How Shakespeare’s characters have marked us
Each summer, the CU Presents editorial team sits down with Tim Orr, CSF producing artistic director, and Wendy Franz, managing director, to discuss what the summer lineup offers audiences thematically. Some years, the answers are as varied as the plotlines themselves. Other years, like this one, a single, central theme bubbles to the surface: The 2022 season explores our closest bonds and how each is impacted by our individual choices. Who do we choose to give our loyalty to? Why do we sometimes betray those we love the most? And, perhaps most importantly, what lessons can we learn from our choices as they propel us forward in the world?
“The cornerstones of each of these stories are themes exploring the way friendships are tested, as well as legacy: These plays examine how different groups choose to make their mark on the world,” says Franz, who is also set to direct “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
In prepping “All’s Well,” Franz has become particularly keen to unpack Shakespeare’s take on what modern audiences have come to know as “cancel culture.” There is no denying that humans can be an unforgiving lot. And that some people—women, for example; people of color, too—tend to face swifter judgment and harsher consequences for their mistakes, even when made in the folly of their youth. When someone is “canceled,” though, it denies them (or anyone else, for that matter) the opportunity for growth. It snuffs out their chance at making amends.
Instead, perhaps, we should seek restorative justice: a modern framework that proves how, when we encounter our transgressions, we have the opportunity to repair them. And then, we have the opportunity to transform our relationships. A lesson for 2022, perhaps, but it’s evident in the pages of this 400-year-old play, says Franz.
“There’s richness and maturity here. The play offers life lessons on what can be gleaned when we commit to investing in each other, rather than writing one another off.”
In “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” two lifelong friends are faced with the choice of where—and how—to establish themselves as adults in the world. It’s a tried-and-true coming-of-age tale, and the audience follows along with laughter (and sometimes sympathetic embarrassment) as each fumbles forward through their first moments of independence. As in “All’s Well,” the hope for a happy ending rests on whether love and loyalty carry enough weight to bear forgiveness, too.
“Coriolanus” asks similar questions, though on a grander (and darker) scale. In addition to the exploration of intimate relationships, such as those between a mother and son, Shakespeare here puts community and politics on display. What does the government owe its citizens? A thorny question to be sure, and one that cultures across the globe have grappled with for centuries.
If you read the directors’ and dramaturgs’ notes for each of these stories—and you should!—you’ll note that, while Shakespeare asks all this and more of his characters and audiences, you’ll be hardpressed to find a clear and concrete resolution to any of his questions. They aren’t easy to answer, of course; which is one reason they make such prolific thematic elements in the Bard’s work. It’s why his work has resonated for centuries.
Enter “The Book of Will”: not by William Shakespeare; it’s about him. More importantly, Lauren Gunderson’s script imagines the true story of his closest friends’ work to ensure his legacy prevails, even after he is no longer around to do so himself. Rodney Lizcano—making his Rippon directorial debut, but you’ll recognize him from recent CSF roles as Oberon, Andrew Aguecheek, the titular Richard III—says this play, a love letter to theatre folk, is the perfect Shakespearean festival companion piece.
The lessons offered here on stage resonate for shifts happening inside the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as well, as leadership continues to pursue a more equitable and inclusive organization.
“Tim [Orr] and I are always trying to figure out how to be better leaders,” says Franz. “Every year, we feel further away from the experience of the younger generations we are hiring. We’re continuously holding strategic conversations about new groups who have different expectations for their jobs and the world and how we can connect with them.
“These plays very much parallel that generational divide. The stories show how even when we don’t ‘get’ each other or don’t listen, we all have many of the same experiences. The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In this way, “The Book of Will” ties each story together this summer. It helps illustrate why audiences return time and time again to the pages of Shakespeare’s work, seeking outside perspectives and potential solutions to some of our most human dilemmas.
“’The Book of Will’ looks back across the big arc of Shakespeare’s work and of being a company and surviving as a company. Audiences will really get a feel for the longevity and timelessness and seeming indestructibility of Shakespeare’s work,” says Orr. “It’s also a remembrance of people we’ve lost. That’s a big, loud ding of the bell for me as well, given what we’ve experienced as a community in recent years. That’s the power of theatre.”