The Bard in Boulder

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is one of my favorite Colorado experiences. Over the weekend, I attended for the second time, and I am happy to report that the experience was every bit as wonderful as I had remembered it.

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The event is held in Boulder each summer. It combines a handful of things I love: Colorado’s warm summer evenings, the striking campus of CU Boulder, CU’s gorgeous Shakespeare Garden, the company of friends, local craft beers, and of course, Shakespeare. It’s easy to understand why I enjoy it so much.

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The beautiful campus of CU Boulder.

The plays are staged in an outdoor amphitheater that rests between four buildings on the CU campus. The quad area makes a perfect setting for Shakespeare, with the theatrical sets built in front of a backdrop of sandstone buildings and towering evergreens.

Outside of the quad area is the Shakespeare Garden, a grassy escape filled with meticulously groomed Dogwood trees. CU’s student catering service has a tent in the garden during the festival and they sell beer, wine, and sandwiches there.

In the Shakespeare Garden before the show this weekend, I met some seasoned festival-goers who had planned ahead and brought their own picnics. They had come with blankets, snacks, and bottles of wine. My group hadn’t been organized enough to plan a picnic, though. We stood in the long line for student catering, instead. If I have one complaint about the whole evening, it is that a croissant sandwich and a Pilsener cost me $21. It seemed like a lot; $21 will almost buy a dozen doughnuts at Voodoo.

A pair of actors from the theater company roamed the Shakespeare Garden this weekend, entertaining the festival-goers with improvised Elizabethan sonnets. Mostly, the two gents were able to get at least a chuckle out of every group they approached. But their luck changed when they attempted to deliver a sonnet to a 4-year-old blonde girl named Hazel. She endured her poem with an awkward half-smile — the other half was terror, I think. For most of it, she stood next to her father, with one arm wrapped around his leg. Hazel was not as easily wooed as the rest of us.

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A pair of actors in the Shakespeare Garden, improvising sonnets with mixed success.

The festival is put on by a professional theater company. This is not meant to be a review of the theatrical performance (and frankly, I don’t feel informed enough to be a helpful critic), but I will note that the characters of Iago and Othello were exceptionally well-acted. I love when actors manage to deliver Shakespeare’s dialogue to a modern audience in a way that doesn’t sound like they’re tripping over the words themselves. Desdemona seemed to have more trouble with that, which made some of her scenes difficult to endure. But “honest Iago,” especially in his dark, sinister monologues — just, wow. At the conclusion of the second act, a woman seated near me exclaimed, “What is his problem?!!!” I think that means he was convincing.

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Opening scene of opening night.

The play began at 8:00, while the sun was still out.  At the end of the second act, the sun had set and we were seated under a starry night, with the glowing moon visible above the stage.  I love that about outdoor theater productions. There’s just something magical about being able to see the moon and the stars, feel the night air, and still be transported to Othello’s Cyprus.

CU was kind enough to distribute stadium chairs, so that we weren’t forced to sit on stone benches all night. If I have two complaints, my second one would be that the seating is just a bit cramped to sit for the duration of Othello. By the time intermission rolled around, I was tempted to run laps around the campus just to restore circulation to my legs. Instead, I took a walk around the theater with my friends and then stood in line for another $7 pilsener.

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Othello playing a drum to open the final act.

I blame the seating and not the actors for how the night ended for me.

The final act is when, in the words of one of my friends, “they all just kill each other.” Othello is dark and violent at the end. We see Othello tell his wife that she should say her prayers because he is about to kill her. Then we watch him strangle her. And when she is still not dead, we watch him suffocate her in their marital bed.

During the scene of Desdemona’s murder, I was one part horrified and one part happy, knowing the night would be over soon. The action on stage was violent and horrific. But my inability to fully extend my legs had become unbearable. I was twisting and turning in my seat, looking like 4-year-old Hazel — half-smile, half-terror.  

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