At the Colorado Shakespeare Festival — at 54, the second-oldest Bard fest in the nation — the marquee event this summer will be a cross-cultural presentation of Nikolai Gogol's 1842 political satire, "The Inspector General."
But the most important person in the rehearsal room is not the boss, producing artistic director Philip C. Sneed. Or Efim Zvenyatsky, the production's visiting Russian director.
It's the translator, Julia Polshina.
"She's the only one who really knows what everyone is saying," said actor Stephen Weitz. To which castmate Mark Rubald adds, with a laugh, "Yes, we trust Julia to tell us what Efim is saying, . . . but even so, we don't know that's what he's really saying."
Polshina is taking her responsibility in stride, despite a constant bombardment for two-way interpretation.
"I am usually a reasonable person," she says, to the quick clarification of a team member: "No, she is an unusually reasonable person."
"The Inspector General" is already an unusual creative undertaking for Colorado Shakespeare's 28 American actors, who will present their take on a political satire that Gogol described as his own "comedy of errors." It's about a corrupt mayor who, after years of bamboozling and shakedowns, is brought down in humiliation.
Its cast includes a mix of high- profile Denver and Boulder actors, including Lanna Joffrey and Erik Sandvold from the Denver Center. Zvenyatsky is producer and director at the Maxim Gorky Theatre in Vladivostok. His creative team includes eight members of his Russian company.
"This is a rare opportunity to see a very funny and popular foreign classic created in part by artists from that culture, which almost never happens," Sneed said. "We do French plays, we do Spanish plays, we do Chinese plays, but we almost never do them with artists from that culture. Usually you'd have to travel to Russia to get this experience."
Sneed and Zvenyatsky have been sharing works with their respective audiences 5,000 miles apart for 17 years, long before Sneed took over Colorado Shakespeare in 2007. But this will be a first for Boulder audiences.
Why do they do it?
"Because we should communicate more," says Zvenyatsky, who, ironically, can only communicate with his cast through his translator, Polshina.
"We are still very much like extraterrestrials in relation to each other, and we still do not know a lot of important things about each other. Most of us do not know much about real art in the United States or in Russia. We still are eating our hamburgers and popcorn, and that's that. We probably do not think enough about what it means to be human."
The play opens July 8, but for the July 15-16 performances only, the Americans will be joined on stage by four Russian actors. The Russians will assume four roles and speak their lines in Russian, while their American counterparts will repeat their lines in English.
For the actors, the thrill is being exposed to a new way of working. "We live in a country where, at least in the mainstream commercial theater, the process is pretty universally the same no matter whatever theater you go to," said Weitz, who plays Khlestakov — one of the roles that will be shared for the bilingual performances. "I think it's a great lesson for actors to give over to something foreign, and by that I don't mean nationality, I mean process."
A different process
For Zvenyatsky, working in America always comes as a shocking reminder of the disparity on the value of creating art in the two countries. In Russia, Zvenyatsky will typically rehearse a play for six months, much of that time sitting around a table talking about meaning and subtext. Once a play is ready, it goes into a rotation and can be performed for years. In Boulder, Zvenyatsky has only a few weeks to bridge the cultural divide, conquer the language barrier and establish an authentic Russian aesthetic — with American actors who are all simultaneously rehearsing for other plays in the festival season.
Weitz said the dialogue was very one-way at first, but it didn't take long to read the director's body language, if not lips. "You can just tell by the look on his face whether he is pleased or not."
To Rubald, who plays a school superintendent, the fun comes from the opportunity to perform in a beloved Russian jewel that is unknown to us.
"This play has a relevance and a resonance with its culture in the way that we have for 'Our Town' or 'A Christmas Carol,' " said Rubald. He finds it fascinating that Feodor Dostoyevsky himself appeared in a production of "The Inspector General," playing the Postmaster. "It seems amazing that this was seen as such a profound a piece of theater that this great social-political writer would want to be in it," Rubald said. "I mean, we would never see Cornel West in a Sarah Ruhl play. It just doesn't happen."
"Russian bribes are bigger"
But contemporary American audiences might be surprised how well they know the story of "The Inspector General," Zvenyatsky said.
"Corruption and greed and bribery exist in Russia and the U.S. and all over the world," he said. The only difference — "Russian bribes are bigger."
Anyone who has charted the formation and rise of the Tea Party will get it, Sneed added. "The idea that government is inherently ineffectual, if not downright corrupt, is a recurring theme throughout history," he said. "But since 2008, we've seen this very divisive debate about what the role of government is, and one side that believes governments are by their nature incompetent. Well . . . this play sort of proves that, in a way."
