Utah Shakespeare Festival Wows Audiences

UT Shakespeare FestivalVariety of performances offers something for everyone in Southern Utah

My wife and I had not been to Cedar City for twelve years! We were impressed at the quality of plays during that long-ago visit. We were concerned then to learn that a massive project was underway by the Utah Shakespeare Festival to upgrade the facilities to the tune of several million dollars. We did not believe the goal could be reached. Woe be unto us. Twelve years later — the project IS completed! And excellently so! The Utah Shakespeare Festival itself is a mini (or maxi) miracle. The facilities are first rate. The performances are first rate. The whole project appears to work like clockwork, with visitors coming from throughout the nation and abroad. We were amazed at what we found this year on the campus of Southern Utah University.

The Festival is recognized as one of the nation’s top professional theaters. We had forgotten, that while Shakespeare continues to be the primary draw, his works are only a portion of the offerings. About one-half of the productions each year are dramas, comedies, and musicals written by a wide range of authors. This summer there are three Shakespearean productions: “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Henry V,” and “Julius Caesar.” Rounding out the bill are “Mary Poppins,” the musical, written by Richards and Robert Sherman and Julian Fellowes, “Murder for Two” with book and lyrics by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, “The Three Musketeers” adapted by Ken Ludwig from the novel by Alexander Dumas, Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” and “The Cocoanuts,” Marx Brothers romp with book by George S. Kaufman. Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin.

There are free seminars and study projects going on continually, from pre-show discussions, to talks about costuming, choreography, and children’s workshops. The audiences are unique. It appears that virtually everyone is in Cedar City to see from two or more shows per visit. The theatre schedules are devised, so that it is easy to see six shows in three days. A family sitting next to us at one show noted that they drove down from Salt Lake City last year, and were so pleased that they returned this year, and plan to do so next. A couple from Southern California told us they have been coming to Cedar City for a few days every year for the past ten years. There is something for every taste! I asked one of the Festival staff if she had seen many of the shows. She answered quickly. “Most of them,” And I plan to see them all!” When queried about her favorites, she paused and said: ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘Henry V.’ I know they are as opposite as possible, but they are both great!” Three stages are kept busy during the summer months –the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, which is based on and inspired by  Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and primarily features plays by Shakespeare; the indoor Randall J. Jones Theatre, a modern facility that offers contemporary works, and the more intimate Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre.

We could only stay two nights this year, so opted to see three plays, attend one pre-show discussion, and see two of the Greenshow performances. The Greenshows are great fun and free — on an outdoor stage, each taking about 30 minute prior to the evening theater performances, and comprising of songs and dances. There are three of them that play on a rotating basis all season: English Country Faire, an Irish Pub Night, and the third set in a Paris Bistro.

We attended the pre-show discussion prior to “Much Ado About Nothing.” This was a highlight of the visit, as the Festival’s Founder Fred C. Adams, led the discussion. He created the Festival 55 years ago, and remains actively involved. The night he led our group discussion, he appeared in a minor role in “Much Ado.” He noted this was the first time he had ever actually been in a Shakespearean production. Direction has been his forte, and in the 55 years since he founded the Festival, he has only appeared in three plays, one being Shakespeare’s “Much Ado” the night we attended. As he has directed nearly 40 productions, he warned us not to become overly concerned about play plots. He helped us realize that the “child” in us can usually figure out what is going on without become bogged down by the dialogue.

There is something infectious about the Festival, whether you are there as part of the artistic staff, the administration, or the excited patrons who travel from play to play for their annual “pilgrimage” to Cedar City! Many performers return to Cedar City to delight audiences year after year. As they are seen in more than one play, the audiences become “friends” with them.

The shows we saw:

"Much Ado About Nothing" 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival
“Much Ado About Nothing” 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s most-popular comedies. Fred Adams at his pre-show discussion reminded us that the title is actually “Much Ado About ‘Noting.'” This “noting” meaning bits and pieces of hearsay overheard and not correctly “noted” when passed from one person to another. This gave us an enormous boost to our appreciation of the show.

"Much Ado About Nothing" 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival
“Much Ado About Nothing” 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

The cast was flawless, headed by Kim Martin-Cotton, Leslie Lank, Luigi Sottile, and Ben Livingston. Conversations were sometimes incorrectly overheard, and often repeated as “truth,” confusing everyone as to what was real and what was created by casual untruths.

"The Cocoanuts" 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival
“The Cocoanuts” 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

“Cocoanuts” is based on a 1929 movie featuring the famous Marx Brothers. This family of comedians reigned sublime in vaudeville, Broadway, and the movies from 1905 to 1949, giving us such crazy tales as “Duck Soup” and “Animal Crackers.” There were four brothers, with Groucho becoming the quick-talking leader. He was supported by his brothers Zeppo, Chico, and the non-speaking Harpo. The “brothers” turn up in Cocoanuts as Groucho being Mr. Hammer, Zeppo being Robert Jamison, Chico becomes Willie Wony Diddydony, and Silent Red, taking on Harpo’s wild characteristics.

"The Cocoanuts" 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival
“The Cocoanuts” 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

The performers playing these zany roles were John Plumpis as Mr. Hammer, John Wascavage as Robert Jamison, Jim Poulos as Willie Wony Diddydony, and Tasso Feldman as Silent Red. They are all delightful, but special recognition must be made to Feldman as the non-speaking “Silent Red.” He is a hoot as the speechless loony who appears to have no bone in his body. He is absolutely beguiling.

The scene takes place in a Miami Hotel on its last legs. The owner is desperate to sell it. The bellman is begging to be paid his salary, the hotel guests are a crazed bunch, one with lots of diamonds, ready to be stolen. This is a mad-cap romp, with music and lyrics furnished by Irving Berlin. Timing is flawless, as characters arrive and depart through various adjacent hotel room doors, acting naive as if nothing is amiss. Everything IS amiss. This is a comedy gem.

"Three Musketeers" 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival
“Three Musketeers” 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

“The Three Musketeers” is a swash-buckling yarn with some of the most exciting swordplay possible. Luigi Sottile who was a delight in “Much Ado About Nothing” turns up this time as D’Artagnan, and 18-year old Frenchman from the rural countryside who heads to Paris with the lofty goal of becoming one of the King’s famed Musketeers.” His parents bid him a fond farewell, and tell him at the last moment that he is not going alone — D’Artagnan is to accompany his 17-year-old sister, Sabine, to her school in Paris. He is bummed, but willing to give it a try. Sabine is a bit of a tom-boy with impressive sword-playing skills. The Three Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, are not initially impressed with the naive rural D’Artagnan, but soon realize his potential. They eventually include him – in their “All for one and one for all” motto.

"Three Musketeers" 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival
“Three Musketeers” 2016. Courtesy Utah Shakespeare Festival

Sottile is a genuine “find,” as he can charm, romance, be silly, be commanding, and is in complete charge as a swordsman. Author of this version of the musketeer tale is Ken Ludwig who gave us the crazed farce, “Lend Me a Tenor” several years ago. I was eager to be laugh-out-loud-amused by Ludwig. He does not provide that in “Musketeers,” but weaves an interesting yarn about D’Artagnan’s travels to Paris, and on to England on an assignment from the French King. The plot does become a bit burdensome. Swordsmanship reigns sublime, however, and this play is highly entertaining.

For more information:
Utah Shakespeare Festival
351 West Center Street
Cedar City, UT 84720
Telephone 435/586-7880.
Ticket information: Call 435/586-7878 or I-800PLAYTIX
E-mail:  guestservices@bard.org
Online: www.bard.org

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