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A Mid-Summer's Festival
A Look at this Year's Utah Shakespearean Festival
 
 

By Christian A. Gentry

 
 
 
   
 
   

outhern Utah: beautiful red plateaus, gargantuan canyons, untamed wilderness, gun-totin’ rednecks, national parks galore, pick-up trucks, wildfires, wildlife and Lake Powell.


It is the quintessential outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. And of course, Southern Utah appears to be another safe haven for the senior citizens who inundate any vacation spot with their motor homes and license plates that represent the whole Midwest and Texas. It seems to be the perfect escape from urban America and a perfect place to complain about the lack of urban American assets, such as a Starbucks on every street corner. Rather, Southern Utah has more truck stops than you can shake a stick at (Yum…love that Flying J coffee).


Amidst the wide-open spaces and acres of three-story polygamist homes is an anomaly to the rugged atmosphere of rural Utah known as the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

 

The Festival's the Thing
The RED Interview (Fred C. Adams)

RED: How did you end up in Cedar City from New York City?

Adams: Have you ever heard of college debt? [chuckle] I had some considerable college debt by the time I had finished my work. I was in New York and got myself a job as a swing dancer in a musical. Not a great deal of money and the writing was on the wall; the show was going to close and I was going to be out of a job. My cousin, who lived in Cedar City, called me and said they are going to have a one-year appointment for someone to start up a theater program at what was then the College of Southern Utah. I said "Oh, get me the information…" I was interviewed in New York and got the job. It was just for one year, so I kept all of my contacts in New York because I would be coming back. I fell madly in love with Cedar and never went back.

RED: When did you decide to incorporate other theater repertoire besides that of Shakespeare?

Adams: For several seasons we had experimented a little on our audiences…We [did] matinees of non-Shakespearean pieces just to see, you know, how our audience would take to them. The first time we did was in 1977 and we did a matinee of "The Mikado" twice a week—Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. And it sold like hot cakes, it was so very well attended and very popular. In 1981, in conjunction with the University of Utah (Pioneer Memorial Theatre)…we mounted a production of Molnar’s "The Guardsmen"…[we later mounted it] as a matinee here in the summertime. That again was very successful. So we knew that non Shakespeare [plays were viable].

So in 1987 we began the search for enough funding to build ourselves a space, an indoor space just for the "Shakespeares of other lands.” So we thought that we could do other classics of the world, and it’s proven to be very successful for us.

RED: Do you feel like you have been able to take more liberties as to what repertoire you use?

Adams: People trust us with Shakespeare. And our crowds with Shakespeare are pretty consistent. But, they were a little more reticent when it was a non Shakespeare production. Eventually, that has caught on to where now we have a fairly successful following for what I consider more modern or contemporary classics. But every once in a while we like the idea of doing something that pushes the envelope a little…and our audience for the most part will buy in wholeheartedly…or sometimes some of our audience will say "Oh that’s a little too modern to me.” We walk a tight rope, in fact, with the selections [non-Shakespeare] of those all of the time. If you’re going to a meal, you don’t want to just eat meat; sometimes you need a little salad, you need a little vegetables, you need a little dessert. Most of the time we stay with pretty much standard classics.

RED: Tell me about the Plays-in Progress program.

Adams: I think this is our twelfth year of Plays-in-Progress…We bring four playwrights with works that have not been seen that are ready to be workshopped. And we receive hundreds of scripts. And our readers go through them to select four that they feel have potential. [Plays-in-Progress] are cast here amongst the acting company. They are performed as staged readings with the author in residence…audience has feedback…the [playwrights] are there to listen and many times rewrite before the next day. It has become…a very valuable exercise for promising playwrights. This program answers the need for "Shakespeares of tomorrow."

RED: How are these plays attended?

Adams: There is a crowd that follows them…they want to see these original works. It’s a program that we’re not pushing, we’re not making it an overwhelming facet of the festival. But it answers a need for audiences that want to see what’s now being done.