Zvenyatsky has found that actors in Russia and America are essentially the same. "There is a common language they all speak," he said. "What I do not like, is that there is no money in the theater in the United States, unfortunately."
And in Boulder, there is a fixed eye on the bottom line. Sneed broke even last year, but after a two-year, $1 million revenue free fall. Also on the festival bill: "Romeo and Juliet," "The Comedy of Errors" and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's children's novel, "The Little Prince," which opened the season Saturday.
This marks the first time since 1972 the festival hasn't offered at least three Shakespeare titles.
So will Gogol sell better than Shake- speare?
"Believe me, if anyone has a crystal ball that will predict what will sell, they should let us know," Sneed said. "And they should let Broadway know, because 70 percent of Broadway productions lose money."
John Moore: 303-954-1056 or email@example.com
2011 Colorado Shakespeare Festival
"Romeo and Juliet"
The story: The world's most enduring love story follows star-crossed lovers caught between their feuding families as they hurtle from first blush to early graves.
The scoop: The plan is to play it straight, with a lush, Renaissance design setting aimed at the classic Shakespeare lover.
Directed by: Lynne Collins
Starring: Benjamin Bonenfant, Jamie Ann Romero, pictured above (photo by Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)
Now through Aug. 13 in the Mary Rippon outdoor amphitheater; also Aug. 19-20 in the Arvada Center's amphitheater
"The Little Prince"
This year's family offering is an adaptation of French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery's 1943 novella, an adventure that spans the Sahara to outer space. While ostensibly a children's story, the tale espouses profound little philosophies like, "What is essential is invisible to the eye." The story has been translated into 190 languages and sold more than 80 million copies.
Adapted by: Rick Cummins and John Scoullar
Directed by: Philip Sneed
Starring: Tom Coiner with Orion Pilger and Alistair Hennessey, pictured above (photo by Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)
Now through Aug. 14, in the University Mainstage Theatre
"The Comedy of Errors"
This slapstick farce of mistaken identities, all on one whirlwind day, features two sets of twins separated at birth (noble brothers and their servants), who meet up as young men.
The scoop: This play is being staged by co-directors, one focused on text and character (Carolyn Howarth) and the other on movement (Daniel Stein). "I wanted a production that was really physical and funny, without resorting to Justin Bieber references," said artistic director Philip Sneed.
Starring: Stephen Weitz and Josh Robinson
July 9-Aug. 11 (outdoors)
"The Inspector General"
Nikolai Gogol's 1842 satire is set in a backwater Czarist Russia town where ineptitude is rampant. Local leaders and cronies curry favor by giving a visiting official money, women and more. But are they greasing the right man's palm?
Directed by: Efim Zvenyatsky, in collaboration with the Maxim Gorky Theatre of Vladivostok
Starring: Gary Alan Wright
July 8-Aug. 13 (indoors)
All performances on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. Tickets $10-$54. Information: 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org
This week's theater openings
Today (July 25) and July 24 only: Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret's "Sondheim and More"
Opening Thursday, June 30, through July 23: Curious' "On an Average Day"
Opening Thursday, June 30, through July 17: Springs Ensemble Theatre's "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" Colorado Springs
Opening Thursday, June 30, through July 21: Little Theatre of the Rockies' "The Female Odd Couple," at the Norton Theatre Greeley
Opening Thursday, June 30, through July 10: The Edge's "Murder at the Howard Johnson's" Lakewood
Opening Friday, July 1, through July 31: Vintage Theatre's "Moonlight and Magnolias"
Opening Friday, July 1, through Aug. 19: Rocky Mountain Rep's "Chess" Grand Lake
Opening Friday, July 1, through Sept. 3: Thin Air Theatre Company's "Hazel Kirke" Cripple Creek
Opening Saturday, July 2, through Aug. 26: Lake Dillon's "Godspell"
Opening Sunday, July 3, through July 14: Ridley Enterprises' "Masque the Musical: A Cheesecake Love Story," at the Bug Theatre
This week's theater closings
Today, June 26: National touring production of "Rock of Ages," at the Buell Theatre
Today, June 26: Su Teatro's "Chicanos Sing the Blues"
Today, June 26: Stage Left's "Top Girls" Salida
Today, June 26: Ignite Theatre's "Edges of Love," at Hamburger Mary's
Saturday, July 2: Spotlight's "Run for Your Wife"
Saturday, July 2: Thunder River's "The Trip to Bountiful" Carbondale
Saturday, July 2: Jones Theatre's "Henry the IV, Part 1" Westcliffe
Sunday, July 3: Performance Now's "1776" Lakewood
Sunday, July 3: OpenStage's "King Lear," at the Masonic Temple Fort Collins
Sunday, July 3: Jones Theatre's "As You Like It" Westcliffe
Video podcast: Coloradans on New York stages
All this month, we are posting video podcasts by John Moore with Colorado actors working on New York stages, including Elizabeth Welch, Gene Gillette, Laura Tesman, Josh Franklin, Rachel de Benedet, Joshua Buscher, Jenny Fellner, Gavin Lodge, Alena Watters and Victoria Matlock. Here's the most recent episode:
Part 9: Joshua Buscher
Chatfield High and University of Northern Colorado graduate Joshua Buscher, who is the assistant dance captain and male swing in Broadway's "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical." Running time: 7 minutes, 30 seconds.
