The Bard of Utah

by wjw on July 8, 2008

We are in Cedar City, Utah, home of the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

Kathy had been trying to get me to the festival for years. “I have seen Shakespeare in London,” I told her. “I have seen Shakespeare in Stratford. Wherefore would I wish to see Shakespeare in Utah?”

Which I still maintain is a perfectly sensible question.

Kathy finally succeeded in dragging me to Utah in 1999, and I made a discovery. The theater here is as good as theater is anywhere. The US, while I wasn’t looking, had at long last established enough reperatory companies in enough towns to train up a set of professional stage actors equal to the Brits, and with equivalent depth.

The Utah festival is different from most in that it doesn’t receive much, if any, public funding. The festival is dependant on ticket sales and the occasional deep-pocketed patron. Dependent on ticket sales as they are, they are dependent on the average theater-goer. And because, when the average American theater-goer thinks of Shakespeare, he thinks of Elizabethans in tights performing in a wooden O, that is exactly what the Utah festival gives him. The result is a series of rich, gorgeous, traditional-looking productions performed by an expert cast, many of them in a replica Globe theater— one that, until the original Globe was dug out of the Thames mud a few years ago, was considered the “most authentic” of the various reproductions strung across North America, mostly in towns named Stratford.

Unlike the original productions, there are no matinees in the replica Globe. You don’t want to sit at 7000 feet in the blazing Utah summer sun for a whole afternoon, trust me that you don’t.

There are two other, more conventional theaters, one to present different plays, and the other an indoor rain stage used when the heavens threaten to drown the Globe’s groundlings.

The Globe shows an extremely good design for a theater. The thrust stage puts the performance in the middle of the audience, and the assortment of balconies, doors, and other apertures at the rear of the stage provide plenty of opportunities for exits, entrances, and general variety. Unless you’re stuck behind one of the pillars holding up the roof, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Before the evening performance, the apprentices and understudies cavort on the green behind the Globe, doing songs, jigs, comic sketches, puppet shows, and other foolery. This while other apprentices, adopting Renfaire British accents, hawk various goodies and souvenirs, including lollies in the shape of Shakespeare’s head. (I have never myself been tempted to suck on Shakespeare’s head, but tastes in this matter may vary.)

The actors onstage, by the way, do not adopt fake British accents, for which I applaud them.

This afternoon’s matinee, held indoors on the rain stage, was that well-known Shakespeare play Cyrano de Bergerac, this time in the Anthony Burgess translation, which attempts to reproduce at least a few of the original’s rhyming couplets. I can’t help but think that Cyrano is pretty much a perfect play. Few lines go to waste; each scene sets up the next; the rhetoric is gorgeous no matter whose translation you’re using. And the hero writes science fiction— what more do you want?

Starring was Brian Vaughn, a favorite of this— and I suspect other— festivals. He is an extremely versatile actor with a natural swashbuckling style— think if you will of a young Kevin Kline. He was, in a word, magnificent— and I’m not the sort of person to use such a word for just anyone. He was tragical, lyrical, poetical, comical— you have to remember that Cyrano is a romantic comedy right up till the moment when the protagonist drops dead, a fact that did not escape Steve Martin when he made his own version. At certain points in the play, tears were streaming down Vaughn’s cheeks— and I suspect the cheeks of more than a few audience members. Playing Roxane was his real-life wife, Melinda Pfundstein, also a festival favorite.

In the evening we went to the Wooden O for Two Gentlemen of Verona, unanimously considered to be Shakespeare’s weakest comedy. Actually it’s not bad, if you ignore the fact that Shakespeare used a lot of the same devices more successfully in his other plays, and that the ending is sort of tacked on— Shakespeare waves a magic wand and tells us that everything is okay, and if we have any sense we believe him. The director, rightly concluding that if she cast mature adults we would quickly lose patience with their idiocy, cast young actors and made the thing a teen comedy, which worked very well. I now anticipate seeing Ten Things I Hate About Verona at my nearby multiplex.

More plays tomorrow, including— o god— the Shrew. I have seen a lot of unfunny Shrews in my time, beginning with the Ziffirelli.

Apparently many things are hurled by the cast in this production. And no one is in Elizabethan costume, it’s set in 1947 and features GIs. I am not sure whether this makes me hopeful or not.

Stay tuned.

qtera July 10, 2008 at 3:59 pm

“including lollies in the shape of Shakespeare’s head”

You are bringing home one of these for me – right?

It all sounds wonderful!! I wish I was with with y’all.

Love, Patricia

Michael Bernstein July 11, 2008 at 2:13 am

I’m a Philistine. My favorite ‘Shrew’ production is the Bruce Willis / Cybill Shepherd ‘Moonlighting’ episode titles ‘Atomic Shakespeare’.

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