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Author: John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist

Where there is a Will (Shakespeare), there is a way

Shakespeare has written some of the greatest female characters in the English language, but when it comes to being woke in 2022, the Bard is, at best … a restless sleeper.

With everything from classic novels and TV shows to Broadway musicals now being reconsidered through a more enlightened (less patriarchal) lens, Shakespeare would seem to be a major candidate for culture canceling. And yet, 400 years later … he endures.

In Colorado, Shakespeare is on stage everywhere from Boulder, home of the second-oldest summer Shakespeare Festival in the county, to Colorado Springs to Longmont to Centennial.

It seems being the greatest writer in the history of the English language still counts for something – although you can’t help but squirm from time to time watching his problem plays play out.

Take the 65-year-old Colorado Shakespeare Festival, which prides itself on regularly rotating throughout the entire Shakespeare canon, so – no dodging. This year, that means taking on two of the Bard’s more obvious problem plays in the #MeToo era – “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “All’s Well That Ends Well.” In the former, a scoundrel named Proteus is called out of town and instantly leaves his intended behind, saying, “I will forget that Julia is alive.” He then doggedly pursues his best friend’s girlfriend, fully unaware that Julia, in disguise, is right by his side throughout the play, witnessing his unforgivable lechery first-hand. And yet, Shakespeare would want us to want them to be reunited in the end.

In “All’s Well that Ends Well,” it doesn’t – end well, that is. At least not for Helen, a doctor’s daughter who falls for the wrong guy. Or for Bertram, the mean-spirited philanderer who is ordered to marry her. She fakes her death, sleeps with him in disguise and gets pregnant, so he is then forced to either marry her or face charges of seduction and abandonment. Have a great life, lovebirds!

Colorado Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr intentionally assigned both hot potatoes to female directors (Carolyn Howarth and Wendy Franz) who both took liberties with the text that empower Shakespeare’s women to deliver some of the most damning assessments of the offending men. Both directors add ambiguities to their endings that give each of the offended women agency to hatch possible (unscripted) escape clauses. But the plays are what the plays are.

Orr says both of his creative teams have been wrestling with these questions for a year, and he believes asking them right now in 2022 is part of how we collectively move forward.

“What we kept asking ourselves was, ‘What’s on the other side of making a mistake? Is that it? What happens next? Can there be forgiveness?’” Orr said. “Those are all very important questions in 2022. Because what is the alternative?”

Orr doesn’t mind saying that both plays, neither of which usually sells like hotcakes, “are crushing it at the box office.”

Elsewhere, Colorado Springs TheatreWorks is presenting “Twelfth Night,” with all its gender-swapped hijinks, as its traditional summer Shakespeare offering, but not where it usually does, in the field at Rock Ledge Ranch west of the city. The play is being staged on the lawn outside the Ent Center for the Arts through July 31 – except on Friday nights, when it moves inside to the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre to avoid competing noise.

The Longmont Theatre Company and Theater Company of Lafayette are partnering for “Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare’s classic tale of romance and treachery, which is being staged in various indoor and outdoor locations in Longmont, Lafayette, Erie and Boulder through July 24.

And then there’s Leigh Miller’s COVID-delayed “Shakespeare in the Wild” production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Sam Gregory, which will play out in an open-space meadow near the Goodson Recreation Center in Centennial from Aug. 19-28.

“If our collective goal is to better include all of the voices in our community, then I think Shakespeare is one of the best ways to do it,” Miller said. “Gender fluidity, racial inequity and empowering women are all conversations begging to be had – and they are all present in Shakespeare’s works.”

There are also two Shakespeare-esque offerings worth noting. The Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre in Grand Lake is staging “Desperate Measures,” a madcap musical comedy takeoff on “Measure for Measure” in late 1800s Arizona. And the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s cherry to Bard fans is a powerfully performed “The Book of Will,” a 2017 play by Lauren Gunderson that imagines how Shakespeare’s plays were very nearly lost to history until a group of friends set out to publish an anthology many years after his death.

This production, directed by Rodney Lizcano, includes a unique and deeply moving epilogue that is a gift to all of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s working artists and audiences. Definitely worth taking in.