas and the Warhols from the taggers. For that reason alone, if you’ve never taken in a performance at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, this is the year that you should.
Now in its 53rd season, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival assembles actors and directors from all over the country right here in Boulder to bring both Shakespeare’s and other playwrights’ works to the stage. Three of the five productions this year play in the amazing Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre at the University of Colorado. There’s something about watching Othello or Hamlet strut, fret and fight under the wide-open sky as it dissolves from blue into starry black that must be experienced to be understood. Be warned, though, that once you’ve seen Shakespeare at the Mary Rippon, you may never be satisfied seeing it anywhere else in the future.
This year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival is a bit abbreviated relative to years past and runs only through Aug. 8, so you’ll need to go early and often if you want to catch all five plays. The CSF opened last weekend with King Lear. Though some would describe King Lear as a sort of poor country cousin to the Bard’s much ballyhooed Hamlet, I would argue that the two tragedies stand on much more equal footing. Both plays share powerful protagonists of questionable mental stability.
Both Lear and Hamlet are conspired against by their own families. And in the end, both plays rack up a considerable body count.
Just as with Hamlet’s Hamlet, King Lear soars or sinks based on its Lear. Director Lynne Collins earns a perfect 10 — even from the French judge — with her choice to play the mad king. In his first foray into the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, long-time Denver Center Theatre Company veteran John Hutton gives us a Lear so exquisite, so nuanced, so raw that audiences will be using it as a yardstick for many CSFs to come. Whether raging against his daughters for their lack of filial piety, laughing carefree with his Fool or cowering in fear from nature’s might, Hutton makes Lear not just a credible king but a credible man. Even when not on stage, his Lear is a palpable presence that centers the entire production.
Many CSF directors choose to set Shakespeare in more modern times (think Romeo and Juliet by way of Grease). The result is always interesting and usually succeeds in shaking some of the dust off of these well-worn tales, but I’ve never seen a better fit than taking King Lear and setting it in the Rocky Mountain West at the end of the 19th century. Lear, especially as played by Hutton, makes the perfect aging oil baron. Comparisons between this King Lear and 2007’s Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood are inevitable, and having seen both the movie and the play, I can say without equivocation that the play surpasses the movie by a long shot.
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my favorite actors, but Hutton is his match as Lear. And though There Will Be Blood suffered whenever Day-Lewis was off screen, King Lear glides along even when Hutton is in the wings. Stephen Weitz, who played Hamlet formidably last season, absolutely dazzles as Lear’s Fool. Robert Sicular’s Kent, from banishment to bitter end, serves Lear with all his heart. And Geoffrey Kent’s evil Edmund is the kind of villain you just love to hate.
I have always been impressed by the quality of work done by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. With King Lear, the CSF has outdone even itself. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
On the Bill
King Lear plays through Aug. 8 on the University of Colorado campus. Tickets are $10 to $54.
For tickets or information, call 303-492-0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.