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Karl Hugh, USF
James Newcomb and Brian Vaughn star in the love story "Cyrano de Bergerac."

CEDAR CITY — Love was in the air as the Utah Shakespearean Festival kicked off last week.

With balmy summer evenings, beautiful flowers lining the streets and the colorful USF flags announcing the festival like a trumpet's call, it's time to escape the city heat.

On less than a tank of gas, you can be in Cedar City, soaking up six plays that seem to have a common theme: love.

Love between men and women; fathers and daughters; friends; even love of pets — it's all covered at the festival.

A couple of thoughts as you plan your trip:

1. It will be helpful to know what a cuckold is, as it is a term used in several of the plays. Cuckold n.: A man whose wife is unfaithful.

You'll hear many variations of the word including references to horns, which were believed to be worn by the cuckold but only visible to everyone else. It was considered the greatest humiliation that a man could suffer — the best way to punish an enemy was to seduce his wife.

2. Be glad, ladies, that you didn't live in the time of any of these plays. It would be exhausting going back and forth to your bedroom window as often as they had to. Men were always hanging around throwing pebbles. Needless to say, if someone hits my window with a rock, I don't demurely wander over to see who it is, I'm alarmed.

Instantly. Saves us a lot of time that way.

3. If you only have time for one show make it "Cyrano de Bergerac." It's an absolutely exquisite love story unlike anything you've ever seen or heard. Brian Vaughn is captivating in the title role, (I'm seriously planning a time to go back down to Cedar City just to see that show again.) Warning: Take Kleenex, ladies, it's a killer.

That said, you're going to find six solid and well-crafted shows with top-notch sets, beautiful costumes and fine acting. Don't forget to check out www.bard.org to help plan your trip — complete with lodging and dining options, as well as information on their child care, backstage tours and other ways you can make your experience more complete.

Here are reviews of this summer's offerings:

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"CYRANO DE BERGERAC," Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City, through Aug. 30, (800-752-9879), running time: 3 hours (one intermission)

The story about a wordsmith with a big nose is a famous one, but until you've seen it live, on a lovely summer evening, in a beautiful outdoor setting — you haven't seen the show.

And you haven't seen the show unless you see it with a lead actor who can make the part sizzle. That's what USF has with Brian Vaughn.

Under the direction of longtime friend and colleague David Ivers, Vaughn delivers another sparkling performance, bringing all the swagger, sophistication, humor, honesty, vulnerability and honor the role of Cyrano requires. And he's completely captivating ... captivating, endearing and heartbreaking.

Edmond Rostand's classic tale, translated by Anthony Burgess, is considered by many to be the greatest love story ever told. After the performance, I'm a believer.

Vaughn is not alone in the success of the evening, however. His real-life wife, Melinda Pfundstein, is lovely as Cyrano's love interest, Roxanne — with wide-eyed beauty and coquettish charm. This was especially true during the famous balcony scene which had a nice realism as the soft Cedar City breezes seemed to sway on cue in the Adams Outdoor Theatre.

And the show is funny, too. A great supporting cast, including Drew Shirley, Matthew Henerson and James Newcomb keep the show's momentum and light-hearted moments moving. Subtle lighting by Donna Ruzika, and David Kay Mickelsen's stunning costumes make "Cyrano de Bergerac" a must-see at the Festival.

After a rousing standing ovation, many theatergoers left wiping their eyes, sniffling and one woman gushed, "I cried off all of my mascara!"

If opening night was any indication, you're in for a real treat this season.

Sensitivity Rating: Too long and wordy for little ones.

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"OTHELLO," running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)

The grand Shakespearean tragedy, "Othello," which explores the essence of good and evil, light and dark, opened last week at the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

And it is a tragedy in every sense of the word — at the end of the play, one woman left the Adams Outdoor Theatre saying, "Well I wasn't expecting all that!"

But this scary look at humanity and whom we trust — and whom we don't — is a good one.

Director J.R. Sullivan has assembled a fine cast for this tale of the black Christian Moor who secretly marries the fair Desdemona and whose jealousy will eventually be his unraveling.

In the center of it all is Iago, ensign to Othello, who was passed over for a promotion and therefore declares revenge against the Moor.

James Newcomb is boyishly innocent, yet when addressing the audience, discussing his plan for revenge, his eyes glint dark and dangerous, and his face becomes cold and hard. He often rattles the Shakespearean prose a touch too fast, but he is wonderfully cold as one of the Bard's most notable villains.

As he menaced around the stage, I often found myself thinking, "Geez! What is this guy's problem?!" Iago's perceived wrongs don't seem to match the punishment he dishes out. He's utterly cold and completely evil.

Another standout was Corliss Preston, as Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's personal maid. Her discovery of her husband's evil-doings and the fact that she, too, had been manipulated, was impassioned and moving.

