Colorado Shakespeare Festival 2006:

Do you want to be happy, or do you want to think deep thoughts? At this summer’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, you can do both, although not on the same night.

If you want to laugh, then see As You Like It, a comedy for the CSF seems to have a particular talent. The previous CSF production of As You Like It, in 2001, was sparkling and wonderful, and so is this version, but in a very different way.

This time around, As You Like It is turned into a “screwball comedy.” The screwball comedy, which was especially popular in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was based on the comic juxtaposition of opposites – rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, and male versus female. In As You Like It, the heroes, having been betrayed by their older relatives, flee to the Forest of Arden. In the Boulder production, the forest is the rural south of the 1930s.

The male hero of the screwball comedy is often good-hearted, simple, and naïve, while the female is a wily, deceitful fast-talker. The improbable film plots succeed on the strength of excellent leads and their witty dialogue.

Director Gavin Cameron-Webb transforms As You Like It into screwball mode so seamlessly that one almost believes that the play was originally written screwball-style. Particularly excellent as sharp-tongued cynical dames are Rosalind’s cousin Celia (Elgin Kelly) and Phebe the hard-hearted country girl (Laura Montes)—two broads with broad gestures, wide swings in their voices, and comically expressive faces.

The males are well-played and solid, although none of them rises to, say, the heights of Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

The only really false note is struck by Duke Senior, as the hobo leader who is the exiled brother of Duke Frederick. He often played with a yo-yo during his speeches, but the action seemed contrived rather than zany.

Hobos with yo-yos notwithstanding, most of the other elements from the 1930s fit together smoothly: the wrestler with the Brooklyn accent who would be “loathe ta hoit 'im,” the singing telegram, the Woody Guthrie music, the square dance finale, and, especially, the characters at the urban costume party dressed as Flash Gordon, Ming the Merciless, Scarlett O’Hara, the Mummy, and other 1930s movie characters.

Another play involving an exiled brother, The Tempest, is also excellent, in its own dark and disturbing way. The story begins with Prospero and his young adult daughter Miranda, who for almost two decades have been exiled on a Mediterranean island by Prospero’s usurping brother, who took over the duchy of Milan. During the years on the island, Prospero has learned magic and acquired a collection of ethereal servants, led by Ariel. He also rules over a monstrous slave named Caliban.

Prospero discovers that a ship carrying his wicked brother, as well as the wicked king of Naples (who had helped the usurpation plot) are coming nearby; Prospero uses magic to cause a shipwreck, and most of the play involves several shipwrecked parties who wander the island.

The performances and staging evoke, at various times, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, The Hulk, and Lost—works which followed The Tempest in exploring the dark-hearted monster that is part of human nature—a monster sometimes revealed more vividly in the wilderness, but always present in “civilization” too.

Caliban is the overt monster—enslaved because he once attempted to rape Miranda, after she befriended and tutored him. The Neapolitan and Milanese rulers and courtiers are better-dressed than brutish Caliban, but even more monstrous, betraying families and each other.

Almost all the characters in the play undergo a transformation. The leading exceptions are Prospero’s beautiful daughter Miranda (the charming Tara McMullen) and her beloved, handsome Prince Ferdinand, who both remain guileless and pure.

The biggest transformation is Prospero’s. A Freudian avant la lettre, he re-enacts the central trauma of his life (the usurpation of his dukedom), and this time ensures a happy ending—defeating a pair of drunken, cruel sailors whom he has entrapped in a plot to usurp his little island kingdom. After exacting some revenge and teaching a few lessons to the shipwrecked characters, Prospero abjures magic, frees the spirit Ariel (thereby liberating his own spirit), emancipates Caliban, reconciles with his brother, and prepares to return to civilization.

Having grown up without knowing any human other than her father, Miranda sees the shipwrecked men, and exclaims “Oh brave new world, that hath such people in it!” Her naïve excitement evokes laughter from the audience, but the line also reminds us of the new word that has been created by the reconciliation of Prospero and his enemies (and also by the solution of other conflicts in the subplots), when reformed men stop acting like monsters.

Yet in the brave new world created by mercy, Prospero remains a rather dour fellow. After all, character is built over the years, and, although a person can change his intentions, changing one’s disposition is takes time.

Both of The Tempest and As You Like It are performed at the beautiful outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre at the University of Colorado, with a stage flanked by evergreens, and the night sky sometimes adding commentary to the show. The Tempest benefits most from the setting, as the sparse set blends into the outdoors to create scenes of magical otherworldiness.

As You Like It, ostensibly set in a forest, keeps so much attention on the characters’ madcap physicalizations that the play would work equally well indoors. The CSF finishes its season with performances every night this week, through Saturday night.