RED: What do you see happening in the future of this festival?

Adams: I would like to get our outreach [educational] program deeper into Arizona, higher into Idaho and out into southern California. I would like to strengthen that and make sure we are getting into every high school in the state of Utah. With the festival itself, our major goal of course is construction and money. We desperately need a major endowment. We have just over $1 million in endowment and we need $10 million in endowment. Its going to take a long time, but that’s a major push that we’ve got to do. We just cannot rely on ticket sales.

   


There is a problem that lies within theatrical arts in rural areas. What is purported by rural communities as great artistry is, in reality, nothing but substantive mediocrity. A rural theatre such as the Utah Shakespearean Festival has a corner in the market because people will go and support the small-town theatre at any expense.


What of the Tony Award, won in 2000 for Best Regional Theater? Well, didn’t Cats win a Tony back in the day? Is the Tony a real defining relic of great theatre? It took a day at the festival to come up with the answers.


Review: A Rebirth of ‘Born Yesterday’
My generation’s familiarity with “Born Yesterday” probably goes as far as the 1993 film starring Melanie Griffith and John Goodman. Regardless, the essence of the story is captured in its truer form on stage. Kathleen F. Conlin directed this year’s festival production. What do an East Coast business thug, a smug lawyer, a less-than-less-educated showgirl and an overzealous reporter have in common? Not much—except they all live in Washington, D.C., and are all Americans. It is this commonality that emphasizes the differences between the characters.


Harry Brock (Craig Spidle) plays the bullying yet unintelligent businessman who wants to bend all of the rules to allow his profiteering while squashing out the competition. His girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Anne Newhall), plays the unassuming, quiet and not-so bright woman role. The lawyer, Ed Devery (A. Bryan Humphrey), does all the talking and covering up of Brock’s bad business practices. Paul Verral (Kurt Ziskie), plays the reporter for the New Republic, who purports a mission to expose the big, bad and ugly of capitalism—namely Brock.


Despite Brock’s lack of education, he still manages to throw his weight around to get what he wants by buying out whomever he needs. But his weight stops when Billie, through the help of Verral, starts to smarten up and realize that the abuses and advantages that Brock has pushed upon her are simply wrong. Through a lot of period comedy, the play teaches a lesson of the power of knowledge when used the right way.


Despite this play being very "period," with jokes that sometimes go beyond corny, the feat of transcending the explicit interpretation of texts to the more implicit portrayal of their meanings was accomplished unabashedly by the cast, the witnessing of which makes it well worth the lengthy drive.


Review: “Measure for Measure”
But of course, the festival wouldn’t live up to its name without having a Shakespearean play. The Adams Memorial Shakespeare Theatre provided a unique atmosphere to see the production of one of the bard’s lesser known works, “Measure for Measure.” The interesting aspect of this play is that it is neither comedy nor tragedy. It is rather a “tramedy.” “Measure” is a commentary on the difficult circumstances that come to pass when a government tries to police morality. An illustration on how the power to not only be forgiven, but also forgiving, is a virtue more precious than justice.


“Measure for Measure,” directed by Liz Huddle, is set in Vienna, where immorality is running rampant and the laws to obfuscate such actions are lying dormant. Duke Vicentio (Henry Woronicz) bequeaths his position of leadership to Angelo (Scott Coopwood) while blending in secretly with the community as a friar. Having this new power, Angelo decides to put the old law of putting seducers to death into practice once again. As one can realize, this complicates the whole structure of a supposed immoral society. Claudio (Phillip Herrington) is found guilty of breaking this new law when his betrothed bride, Juliet (Kelly Lamont), shows signs of expecting a child.