To see all the videos so far, click here
Most recent theater openings
"1776" Classic musical based on events leading to the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence in, yes, 1776. Through July 3. Presented by Performance Now at the Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 S. Allison Parkway, 303-987-7845 7845 or performancenow.org
"Becky's New Car" TV and Broadway star Sandy Duncan will open Theatre Aspen's 2011 summer season performing in Colorado native Steven Dietz 's new serio-comedy. Duncan will work alongside her son, Jeffrey Correia, who will also play her son. In the play, a middle-aged woman is literally handed the keys to a new life when a grief-stricken, Prince Charming millionaire stumbles into the car dealership where she works. Have you ever been tempted to flee your own life? Duncan, 64, has starred on TV in "The Sandy Duncan Show," "The Hogan Family " and the mini-series "Roots." On stage, the three-time Tony Award nominee is best-known for her portrayal of Peter in Broadway's "Peter Pan." Through July 23. Look for our interview with Sandy Duncan on June 24. 400 Rio Grande Place, 970-925-9313, or theatre aspen's home page
"Bent" Two homosexuals are taken to the Dachau death camp in 1934, with only each other for comfort. Tuesdays only. Through July 25. 73rd Avenue Theatre Company, 7287 Lowell Blvd., Westminster, 720-276-6936 or the73rdavenuetheatrecompany.com
"Calamity Jane" Based on the 1953 movie starring Doris Day, this energetic musical tells the unlikely romance of famed Western tomboy Calamity Jane and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok. Through Sept. 4. Presented by Thin Air Theatre Company at the Butte Theatre, 139 E. Bennett Ave., Cripple Creek, 719-235-8944 or butteoperahouse.com
"A Chorus Line" This groundbreaking, behind-the-scenes look at struggling Broadway dancers went on to become the longest-running musical in Broadway history. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Songs include "One" and "What I Did For Love." Through Sept. 4. Union Colony Dinner Theatre, 802 Ninth Ave., Greeley, 970-352-2900 or ucdinnertheatre.com
"Edges of Love" Based on the music of Jonthan Larson disciples Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, this is a song cycle about different kinds of relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Through Sunday. Presented by Ignite Theatre at Hamburger Mary's, 700 E. 17th Ave., 720-626-9796 or ignitetheatre.com
"The Full Monty" Based on the popular British film, five unemployed steelworkers (moved here to Buffalo) come up with a bold way to make some quick cash: by taking off their clothes. Through July 23. Backstage Theatre, 121 S. Ridge St., Breckenridge, 970-453-0199 or backstagetheatre.org
"Nixon's Nixon" Brothers Tom and Dan McNally play Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger the night before Nixon resigned the presidency. Through July 24. Presented by Little Theatre of the Rockies, at the Norton Theatre on the University of Northern Colorado campus, Greeley, 970-351-2200 or arts.unco.edu/ltr
"Top Girls" Free perfromance of Act I of Caryl Churchill's play about Marlene, who is throwing herself a luncheon attended by five women from history and legend. Through June 26. Presented by Stage Left at the Salida Steamplant Theatre, 300 W. Sackett, 719-539-8539 or stagelefttheatre.org
"Unnecessary Farce" Two undercover cops stake out a motel room to catch a crooked mayor on tape. Sounds simple, right? Through Sept. 10. Creede Repertory Theatre, 124 N. Main St., Creede, 719-658-2540, 1-866-658-2540, or creederep.org
Complete theater listings
Go to our complete list of every currently running production in Colorado, including summaries, run dates, addresses, phones and links to every company's home page. Or check out our listings by company or by opening date
The Running Lines blog
Catch up on John Moore's roundup of the latest theater news: denverpost.com/runninglines