Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: The Utah Shakespeare Festival 2017 Season

I go to the Utah Shakespeare Festival almost every year, and most years, I review the plays here on this blog.  I skipped doing the reviews in 2016 because the Festival had new buildings and a weird new schedule, and I ended up going so late in the season that it seemed pointless to post reviews.  But for 2017, I attended all preview shows, so the season is just barely starting, and my reviews may be helpful.
First, let me review the festival itself.
This is the 56th season of the festival in Cedar City, Utah (roughly a 3 1/2 hour drive from Salt Lake City). Cedar City is a college town, smallish, but with plenty of lodging and easy, free parking for the festival (completely unlike the idiotic situation for the festival in Ashland, Oregon).  Most years, the festival does three Shakespeare plays (often one history, one comedy, one tragedy --- but this is not the case this year) and three other plays, which generally include a musical, a kid-friendly play (some years, this is the musical, such as last year, when Mary Poppins was presented), and either a serious drama or a non-Shakespeare comedy.  The ticket prices are reasonable, and the schedule is arranged so that theatre -goers may see all 6 plays in 3 days (except last year, when things got weird).
The festival has won many awards, including a Tony, and it attracts top-notch stage actors.  But the best part of it is the community feel.  Every morning after the plays, seminars are held.  In the first week, the directors of the plays come to these and answer audience questions, but throughout the season, actor seminars are also held.  Furthermore, the actors, the artistic director, and the festival founder himself mingle with the patrons.  It's perfectly fine for ordinary patrons to approach an actor who is walking about on site; they are not stand off-ish at all.  There are also classes and camps and tours designed for different ages and interests; one can take a week-long course in theatre tech or a seminar in stage combat or simply go on a guided tour of the backstage areas.
The festival has had to move to all-new buildings, and this hasn't really been great.  The old theatre looked like a Tudor building on the outside and was shaded by huge, old trees on a grassy area of the Southern Utah University campus.  The new theatre is concrete and industrial.  It looks like a product of Cold War Russia, all grey, lifeless, and designed to suck out one's soul.  Until 2016, the morning seminars were held in a grove of tall pine trees with a view of a grassy, park-like space.  Now the seminars are held in a hot, mostly unshaded area between the theatres.  It's concrete and gravel and has all the ambience of a parking lot.
But it's still worth it.  The plays are wonderful and the people of the festival are fantastic.  I love it.
Below are my reviews of the individual plays of the 2017 season:

A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Do NOT miss this one!!!
This Midsummer is set in the 1920s, with a teal-green Art Deco Athens and a glitzy chrome Yin/Yang forest.  The costumes are FREAKIN' GORGEOUS!  (See Hippolyta above.)  The light cues match the magic of the fairies.
It's often that a director chooses to cast the same actors for Theseus and Hippolyta as for Oberon and Titania, and this is true with this production.  However, the director also has the same actors who play the Rude Mechanicals also play Titania's following of fairies, and the parallels in color and action are delightful to pick out. The actor playing Puck also plays Philostrate (except she was very ill the day I saw the preview, and her part was read by the assistant director, so I cannot comment on this Puck).  Only Nick Bottom (hilarious, by the way) and the lovers play single roles.
This is a superb production.  It's funny where it's supposed to be funny. (Yes, I am very familiar with this play.)  It's sexy enough without being unfit for kids. (The last time the festival did this play they made it a kids' version and took all the sexuality out of it, which was a shame.)  The subtleties between Theseus and Hippolyta work.  The physical comedy is spot-on.
In fact, the only thing I didn't like was that Oberon was not a very good-looking guy, and I prefer a handsome King of the Fairies.  However, his acting made him wonderful.  (And, of course, Melinda Parrett, my very favorite of all the festival women, plays Hippolyta/Titania.  She's nothing short of fabulous.)
This play is so good I would happily pay to see it again.  And, since this play runs all the way through October, I may very well do that.  (Note: the festival also has plays that open later and run later in the season.  Obviously, I cannot comment on those.  Check to learn more about The Tavern, Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play, and How To Fight Loneliness.)

As You Like It:
 As You Like It is a delightful comedy, but a lot of non-English teacher types don't know much about it, and some people find it a bit confusing.  That, however, is no reason to miss this production: has play summaries and introductions, as does the printed program, and there is a play orientation (free) before every single performance of every play at the festival.  The plot is convoluted, but it's a fun, light-hearted play, and this production is good.
OK, the set is a bit monotonous, but once the scene changes to the Forest of Arden, it is very pretty, if unchanging.
The director has cut a lot of this play and moved a few things around, but it works.  The costumes are good (Have a look at Rosalind/Ganymeade's jacket above.  Isn't it great?) and the acting is very good.
Rosalind is played by Cassandra Bissell (who also plays Helena in Midsummer and is fabulous there as well), an actor who is only second to Melinda Parrett (see Midsummer) in my opinion of women often appearing at the festival.  She is brilliant in this role.  And Jeb Burris is a fabulous and very believable Orlando. Michael Elich's take on Jacques is entirely different than I've ever seen before; he plays him as a sarcastically depressed man, and this makes his insult war with Orlando a bit of theatre perfection.
This is a very good production of As You Like It.  If you like live theatre, don't miss it.