Claudio pleads for help from his sister Isabella (Elisabeth Adwin), who is close to finishing up her preparations for becoming a nun. She is beautiful and wise, pleading before Angelo. He will only lift the charge if Isabella promises to sleep with him. Of course, this proposition is like death to her. Virtue is the noblest attribute of a woman in the service of God. Through the friar’s (Duke’s) intervention, a plan is devised that would allow Isabella to keep her virginity and still fulfill the obligations of Angelo’s proposition. Angelo was at one time promised to marry a woman named Mariana (Kaci Gober); however, he ultimately jilted her at the altar. The Duke therefore proposes that Isabella should go forward with Angelo’s tryst, with Mariana pretending to be Isabella.


Soon after, we learn that Angelo still allows for the execution of Claudio. At this point it looks like a tragedy. But the Duke (Friar) has more tricks up his sleeve that turn the play around through a happy yet head-scratching ending.


The text in the play is some of the most difficult Shakespearean English. Yet there wasn’t any difficulty in understanding the story and the overall message of forgiveness and what we associate with forgiveness. In a sense, we think that when we have been wronged, the perpetrator should be given the just measure for the wrongdoing. What is done so beautifully by the cast is the message of not revenging measure for measure, but forgiving measure for measure.


You can catch “Measure for Measure” or “Born Yesterday” during this summer season, which finishes up on Aug. 30. Other plays include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Richard III,” “1776” and “The Servant of Two Masters.”


The Fall Season goes from Sept. 18 to Oct. 18. The plays include Comedy of Errors, Little Shop of Horrors, The Importance of Being Earnest and I Hate Hamlet. Students can get student rush tickets one half hour before the show for half price. For more information visit the Web site at www.bard.org.

There are More Things in Heaven and Earth than Are Dreamt of in Your Philosophy

So, is the Utah Shakespearean Festival small-town mediocrity? Well, that is for the audience member to decide. But the experience of seeing Shakespeare in the open-air with the stars as the ceiling made me question the very thought of mediocrity. The Utah Shakespearean Festival isn’t small town at all; it is a large community of entertainment and education that is nestled in a backdrop that one won’t see in any big city…the backdrop of the red cliffs and the bright stars—the scenery that existed before Shakespeare.


About 40 years ago, a man named Fred Adams found himself in Cedar City, Utah, via New York City, NY. He thought of a great idea. Each year the national parks in the vicinity attracted hundreds of thousands of summer tourists. Yet, when the sun went down, the options for nightly activities were very limited. These observations led to two simple equations: Tourists + Southern Utah = tourist trap. Tourists + nothing to do at night = captive audience. Put the two together and you have all the necessary tools to start a theater festival. After years of research and scouring the country for ideas regarding theater festivals, the summer of 1962 was the birth year of the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City.


The original cast, consisting of college students and townspeople who doubled as set and costume designers, put on “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Hamlet,” and “The Merchant of Venice” as the inaugural plays of the Utah Shakespearean Festival.


Forty years and one Tony Award (2000, Best Regional Theatre) later, this great idea of Fred C. Adams has turned into a formidable festival and forum for the theatrical arts. It has accumulated local and national attention and support. With the help of a substantial budget, the festival has been able to embrace theater of various genres and origins outside the realm of Shakespeare. Additionally, the festival has engineered an educational outreach program that includes workshops and a touring production of one of Shakespeare’s plays each season.


Within this vast enterprise of entertainment and education is a relatively new program called the Plays-in-Progress Series, directed by Florida State University professor George Judy. This unique program provides a forum for up-and-coming playwrights to be a part of the process of seeing their plays rehearsed, performed and critiqued.


The growth of this festival demanded the construction of new theaters on its home campus of Southern Utah University. The most unique of them all is the Adams Memorial Shakespearean Theatre, the design of which closely resembles that of the Globe Theatre in London. Since its dedication in 1977, the Adams Theatre has housed three Shakespearean plays each season.


A decade later, the Randall L. Jones Theatre was erected. It has since become known for its repertoire, which spans the globe and history. There are now plans to complete the Utah Shakespearean Festival Centre for the Performing Arts with additional buildings, including study centers and two more theatres.


What started as a form of entertainment for the tourist has turned into a center of education and opportunity for the artist, both professional and aspiring.
christian@red-mag.com