CEDAR CITY — The play is certainly the thing in Cedar City over the next three and a half months as the Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival stages eight plays in three theaters. After the mysterious and unfortunate events surrounding the festival cancelling the world premiere of "Pearl's in the House," the 2018 season is pressing ahead with four Shakespeare productions, plus a Tony Award-winning musical, a hysterical comedy, a new take on a (very) old poem, and starting in September, a classic farce.
Below, Deseret News reviewers' Lottie Johnson and Cristy Meiners share their take on the six current productions: "Henry VI Part One," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Merchant of Venice," "Othello," "Big River" and "The Foreigner." "An Iliad" opens July 12 and "The Liar" Sept. 14.
“BIG RIVER,” through Sept. 1, Randall Jones Theatre, 300 W. Center, Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org); running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes (one intermission)
Hard week? Lousy month? USF’s “Big River” may be the antidote you need.
As the theater darkened and the bluegrass-tinged overture filled the room, I could almost feel the gentle warmth of a humid Missouri evening enfold the audience (thanks in part to William C. Kirkham’s beautiful stage lighting), drawing us away and into the scrapes, adventures and triumphs of literature’s most charming duo to float the mighty Mississippi. Based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Big River” takes on the complicated issue of what to do when one’s own moral compass is in conflict with society’s sense of right and wrong, and the musical does so with all the glee and enthusiasm a musical could muster.
From the full company’s rousing opener, “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven,” “Big River” is filled with show-stopping numbers — “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” is one among a good half-dozen — and enough belly laughs to entertain a crowd of any age. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about USF’s “Big River” isn’t the cast’s Broadway-level talent — although you’d be hard-pressed to find any better than Rob Riodan’s irascible Huckleberry Finn and Ezekiel Andrew's gentle Jim — but the delightful ease with which essential lessons about humanity and goodness go down.
Content advisory: "Big River" contains racial slurs, some mild profanity and a scantily clad "nonesuch" who fooled no one.
— Cristy Meiners
My opinion? “The Foreigner” is a true gem at this year’s festival. Actor and playwright Larry Shue wrote this extremely farcical play in 1984 for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where Brian Vaughn, the festival’s artistic director, performed for over a decade. The Obie Award-winning comedy set in rural Georgia is bound to leave you in tears — but don’t worry, we’re only talking the happy kind here.
When the painfully shy Charlie Baker takes a three-day getaway at a remote lodge with his friend Froggy LeSueuer, he becomes terrified at the thought of having to converse with strangers. Sensing Charlie’s dilemma — and all too aware of his shyness — Charlie’s friend tells Betty Meeks, the charming lodge owner with a strong Southern accent, that Charlie is from an exotic foreign country and neither speaks nor understands English. This leads Charlie to hearing conversations he shouldn’t be hearing, to “learning” English with a pronounced Southern accent and to creating and teaching his “native language” to his fellow lodge dwellers.
Although farcical, “The Foreigner” has a lot of heart. Colleen Baum brings warmth, tenderness and endearing Southern charm to the role of Betty, and Michael Doherty masterfully displays Charlie’s transformation, gradually growing out of his shyness and coming to help and inspire those around him. As a Southerner myself, it was easy to connect people from my South Carolina hometown to those in the production. But “The Foreigner” is a humorous gift to all and should not be missed if you plan on taking a trip down to Cedar City.
Content advisory: Although “The Foreigner” deals with themes of racial prejudices, the comedy is family friendly and suitable for all ages.
— Lottie Johnson
"HENRY VI PART ONE," through Sept. 6, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 W. College Ave., Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org); running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes (one intermission)
“Too famous to live long!” the Duke of Bedford states at the top of "Henry VI Part One," and they are words that apply to just about all of the well-known historical figures the audience will meet — and say goodbye to — over the next two and a half hours.
The first of a three-parter about the reign of Henry VI — think War of the Roses — "Henry VI Part One" is one of Shakespeare's rarely performed history plays, so this is a good chance to catch a solid production of it while you can. While “Henry V” is a series of English triumphs over the French (remember St. Crispin's Day?), “Henry VI Part One” shows just how pointless all of those triumphs really were, as the French retake town after town throughout the play.
Interestingly, the play’s most arresting and vibrant character isn’t Henry VI, although Jim Poulos is marvelous as the fey, inexperienced ruler, but rather Joan de Pucelle, who you likely know as Joan of Arc. Tracie Lane plays her as a beatific, warrior goddess, a whirling dervish with the kind of divine confidence that I found equal parts unsettling and mesmerizing, a feeling that the French dauphin Charles, played by Ty Fanning, seemed to share. With a strong cast who looked great (gorgeously dressed by Lauren T. Roark), “Henry VI Part One” is an eloquent history lesson with plenty of the nasty bits left in.
