Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Review: The Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2019 Season

Information on the Festival, plays, and tickets can be found at www.bard.org.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is in its 58th season this year.  It is held in Cedar City, Utah, and it is my favorite place to attend plays, especially Shakespeare plays.
I have seen Shakespeare plays in Salt Lake City, in London, England (the Globe), in Straford-on-Avon, England, in Scotland, and in Ashland, Oregon.  But none of these places match what happens at USF.  Let me list a few reasons:
1) The actors are top-notch, big names in the stage acting world, yet they freely do seminars and interact with the public.  They do not hold themselves aloof.  If you want to talk to one of them about a show, it's very easy to do so.
2) The Festival hosts literary seminars the morning after every play.  Several times a week, they host actor seminars, prop seminars, and costume seminars as well.  During the opening week of the shows, the directors will attend the seminars.  These are all completely free.
3) There's plenty of free parking near the Festival complex.  (Parking in Ashland was a joke.)
4)  Cedar City has plenty of motels and restaurants for Festival goers.
5) The Festival also offers classes wherein young or not-so-young students can earn university credit through Southern Utah University.

The new building complex which debuted at the 2016 Festival is still ugly, but it's more comfortable than it was at first.  There are now plenty of restrooms, a tiny, open-air cafe, two gift shops, and more shade.  The Shakespeare sculpture garden is looking good now, although the barren, cement-and-gravel thing behind the Arts Museum has no more charm than a Walmart parking lot.
This year's line-up of plays is a really good one.  I saw seven plays and attended six seminars in three days. Below are my reviews for those plays, done in the order I recommend them.  For example, if you can only see one play, I recommend Twelfth Night, so I review that one first.

1.  The best offering this year is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
(Click here to see official Festival photos of this play.)
I know this play well, as I teach it to my high school seniors, so I'm well-qualified to make a judgement on this production, and I say it's a winner!
Orsino, played by Rene Thornton, Jr. is a fabulous, over-grown Romeo.  He flops himself about like a love-sick teenager, and it's hilarious!  Orsino's lines are very much like Romeo's, and I've long told my students that Orsino is just a 30-something Romeo, so Thornton is perfect in this role!
Other winning actor portrayals are Betsy Mugavero's Olivia, Chris Mixon's truly repulsive and unlikable Malvolio (this is the first time I've ever felt Malvolio deserved his punishment), and Trent Dahlin's Fool (very good, but I have seen others I liked better).  Also, I was worried that Josh Jeffers could not possibly match Quinn Mattfeld's performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek a few years ago, but Jeffers is fabulous and hilarious!  Sebastian and Viola are pretty good, much better than the Viola from last time.
Less good are Sir Toby (who is far, far too likable) and Maria.   One of the biggest problems is that the director cut the part of Fabian and gave 90% of Fabian's lines to Maria, which completely changes her role and her personality.
The set of this play is fantastic, which huge statues of the twins Apollo and Artemis dominating the stage.  The costumes are vaguely Three Musketeers, but this works, and they are lovely to behold.
One interesting note is that at least six of the actors are persons of color, with Orsino, Viola, and Sebastian all being African-American in appearance.
Twelfth Night is a hilarious play with a love triangle, a cross-dressing young woman, and twins mistaken for one another.  It's a fabulous and fun romp, and this production is a real win.  If you can only see one play at the festival, choose this one.  If you'd like to introduce your kids or your non-Shakespeare-loving friends to the Bard, this is a great play to have them watch.

2. The next play I'd recommend seeing is The Book of Will, a two-year-old play by Lauren Gundersen.  (Official photos here.)
This play, according to the dramaturg, is fairly historically accurate, but it does add in the delightful character of Alice Heminges (brilliantly played by Betsy Mugavero), who is fictional. (John Heminges had plenty of children, but not much is known about them.)
The play tells the story of John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell (played by the fabulous Rene Thornton Jr), Shakespeare's actor friends/colleagues who put together the First Folio (the first authorized publication of his plays) a few years after his death.  The story is bittersweet in parts and funny in others.  It is well-costumed, and the set is constructed to look like the Globe Theatre.  The scene with the printing of the book is almost a dance, and the addition of the pages flying like flags is really lovely.
This play is easy to understand, a good history lesson, delightfully acted, and heartwarming.  Don't miss it!

