I spent Friday visiting the Mark Twain sites and then drove a few hours over to Kansas City where I stayed in the musty old farmhouse. Saturday morning I got up early and drove over to Second Best Coffee where I camped for a couple of hours, requesting places to stay on CouchSurfing and looking up the schedule for Colorado Shakespeare.
Around noon I pulled out of Kansas City and headed west toward Boulder. It was a long drive. I stayed the night in Denver at another far too expensive airbnb, but once again, I was exhausted and desperate.
In the morning I made the mistake of visiting Alpine Modern, a cafe in Boulder. Anyone who knows me knows that I am generally not a snob about most things: I survive on junk food, enjoy student Shakespeare as much as large professional productions, I wear cheap clothes, and watch dumb action movies. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to nitpick the quality of things I like. The biggest exception to this is coffee. I have become spoiled in recent years, and have become unable to drink cheap, bad coffee. I am traveling with a copy of Where to Drink Coffee, a bible of specialty coffee shops all over the world. Generally it’s the best way to find out the places to get decent coffee in a new city. Coffee is one of those things you can’t trust locals on; most of the time they’ll send you to a place that doesn’t even have pour overs and which they only think is good because the decor is cute and the baristas are good at latte art. For some reason Alpine Modern was listed in the book, so I went there and realized that it is not a coffee shop at all, it’s a cutesy cafe that focuses on food, not coffee. Because the place was cute and listed in the book, I rolled the dice and ordered a cup of their batch brew and a donut. After sitting down I realized the coffee was sour, undrinkable industrial runoff and the donut they sold me was gluten-free, which basically means it was like taking a bite out of the colorful kinetic sand that kids play with. On top of that, they were playing some kind of loud, squealing music at maximum volume. It was an awful experience. If you are ever in Boulder, do not go to Alpine Modern.
I left and drove across town to Boxcar coffee, which was much better. I camped there for a bit before making my way to the campus of Colorado University to see Colorado Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Colorado Shakespeare’s Richard III
I will begin by saying that I loved this show. Director Wendy Franz went all in on the concept, and it was executed beautifully. It is a testament to how great the show was that it overcame all of my prejudices. In general I tend to enjoy more stripped down, bare shows with minimal costumes and set, and I prefer small venues with a thrust stage or in the round. It’s not that I expected to hate the show, I just didn’t expect to love it quite as much as I did. It was a big, pretty elaborate show in a mid-size venue with a proscenium stage.
Richard III is perhaps Shakespeare’s most theatrical play, its main rival being Hamlet. This is important to understanding Franz’s vision. For those of you who are not familiar with the play, Richard is the youngest living brother of King Edward IV, toward the end of the Wars of the Roses, when two rival families battled for the throne of England. Richard is physically deformed, he has a hunchback, and he wants more than anything to become king. The story of Richard III is basically the story of Richard gaining power through lies, murder, seduction, and propaganda.
What sets Richard apart from other usurpers like Henry IV or Macbeth is that his victories don’t come from violence and strength, they come from his keen psychological understanding. He manages to convince, seduce, intimidate, confuse, or manipulate everyone in the play on his rise to power. And he seduces us in the audience as well by delivering these amazing soliloquies, telling us directly what he is doing. You find yourself rooting for Richard because he seems to be bringing you into his confidence in a way that he doesn’t bring anyone else. And throughout his scheming, Richard continually uses the language of theatre.
In this context, you can understand why Franz’s choice to stage her Richard III as a play within a play, a device that is simultaneously novel and true to Shakespearean form. Franz’s concept was to frame the play inside of a performance by mid-19th century actors. So as the audience filed into the theatre, the actors were onstage surrounded by racks of costumes and props scattered about. They’re stretching, chatting, trying on coats and wigs, the young actors are scampering about. The actor who is to play Richard enters, clearly the boss, with paychecks and business news. He greets everyone, and there are hints of back story, relationships both good and bad in the barely audible exchanges between him and the other actors. Then the actors help to dress Richard in his padded hump and medieval garb and the actual play of Richard III begins. At the end of the play, Richard and Margaret lose their costumes and wigs and embrace as actors.
In essence we are in the 21st century watching actors play actors from the 19th century playing characters from the 15th century. It’s not as confusing as it sounds.
The staging manages to be simultaneously immersive and unobtrusive. The concept of the play within the play only appears at the top and bottom of the show, so it frames the action symmetrically without interfering in the center.
It would be hard to pick out a favorite in a play full of amazing performances. Richard carries his play in much the same way Hamlet carries his and Rosalind carries hers, so obviously you need a phenomenal actor in that role in order for the show to work. In this show, Richard was hilariously seductive, or seductively hilarious. I’ve never seen a Richard get so many huge laughs from the audience.
Margaret, the widow of Henry VI (the king that Richard’s family deposed and killed) is a favorite in any production because of her big, prophetic speeches cursing the Yorkists. She truly shined in this production. She stalked the stage with a satchel full of Tarot cards that she brandished threateningly while speaking her curses. The choreographer for the show developed a set of hand motions that Margaret employed while cursing, adding a kinetic element. Franz also made the choice to have Margaret lurk around the outside of the stage throughout the play, even in scenes where she has no lines, to add to the idea of Margaret as this spectre of vengeance, watching as the family that deposed her destroys itself.
My other favorite was Elizabeth, the wife of Richard’s older brother Edward, and the mother to the two princes that Richard has to have murdered to clear her way to the throne. Her scene with Richard wherein he tries to get her consent to marry her daughter, his niece, in order to secure his tenuous claim to the throne. Elizabeth was powerful, defiant, and mesmerizing to watch on stage pushing back against Richard. It is the moment when things really turn against Richard, when his powers of persuasion and seduction fail him and he’s repudiated for his vile intentions.
I stayed for a short talkback with some of the actors after the show, which heightened my enjoyment of what was already a fantastic afternoon. I love talking about Shakespeare so I especially love talkbacks and seminars and discussions and lectures.
After the show, I walked around Boulder, which is admittedly a beautiful place, its rampant and severe phobia of gluten notwithstanding. There was a cute creek flowing through the campus area and lots of cute local shops along a nice pedestrian thoroughfare.
I don’t think I’ve missed an opening weekend of a Marvel movie in ten years so after exploring Boulder for a bit I went to the local multiplex to catch Ant-Man and the Wasp, which was enjoyable even though I accidentally spilled an entire Red Bull on myself halfway through the movie (luckily it was sugar free so I didn’t end up all sticky).
After the movie I started my drive to Cedar City, UT, home of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, one of the biggest festivals I’ll visit on this trip. As it turns out, driving in the mountains is terrifying, especially at night. Every mile there was a different warning sign about various kinds of obstacles that might appear without warning: rocks in two verb tenses: falling and fallen, deer, avalanches, steep declines which necessitate special ramps for trucks to pull off into if their brakes fail. Driving in Colorado feels like a death trap.
About two hours into the drive, I was too tired to keep going, so I pulled off into a highway rest area, reclined my seat as far back as it would go and slept for five hours, from midnight to 5am. When my alarm went off, I sat straight up, started the car and pulled back on to the highway.
I averaged 85mph on my way to Cedar City Utah to just barely make it in time to catch their matinee of Othello. More about that show and my visit to Utah Shakespeare in a later blog entry.