I must admit that 2015 does not have a most tantalizing line up: Lear is depressing, Henry IV part 2 is difficult if you haven't seen Richard II and Henry IV part 1, and Shrew is just not a work for the 21st century (the only one of Shakespeare's plays that was not forward-thinking and timeless). However, that does not mean one should disregard the Festival this year.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare's mid-life plays, written around the same time as such masterpieces as Hamlet and MacBeth. It is based on a mythological man who may or may not have actually existed as a king of some small area of England before even Egbert in 827, rather like King Arthur, but with a much more depressing tale.
The play begins with Lear's dividing up his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Reagan, and Cordelia, based on which woman will make the best public declaration of her love for him. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, displeases him, and he withholds her portion. Later, his two other daughters, sick of dealing with Lear's entourage of 100 boisterous, filthy knights, end up pushing him into a tantrum in which he stomps off into the wilderness. There he meets Edgar, legitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, who is pretending to be mad because his half-brother, the bastard Edmund (played superbly by Brendan Marshall-Rashid, who was not very good in Charley's Aunt but who clearly does better at tragedy than comedy), has tricked their father into thinking Edgar wants to depose him.
The play is gory: Gloucester's eyes are dug out on stage (this looks pretty convincing in the Festival's version; squeamish audience members may have to close their eyes for this part), Cordelia is hanged, Lear dies of heart problems.
It is very intense and probably not for everyone. But if you like Lear or you like tragedies, this is an excellent production. There are no weak actors in this version (even Melinda Pfundstein, who is usually so boring, has found a role that fits her as Goneril). David Pichette (whom we saw last year as Malvolio) is an amazing fool to Lear. Drew Shirley makes Oswald physically deformed and memorably wimpy and despicable. And Tony Amendola is an incredibly convincing Lear.
This is a tough play, but it's done well.
Henry IV part 2 is also superbly done.
But the problem with this play is that it's in the middle of a series. In Richard II, a weak king is deposed by Henry Bollingbrook, who really was just trying to reclaim lands that were rightfully his. This Henry becomes king in Henry IV part 1, but he's wracked with guilt over killing Richard, and worried about his son Prince Hal, who spends far too much time partying with the fat and funny Falstaff for the king's liking. Later, however, Hal goes to war to defend his father from the traitorous Hotspur, even killing the young man in the end.
Henry IV part 2 continues the tale, beginning right after the death of Hotspur, showing Hal dealing with the war, his younger brother who double-deals with prisoners, the death of Henry, and putting away his friendship with his old buddy Falstaff. But the play clearly needs a sequel, which is the glorious Henry V.
The problem with seeing JUST Henry IV part 2 as a lone play is that it would be like reading JUST The Two Towers or JUST Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or JUST watching The Empire Strikes Back. It's a middle play, bridging between other plays in the series.
The best thing about seeing Henry IV part 2 is Sam Ashdown, who plays Hal. Handsome and intense but also believably mischievous with Falstaff, Ashdown is perfect for this role. (And both this year and last, he elicits gasps and/or nervous giggles from every straight female in the audience between 12 and 90 when he enters the stage shirtless.)
Falstaff is played by a different actor this year (from last year's Henry IV part 1). John Ahlin isn't quite the same, but he is funny.
Overall, I would recommend this play only to those who are at least familiar with either Henry IV part 1 or Henry V. To a total Shakespeare newbie, this play would be a bit confusing, I think.
And then we have Taming of the Shrew.
No, the problem with Shrew is that it's one of Shakespeare's early plays and that, while several of his plays show racist or sexist characters, this is the only play that glorifies and romanticizes abusive relationships. If Shakespeare had written Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, it would have come out as Taming of the Shrew.
The plot of the play is that Baptista Minola has two daughters, Kate and Bianca, and he refuses to choose one of Bianca's numerous suitors (note that he's the one who chooses, not her, even though she does get her first choice, simply because that man has a very clever servant who makes it work out) until Kate is married off. Kate's problem is that she's sassy and says what she thinks; she will not obey her father or any other man.
One of Bianca's suitors has a friend, Petrucchio, who has come to town in search of a wife who is rich. Petrucchio is honestly informed about Kate, but he decides her huge dowry is worth it, and he likes the challenge of taming her.
Her marries her with her father's permission but against her will. He shames her publicly. He abuses her emotionally, mentally, physically, -- and it's hinted sexually -- for days, depriving her of food and sleep, contradicting what she says and pretending it's for her own good, isolating her from her family so they can't rescue her. And when he has finally broken her spirit, he brings her back to show her off as a trained animal, winning bets on her obedience, as if she were a dog. In the end, the much-changed Kate gives a speech about how women must obey their husbands; she's explaining how she intends to survive this abuse for the rest of her life.
And this is supposed to be funny.
Granted, Brian Vaughn does his best. The man is funny, but there's only so much one can do with making a sadistic narcissist funny as he abuses his captive.
Fortunately, there is true comic relief in Petrucchio's most amusing set of servants. And the subplot with Bianca's suitors is funny without the abuse. Sam Ashdown proves he can be funny as Lucentio, and Michael Doherty, whose silliness falls short of real comedy in Charley's Aunt, is truly a funny Tranio. Eric Weiman also makes even the scant part of Biondello into something delightful.
So, who should see Shrew? Well, since there are so very, very many women who are not bothered by abuse in Twilight and 50 Shades (NOTE: I have not read 50 Shades.), I suppose there are many who will find the abuse in Shrew to be equally romantic here. And men who are comfortable in roles of benevolent patriarchy may not even notice anything wrong with the plot.
In other words, this play should go over very well in Utah.
Now, those bothered by abuse, well -- you might well enjoy the servants and the subplots; I know I did.
And thereby hangs a
(PS. that's a line from Shrew, just in case you didn't know.)
Addendum: More info about the plays and tickets can be found at bard.org.