3. If you have the time and the money for a third play, make it Hamlet.
(Official photos here.)
Quinn Mattfeld plays the title role this year, and he is a comic genius.  He brings out the humor in Hamlet's feigned madness, how he taunts and torments Polonius as well as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.  If you've avoided Hamlet in the past because it's too serious, you ought to try this production; it's the funniest Hamlet I've ever seen.  (Note: all the sexual jokes are glossed over, though; this is a very Utah Hamlet.)
That being said, this is also the most violent Hamlet I've ever seen.  Director Brian Vaughn added in extra violence.
In a visual reference to MacBeth, Vaughn has Hamlet wash his hands of Polonius' blood -- and then Claudius forces his head into the basin and tries to drown him.
Even more off-script, due to Vaughn's misunderstanding (which he didn't admit) of the fact that no one rescues the drowning Ophelia because almost no one could swim -- not even sailors -- in Elizabethan England, Vaughn has palace guards drown Ophelia on stage.
Not violent, but also not in the text, Vaughn adds a mistress for Polonius.
I did like the fact that Vaughn did not cut the invading Norwegian army, as many directors do.
Mattfeld's Hamlet is fantastic, probably the best I've ever seen. Claudius is hypocritical, violent, paranoid, and evil (Vaughn hinted in the literary seminar that Claudius is Trump, which is, no doubt, why this production has Russian costumes showing up in it.). And the play-within-a-play is acted brilliantly.  Horatio is boring and not as likable as he should be, however.  And Gertrude and Ophelia are rather dull.
The set is an opulent Russian palace, which is gorgeous, but it has snow all over the interior.  This is stupid, in my opinion.
The costumes are Czarist Russia and are gorgeous.
Hamlet is not for everyone, true, but this is a very good production.

4. MacBeth is next.  (Photos here.)
This production of MacBeth had both good and bad in it, and I've seen a LOT of versions of MacBeth with which to compare it, as I teach the play to my sophomores.
The not-so-great:
a) Wayne T Carr was great as Othello last year, and he's very powerful in several of his roles in the Henry VI plays (see below) this year, but it wasn't a great MacBeth.  He didn't seem evil or conflicted or haunted or ambitious or anything MacBeth might be.  He just sort of was there.  His "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech was lame; I've seen 9th graders perform it better.
b) Because a black actor was cast as MacBeth, a lot of the costumes had African vibes.  The men wore battle clothing in black and gold stripes.  The witches were made up and tattooed to look like voodoo priestesses from New Orleans.  This was an odd choice for a play wherein the setting of Scotland is crucial to the plot.  The whole point is that it is SCOTLAND.  Some plays, such as Midsummer or Tempest or Twelfth Night, can be set almost anywhere, but MacBeth doesn't really work that way.
c) Lady MacBeth wasn't really great either.  In fact, the only parts that were really good with the leads were the hints of romance between the two.
d) So much of Malcolm's speech with MacDuff was cut that it made no sense, and MacDuff's answers made no sense.  Plus, this kept Malcolm from developing any sort of personality.
e) Most of the porter's speech was cut, so there was less humor there.
What was good:
a) The director added in three little Wednesday Addams girl witches who spied on MacBeth and helped out in the cauldron scene.  This made it clear that this director wished to emphasize that MacBeth is not controlled by the supernatural, but makes his own choices.
The girl witches were highly creepy and definitely added to the vibe of the production.
b) Act IV scene i ("double, double, toil and trouble") was very well done.  True, the director cut the racist line about Jews ("liver of blaspheming Jew") but left in the ones about Turks/Tartars, which was an odd choice.  But she had realistic-looking props for the witch girl acolytes to throw into the steaming trapdoor "cauldron" while the grown-up witches chanted and moved about.  Also, actors presented the apparitions.  So many directors leave this out and just have the audience imagine what MacBeth sees, but Anderson leaves it in -- even the line of kings.
c) The banquet scene with the ghost of Banquo was well-blocked and very creepy, even though the humor of the scene was completely ignored.
d) The director actually chose to have MacDuff bring in MacBeth's bloody head (in a bag)!  So many directors leave this out; the last time the Festival did this, the director just had MacDuff stab MacBeth on stage, for example.  But Anderson followed the script.
e) Anderson also adds in supernatural elements I've never seen before.  In both the scene wherein Lady M calls on the spirits ("Unsex me here") and when MacBeth does, the director has them kneel or stand in a conjuring circle and actually commune with the supernatural.  Lighting changes are used to show it.  I'd never thought of its being done in such a way before, and I really liked this.
Overall, it's a pretty good production of MacBeth.

5. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (See photos here.)
 This musical, like Fiddler on the Roof, resonates strongly with Mormons, and, as a result, it has been insanely popular in Utah since about 1990.  I've seen it 8 times live (four of those professionally, one of which was the famous Donny Osmond live production), the video about 20 times, and I've listened to 2 different CD versions more times than I can count.  And this USF production is the blandest I've ever seen (including two high school productions).
The director, Brad Carroll, said in the seminar that he wanted the narrator to be only a narrator, for her not to interact with the other characters or the audience.  Well, he got that, and as a result, the narrator has zero personality.  She might as well sing offstage for all that it matters in the show.
Joseph also interacts very little with the other characters, and never with the narrator.  In other productions, I've seen the actor playing Joseph try to figure out Pharaoh's dreams by reading the Bible or by praying.  Not this Joseph; he does nothing to figure anything out.
Add the lack of character interaction to the extreme cuts in dance numbers and costuming, and you get a cartoonish Dreamcoat.   It's there.  It sounds good.  It's entertaining....enough.   But there's no character arc whatsoever.   It has all the character depth of an episode of Scooby Doo. When Joseph sings "Close Every Door," it's not poignant or heart-rending; it's just a pretty song.  When he meets up with his brothers again after decades of separation, it's like football buddies seeing each other the day after a big game.   There's no emotion at all when he frames his only full brother Benjamin.
Plus, the sixties references and go-go dancing are gone from "Go, Go, Go, Joseph."  And the actor who plays the Pharaoh is the same dude who played him twenty years ago at the festivals, so he plays an OLD Pharaoh -- and it's not really funny.
The good parts?  Well, it's Joseph; the music and lyrics are fabulous!   And the scene with the brothers traveling to Egypt is done as a drill number with a micro-cameo Chorus Line gag, and it's the best I've ever seen that scene done before.
Who should go?  Well, it's kid-friendly.  And if you've never seen Joseph before or haven't seen it in years and years, you'll probably like this just fine and not notice all that's missing.
I was underwhelmed with it.

6.  Henry VI parts 2 & 3 is last because it's not for everyone.  (See photos here.)
The Henry VI trilogy is among Shakespeare's earliest works.  It was wildly popular in its time, but it's not often produced now.  The reason is that it's long and that it's the story of the War of the Roses, which is complex and full of political intrigue.   The seminar leaders recommended it be compared to Game of Thrones and Hamilton for reference.
The Festival did part 1 of the trilogy last year, and this year, parts 2 &3 are done back-to-back in a small, black-box theatre (up close and personal) with a 30-minute intermission between the plays.  Twelve fabulous actors play 82 different roles with dozens of costume changes.  It's fabulous but it's INTENSE.   This is not a play production for the Shakespeare newbie or for a child.   This is a play for history buffs, English teachers, and theatre lovers.
That being said, it's getting hard to get tickets for this, as it's proving to be quite popular.
The costumes begin in the 1400s and end in the modern era.  This is done to show that bad leaders and political intrigue hasn't changed all that much over the centuries, but some people attending the seminar were very bothered by this.  I personally thought it was a bit helpful in keeping track of everyone.
There's a LOT of beheading in this play: four heads are brought on stage.  (One of them is of the same actor who plays MacBeth, so this dude gets beheaded in both his major roles this year!)
The most outstanding actors in this are Jim Poulos as Henry, Stephanie Lambourn as a super-bitchy but effective Queen Margaret, and Emelie O'Hara, who plays a twisted, evil, scary future Richard III extremely well.
This is really an excellent production, but I list it last as it is simply not as appealing to the average theatre-goer.  However, if you love history, Shakespeare, or really good theatre, do NOT miss this!

That's it, folks.   Check out www.bard.org for dates, times, prices, more about each play, and tickets.