Content advisory: "Henry VI Part One" is packed with battle scenes, tragic deaths and loads of tense royal arguments. Coming in at just under two hours and 40 minutes, parents may want to leave the littles ones at home for this one.
— Cristy Meiners
"THE MERCHANT OF VENICE," through Sept. 7, Engelstad Shakesepeare Theatre, 200 W. College Ave, Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org); running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
There's no way around it: "The Merchant of Venice" is an awkward play. Shylock, that merciless villain, is a bundle of racial stereotypes, as are Portia's Moroccan and Spanish suitors (played effectively for laughs in USF's production by Jamil Zraikat and Geoffrey Kent); according to the text, Shylock's daughter Jessica (Aidaa Peerzada) casts aside her Jewish faith with uncomfortable ease and when, at the June 30 evening performance, the audience chuckled at Ty Fanning and Kyle Bullock's Venetian noblemen mocking Shylock, our laughs felt more than a little tainted.
But what makes USF's production so good is how they mine and even exploit the play's inherent thorny tensions. Rather than making Shylock an obviously sympathetic figure, Lisa Wope's Shylock is a cruel, grasping man with all the old trappings: prominent false nose and just as prominent a money pouch dangling from his neck. In Wope's masterful hands, these stereotypes became tools for showing how we can so carefully mold others into enemies that justify our hatred. As Shylock puts it, "The villainy you teach me I will execute." Director Melinda Pfundstein staged a haunting, memorable and yes, entertaining "Merchant" — Tarah Flanagan especially shines as Portia — that leaves Antonio's (Leslie Brott) and Bassanio's (Wayne T. Carr) "good guy" triumphs over the evil Shylock feeling like pyrrhic victories.
Content advisory: "The Merchant of Venice" features no shortage of bullying and cruelty, but does so in a way that doesn't glorify bad behavior.
— Cristy Meiners
Although “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was hastily put together (written in 14 days) and is one of Shakespeare’s less regarded works, audiences will still find plenty of laughs in this slapstick, antics-filled production that plays out like an extended “I Love Lucy” episode.
But viewers be warned: This production is long — almost three hours long. While a 2 p.m. matinee might be easier to take in, the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre outdoor setting does make a nighttime performance appealing. So if you end up attending an 8 p.m. showing, my advice is take a nap beforehand.
But don’t let the production’s length dissuade you from bringing your kids, as I could hear several children attending the June 28 opening night laughing along with their families at the pranks the two merry wives (Tarah Flanagan and Stephanie Lambourn) inflict on Falstaff (John Ahlin) — like hiding him in a laundry hamper and dumping him in the River Thames, to name two.
Although initially set in the 15th century, Utah Shakespeare Festival has updated “Merry Wives” to a more contemporary time — festivalgoers will hear snippets of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” occasionally playing in the background. There’s a lot to keep track of in “Merry Wives,” but an introduction at the beginning helps audience members get acquainted with the characters, who are as quirky as they come, making for an enjoyable — albeit long — performance.
Content advisory: “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is about an older man who unsuccessfully attempts to seduce two women. Although it contains some bawdy humor, the slapstick comedy of “Merry Wives” is suitable for all ages.
— Lottie Johnson
When I turned to my mom during the intermission for “Othello” and asked her what she thought of the play, her response wasn't what I expected: “Iago’s growing on me.”
Which is an odd thing to say considering Iago is one of William Shakespeare’s most manipulative villains. But Brian Vaughn, the festival’s artistic director, gave the role a surprising amount of heart. He even solicited a few laughs from the audience as he walked us through each step of his deceptive plan — a plan that in real life wouldn’t have anybody laughing with its aims to put Othello in a state of “jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure.”1 comment on this story
Additionally, the festival's blackbox theater, the small Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, helped the audience better understand Vaughn's antihero. The intimate setting makes the festival’s production of “Othello” extremely character-driven and dialogue heavy, using only one major stage prop near the play’s end.
Wayne T. Carr as Othello and Betsy Mugavero's Desdemona were compelling, but the standout performances go to Vaughn's Iago and Katie Cunningham as Iago’s wife, Emilia, whose discovery of her husband’s betrayal is as heart-wrenching as Othello’s demise and Desdemona’s tragic death.
Content advisory: “Othello” contains a few violent scenes depicting murder and suicide and some adult language regarding sexual themes.
— Lottie Johnson