With striking stage presence, Jonathan Earl Peck plays Othello. His blind trust of "honest Iago" is often difficult to understand, but Peck transitions nicely from a confident nobleman to an insecure husband in a jealous rage. The diminutive stature of the beautiful Lindsey Wochley, as Desdemona, puts Othello's rage in a scarier light and makes the final scene, where he exacts revenge on his innocent wife, unsettling.

The supporting cast, including Danny Camiel, Will Zarhn, Justin Matthew Gordon and Marcella Rose Sciotto, among others, is solid in their storytelling as well.

Bill Black's costumes are another reason to take a peek at "Othello" — his use of rich fabrics and vivid colors are beautiful, and Donna Ruzika's lighting, especially having to light many nighttime scenes, was also well done.

Overall it's a fine evening of theater. But beware, you'll leave feeling a little unsure of those closest to you. Whom can you really trust? Who is only looking out for his best interest? And, can you even trust yourself?

Sensitivity rating: Minor sexual gestures, a strangulation scene that would be upsetting for young kids and stabbings which could also be scary.

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"TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA," running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (one intermission)

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies. At the time, it was a sort of chick-flick.

It's not his funniest work, but in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," you see the Bard tinkering with ideas and plotlines that will lead to his greater comedies.

The story wrestles with love; love between friends; love between men and women; love of fathers and daughters and forgiveness.

"Two Gents," directed by Jesse Berger, has some fine performances, including one that proves the old mantra — never act with children or animals.

Jake's entrance as "Crab," the ill-mannered but likeable dog, is the first moment the audience truly felt engaged. I've always thought it impossible to upstage actor Brian Vaughn, a festival regular who also brilliantly stars this season in "Cyrano de Bergerac," but Jake manages to do so.

A mutt that was cast in the role after a series of auditions, Jake has a perfectly uninterested yet outrageously sweet face and steals every scene. I hate putting Jake so high up in the review, but he is what people will walk away remembering.

Vaughn and Jake are the highlights of "Two Gents." They make a handful of appearances that don't have a whole lot to do with the rest of the story, but they are very funny.

So is Kevin Kiler as Speed, a servant who is quick to trade barbs and was an audience favorite.

The rest of the performances are solid, but again, they don't pack the comic punch that can be found in Shakespeare's greater comedies.

But it's not to be taken too seriously. As implausible as it seems that anyone could look at a former love and not recognize her simply because her hair is pulled up, it's certainly more fun if you just go along for the ride.

Lindsey Wochley and Carly Germany do a fine job as the two love interests, and Marcella Rose Sciotto is great playing two servants.

The two gentlemen, played by Justin Matthew Gordon and Matt Burke, were both believable as friends and hopeful lovers, even as it is unbelievable they remain friends.

As always, the costumes are stunning. The fabrics used in Bill Black's designs are so exquisite they're almost distracting. R. Eric Stone's simple Italian-style set sets the scene nicely.

It's a fine evening. There are plenty of funny moments, mistaken identities and, of course, those wonderful Shakespearean lines that still resonate today.

Sensitivity rating: Some sexual gestures and references.

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"THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES," running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (one intermission)

There were a few audible groans; one woman shouted "No" and a man followed later with a "Yea!"

All were in response to the USF production of "The School for Wives," a comedy by Moliere, considered by many to be the greatest comic dramatist in France.

Can a play written in 1662 still resonate with today's audience to the point that some are forced to yell out?

Well, yes.

Translated by Ranjit Bolt, "Wives" has been updated a bit in an effort to keep it relatable, and you'll notice some modern language here and there. When the actors keep true to the rhyming pattern of the era, the modern language fits nicely.

"School for Wives," directed by Robert Cohen, is about Arnolphe, an older gentlemen whose greatest fear is having a wife who is unfaithful, thereby making him a "cuckold." Cuckold, and all of its variations, is a word you'll hear a lot in "School for Wives."

You'll also hear many references to the horns a cuckold wears — visible to everyone but the man who wears them.

Arnolphe's desire for a true and chaste wife moves him to send a young girl to a convent to "be raised in ignorance of life" that she'll someday make the perfect wife.

Needless to say, such shelter makes her ignorant and therefore unable to see the harm in falling in love — with another man.

The play is quite funny, and though there are moments that might make modern-day women squirm (Arnolphe's rules for being a wife), there is plenty to laugh about for both genders.

As usual, the festival's sets are impressive, this time designed by Jo Winiarski. With this beautiful backdrop for the story, by the time we see Timothy Casto (Arnolphe) and Dennis Elkins (Chrysalde) enter in their gorgeous costumes, designed by Janet L. Swenson, the audience is in the mood for this lyrical piece.

Casto and Elkins set the story up wonderfully, and both are engaging in their opening discussion about wives, what makes a good one and whether or not Arnolphe's plan will work.

The rest of the cast also deliver fine performances: Betsy Mugavero as Agnes, the "dim" wife-to-be; Kevin Kiler as Horace, the exuberant newly-in-love suitor; and a handful of other ensemble actors make the piece work.

I would have liked to see more costumes by Swenson — the play takes place over a few days and most actors only wear one outfit.

