If you go

What: 2014 Colorado Shakespeare Festival season at a glance

The schedule:

• "The Tempest," June 6 (preview), June 7-Aug. 10

• "I Hate Hamlet," June 12 (preview), June 13-Aug. 9

• "The Merry Wives of Windsor," June 27 (preview); June 28-Aug. 9

• "Henry IV, Part 1," July 17 (preview); July 18-Aug. 10

• "Henry IV, Part 2" (special event), July 27 and Aug. 3

Tickets: Season tickets may be purchased by phone at 303-492-8008, online at coloradoshakes.org or in person at the University Club on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Individual tickets are $18-$59 for regular-season shows, $10-$30 for special events.

Info: coloradoshakes.org

The picture of John Barrymore that emerges from these letters, drawings books and manuscripts is hardly simple.

The legendary stage and screen actor who delivered definitive performances as Hamlet, Richard III and other hard-hitting Shakespearean roles in the 1920s and '30s, was a complicated man. He was a passionate artist dedicated to his craft. He could be fiery and unpredictable with friends and lovers alike. He kept up an impressive network of accomplished friends — writers, poets and actors who defined Western culture in the early 20th century.

All of those facets come through in the dozens of items on display at the University of Colorado's Heritage Center. The trove of Barrymore memorabilia reveals intimate details about this very private man.

"When you read his personal letters to his wife, or you read about the conversations he had with Gene Fowler, you realize that he really was a romantic," said Roxxy Duda, a CU graduate student who discovered the collection in the archives of the Norlin Library earlier this year. "In many ways, he was searching for that human connection."

"I Hate Hamlet" cast members Alex Esola, left, and Sam Gregory check out the John Barrymore collection at CU.
"I Hate Hamlet" cast members Alex Esola, left, and Sam Gregory check out the John Barrymore collection at CU. (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera)

Finding those insights wasn't merely an academic matter for Duda. She's also the assistant director and dramaturge for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "I Hate Hamlet," a comedy that features the ghost of John Barrymore as a central character. The CSF season opens next weekend with "The Tempest," but Shakespeare fans will have to wait until the following weekend for the opening of "I Hate Hamlet."

It was filling her role as the production's dramaturge — the crew member in charge of research and development — that Duda stumbled upon Barrymore's connection to CU. In scanning articles about the legendary actor, she found a brief reference to the Gene Fowler Collection of Barrymore items housed in the archives section of the Norlin Library.

A visit to the library turned up an untapped trove of books, photographs, papers and random personal items ranging from the contents of the actor's wallet when he died in 1942 to an assortment of canceled checks.

The items helped Duda and the rest of the "I Hate Hamlet" cast and crew find an important degree of authenticity for their production. The 1991 comedy, written by Paul Rudnick, is set in Barrymore's old apartment in New York City. Barrymore appears as a ghost who strives to convince a working actor that Shakespeare's work remains relevant, important and vital.

The collection offered important clues on how to bring that story to life.

"We found items that hadn't been taken out of boxes in a long time, if at all," she said. "Things that were really helpful for my job were his personal effects — letters that he wrote to Gene Fowler, George Bernard Shaw, his wife and his daughter. They paint a picture of this private man."

That vivid portrait is available thanks to Fowler, a Colorado writer, biographer and newspaperman who dedicated himself to maintaining the actor's legacy. Fowler boasted his own fiery temperament: A city editor at the Boulder Daily Camera fired Fowler in the early years of his career, warning him to "never try and get another job as a newspaperman".

Fowler went on to work at the old Denver Republican, the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post before moving on to a full-time career as an author. One of his books, "Good Night Sweet Prince: The Life And Times Of John Barrymore," detailed the life and times of the actor he'd first met in 1918.

His dedication to the man and the artist is clear in this carefully maintained collection of memorabilia, a store that's taken on an entirely new importance more than 70 years after Barrymore's death.

"You can really hear Barrymore's voice when you read his writing, when you read his letters. He comes alive," said Tim Orr, producing artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Fest and director of "I Hate Hamlet."

That vitality was clear to see as Orr and a group of actors from the upcoming production perused key items from the collection earlier this week.

There was the terse note from Barrymore that lays down an unceremonious and abrupt divorce with an estranged wife. A black-and-white picture shows the workspace of a dedicated writer and actor — in the photo, a sword from a renowned production of "Richard III" hangs on the wall directly behind a writing desk. Along with all of the Barrymore memorabilia, staff from the library's special-collections department had included another impressive artifact: a copy of Shakespeare's fourth folio of collected works from 1685.

Combined, the items made the themes and questions of "I Hate Hamlet" immediate and vibrant.

"Seeing all of this stuff is a reminder of how important Shakespeare is to our culture," said Steven Cole Hughes, a CSF troupe member who plays Gary in "I Hate Hamlet." Hughes added that the insights into Barrymore's stormy persona are just as inspiring. "It's a window into a tortured soul."