 Romeo and Juliet:
To be honest, since I taught 9th grade English (usually multiple periods thereof) for 28 years, it is very likely that I know Romeo and Juliet better than either the director or actors of the play; I've simply read/seen it literally scores of times.
I know every single line that was cut -- and I got the director laughing after the seminar when I teased him about cutting most of Mercutio's filthy jokes.  And I've seen dozens of different interpretations of the play.
Thus, I feel very qualified to review this one.
Overall?  It's pretty good.
The set was dull.  Someone decided it would be a good idea to use the same set for the first part of As You Like It, all of R& J, and presumably also Shakespeare In Love.  It's boring.  The only interesting things are Friar Lawrence's cell, Juliet's bed, and the tomb -- although the latter is still really stark and leaves out Tybalt.
The costumes, however, make up for the lack of set.  They are rich and delightful.  As many directors do, this one decided to stay with the color-coding chosen by Zefferrelli in the 1968 movie, and so the Capulets are in reds and other warm colors, while the Montagues are in cool blues, greens, and purples.
And the acting......
Betsy Muscavero looks about 15 for this production.  She plays a very innocent Juliet, which is different from what we usually get (the last time the festival did R&J, the gal who played Juliet did so as a headstrong, sulking, rebellious teen).  She is supremely convincing in gesture and expression.  It is truly HER show, HER story.
Romeo, on the other hand, is played by Shane Kenyon, who has a receding hairline and looks about 35.  He played Romeo as a nerd, the sort of guy who plays a lot of video games and has trouble talking to real people.  It was awful.  There was nothing attractive or romantic about him at all.
Mercutio, played by Jeb Burris (who was amazing as Orlando in As You Like It) was manic/depressive.  The director told me at the seminar that they wanted to make him jealous of Romeo's attention to Rosaline (but they totally left out any homoerrotic overtones).  It worked, but it meant that they had to kill all the humor in Mercutio's lines.  All in all, he was not my favorite.
Benvolio looked like Gene Kelly.  I totally wanted him to start dancing.  He was OK.  They didn't make him a coward -- but they didn't make him much of anything else either.  He was better looking than Romeo, though.
The parents are very interesting in this production, and Friar Lawrence is very good.
On the whole, it's definitely worth seeing --- but don't expect to fall in love with Romeo!

Guys and Dolls:

Guys and Dolls is a fun musical based on a set of stories by Damon Runyan (I've read them; they're not my favorites).  It's set in 1950s NYC and focuses on problems of Nathan Detroit (played by the KING of Comedy, Quinn Mattfield).  Nathan makes his questionable living by running a floating crap game, but he can't find a place to hold that night's game, and Big Jule is in town -- and you don't mess up Big Jule's crap game.  Nathan makes a bet with the high rolling Sky Masterson (played by the amazing Brian Vaughn, the festival's artist director) for $1000 in order to "rent" the Biltmore Garage for the crap game, a bet that Sky cannot get a girl of Nathan's choosing to go on a dinner date with him.  Sky's problems begin when Nathan chooses Sarah Brown, the leader of the local Save-a-Soul Mission.  Meanwhile, Nathan's problems get more intense when his fiance of 14 years, Miss Adelaide (played by my favorite, Melinda Parrett) begins to insist on marriage.
I was in a community theatre production of this play about 15 years ago, so I know it well, and I LOVED this version.  The set is great, the costumes are color-coded to help the audience keep track of all the gamblers, the singing is good, the jokes are all there, the choreography is wonderful, and the acting!  Well, how could it be anything less than stellar with the combination of Brian Vaughn, Melinda Parrett, and Quinn Mattfield?  They are incredible.
This is a fun, fun show.  Don't miss it.

Treasure Island:

This is the kids' show for this year, and it's pretty good.
Sceri Ivers plays Jim Hawkins in an adaptation that stays very close to the actual novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I personally thought that Ivers' costume detracted from her being believable as a 12-year-old, active boy (it was bulky and made her look fat and slump-shouldered, more like a teen couch potato than the Jim Hawkins who climbs the mast of the ship), but I was told my comments in the seminar would be passed to the director, so that issue may be resolved.
The set is exceptionally clever and has many levels. (See photo.)  And a real treat is that a good deal of live music is included.
Overall, this is not my favorite thing at the festival, but it was well done and I do not regret buying a ticket.

Shakespeare In Love:
To be honest, I didn't go to this one because I loathed the movie and still hate how the story confuses people who don't know anything about Shakespeare.  Most people who saw this play told me I was stupid for missing out.  I'll leave you to decide if you want to see it or not.  (I will state that the FABULOUS Quinn Mattfield plays Shakespeare himself; that may be enough to justify the purchase of tickets.)

In summary, there are no losing plays at the festival this year, but if you are short on time and/or money and want to know the best, my suggestions in order of what to see would be as follows:
1) Midsummer
2) Guys and Dolls
3) As You Like It
4) Romeo and Juliet
5) Treasure Island

In other words, if you can only see one play, make it Midsummer, if you can see two, let them be Midsummer and Guys and Dolls, and so forth.
Find tickets, photos, a calendar, play summaries, casts, directions, etc. at

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