It was one of my favorites of the festival, and the audience agreed — laughing at many of the lines and situations, and giving a hearty standing ovation at curtain call.

Sensitivity Rating: Mild language, a few sexual references and gestures.

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"THE TAMING OF THE SHREW," running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (one intermission)

This is a "Taming of the Shrew" unlike anything you read in high school.

Jane Page, director of the festival production, has set the classic battle of the sexes in Italy, about 1946, the final days of the U.S. occupation of Italy.

Petruchio is a U.S. soldier whose grandparents are from the region and, wanting to marry wealthy, pays a visit, looking for a bride.

This is where he meets Baptista, a respected Italian with two daughters — one, of course, is a shrew who no one wants, as most are afraid of her.

There is plenty about this new adaptation that works well.

I was immediately drawn into the gorgeous, Italian town square, designed by Jo Winiarski. It's beautiful. As the characters fill the stage, David Kay Mickelsen's costumes are eye-catching, colorful and fun.

Melinda Parrett plays Katharina, the woman with a temper. Parrett has the fiery Italian down pat. Though at times a touch too violent (no need to push down an old man with a cane), she is quite enjoyable storming around the stage.

Parrett's Kate also has a nice arc as she begins to transition to a softer, nicer version of her old self. Many often roll their eyes at Kate's final speech about women placing themselves below their man — their "lord and master." But Parrett's delivery is full of strength and is well-delivered.

Grant Goodman's Petruchio is at times strong and completely masculine and at other times he seems like a silly school boy. It's important that Petruchio's methods and motives are clear — we need to get the impression he knows what he's doing. Described as rough on the outside; intelligent and understanding on the inside; and deeply in love with Katharine, I never got that impression from Goodman's Petruchio.

In executing his plan for taming Kate, he seemed more like a man with a personality disorder; scattered, crazy and unfocused, leaving me wondering what he and his Army buddy had been drinking.

With that said, there were scenes he let his soldier-like strength shine through, and then I liked him quite a bit. Most enjoyable: the scene were the two first meet, and also the ending when, finally, we see Petruchio really has feelings for Kate as he spares her hand from touching the ground.

"Shrew" is always worth the time — it's very funny, and after all these years, still relatable. This cast is pretty solid, the costumes are gorgeous and overall, you'll leave feeling like you've spent the afternoon in the Italian countryside.

Sensitivity Rating: Sexual innuendo, some mild sexual gestures, a tiny amount of slapping, pushing and spanking.

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"FIDDLER ON THE ROOF," running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (one intermission)

Six notes, played by a single fiddle, are unmistakable. As we get introduced to the village of Anatevka, the townsfolk dance, arms in the air, singing about tradition. It's the opening to "Fiddler on the Roof" at USF — and it should be the first of many times you get chills.

"Fiddler" opened on Broadway in 1964 and was the first musical to break the 3,000-performance barrier — a record it held for a decade.

This production is no exception, thanks to director and choreographer Jim Christian, who is working at the Festival for the first time. A faculty member at Weber State University, he has been a regular at many theaters along the Wasatch Front. Directing a piece that can often get bogged down in its weighty issues, Christian has kept the pace moving quickly.

Matthew Henerson takes on the role of Tevye, the poor milkman with five daughters and the show's narrator. It's a big role, and Henerson is up to the challenge. With nice warmth, and a believable concern for his family and friends, Henerson is endearing.

The daughters were darling, with very nice harmonies during "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," (Melinda Pfundstein, Lisa Ferris and Katie Whetsell); Ferris' "Far From the Home I Love," was also a standout.

"Do You Love Me?" was charming and sweet — sung between Tevye and his wife, Golde, played with much humor and warmth by festival regular Carole Healey.

The other standout of the production is the choreography, also by Christian. With a fresh spin on some of the traditional moves, as well as plenty of his own, the dancing was a joy to watch.

There was one moment when I wanted a little more. Tevye is faced with a difficult decision as his daughter, Chava, wants to marry outside of the faith. Tevye must decide whether to be true to his religion or to his daughter. The choice must be excruciating for the deeply religious father, but it felt as if Henerson's Tevye figured it out all fairly quickly. Perhaps it was in an effort to keep the long show moving, but I just wanted to feel his pain for a moment longer.

In light of the whole show, that's pretty minor. The cast is great, with Hunter Herdlicka as Motel; Ben Cherry as Perchik; and Erik Stein as Lazar Wolf (though I wondered if he was too young and too handsome to be so off-putting to Tzeitel). It was also nice to see a live fiddler, Aaron Haines, on stage.

Set designer Jo Winiarski has done a remarkable job with "Fiddler" which, like the other shows, looks fabulous.

And that is also thanks to K.L. Alberts' costumes (which make Anatevka the most beautifully matched town in Russia) and Stephen Boulmetis' lighting.

Many left the theater on opening night humming the title song from the show. "Fiddler on the Roof," a tradition in its own right, is definitely worth seeing.


E-mail: ehansen@desnews.com