CEDAR CITY — As the Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2019 season got underway during the celebratory week of July Fourth, each evening before a performance a cast member would warn audiences at the outdoor Engelstad Theatre that while there was a good chance they might hear the sounds of fireworks coming from outside the theater, the show would go on.
That can-do spirit runs through all of this year's productions, and, in fact, has been a throughline throughout the Tony Award-winning festival's 58 seasons. Read our reviews of this year's current six shows below ("Every Brilliant Thing" opens July 11 and "The Price" Sept. 12) and if you're already looking ahead to the USF's 2020 season, tickets go on sale July 9. The 2020 season will feature: "Richard III," "The Comedy of Errors," "Pericles," "The Pirates of Penzance," "One Man, Two Guvnors," "Into the Breeches," "Desperate Measures," "Cymbeline" and "Shakespeare's Worst."
"HAMLET," through Oct. 12, Randall L. Jones Theatre, 300 W. Center, Cedar City (435-586-7878 or bard.org); running time: 3 hours, 4 minutes (15 minute intermission)
After some 400 years, audiences have come to know Hamlet the brooder, Hamlet the cynic, even Hamlet the schemer, but what about Hamlet the comic? That spin on the famously downer princely Dane is reason enough to see the USF's 2019 production of Shakespeare's best-known play. While the body count at this production's grisly end was still high, lines that usually paint yet another dark layer on this tragedy actually provoked laughter out of the Cedar City crowd during Friday's opening weekend. The credit for this fresh imaging on the familiar material must go to Quinn Mattfeld in the title role, and USF's golden boy, director Brian Vaughn. If you're feeling nervous that this more jocular "Hamlet" somehow lessens the Bard's message, rest assured that the play's moral weight was still very much intact. Mattfeld's Hamlet was more sardonic than sad and more clever than melancholic, but he still played the same son of a murdered father bent on revenge. Mattfeld's supporting cast kept up with his acting abilities, particularly Andrew May as Hamlet's treacherous uncle Claudius. In him, I saw a believable murderer whose rage hovered just below the surface — and in an interesting and unexpected twist on a familiar plot point involving Hamlet's cast-off love Ophelia, Claudius really showed off his murderous heart. This imaginative and handsome production is one of the gems of this year's festival, and shouldn't be missed.
Content advisory: While not quite everyone dies at the end of "Hamlet," just about everyone dies.
— Cristy Meiners
“JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT,” through Oct. 12, Randall L. Jones Theatre, 300 W. Center, Cedar City (435-586-7878 or bard.org); running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
There’s no element of surprise in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” — at least in terms of storyline. “We’ve read the book, and you come out on top,” the characters in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical sing to Joseph of Egypt, after all. So director Brad Carroll found other ways to surprise audiences in Cedar City: bringing on stage an interactive, singing camel, giving Joseph’s 11 brothers bright-colored Converse shoes to wear with their shepherd clothes, cleverly finding a way to reference Donny Osmond and drawing out the musical’s antics at every turn.
In fact, the comedy was in such high gear during the festival’s preview performance of “Joseph” that it’s hard to imagine Webber and Rice originally wrote this musical as a cantata, meant to be sung like Handel’s “Messiah.” In casting, Carroll’s energetic “Joseph” seemed to sacrifice standout vocals for nonstop high jinks. Unfortunately for Aaron Young, this made his role as Joseph unnecessarily goofy, and his cries in “Close Every Door” — one of the production’s more heartfelt moments — not all that convincing. And for Samae Allred’s role as the Narrator, singing the biblical tale with an enthusiastic rock vibe, albeit passionately, was at times a little over-the-top. The stars of the show were found in the supporting cast of 11 jealous brothers — especially Alex Allred as Reuben, who with a hilariously exaggerated French accent sang “Those Canaan Days” and had the audience laughing with each prolonged note.
Fortunately for all involved, though, Webber’s infectious music can forgive just about any production flaws. At the end of the festival’s “Joseph,” which clocks in at an hour and 15 minutes, audiences are given a chance to do what they’ve undoubtedly been itching to do all along — sing along. And in that way, the festival’s “Joseph” succeeds, bringing people together to celebrate a story of redemption that, although it goes “way way back many centuries ago,” has only reached 50 years in the world of theater.
Content advisory: Although “Joseph” deals with attempted fratricide, Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production is lighthearted, kid-friendly and suitable for all ages.
— Lottie Johnson
"THE BOOK OF WILL," through Sept. 5, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 Shakespeare Lane, Cedar City (435-586-7878 or bard.org); running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Today we take for granted that Shakespeare's First Folio exists — that (mostly) complete collection of the Bard's plays, written, we assume, as he penned them. But in "The Book of Will," one of USF's non-Shakespeare offerings at this year's festival, audiences get a based-on-true-events tale of his friends' trials and triumphs as they gathered the great man's works. Written by Lauren Gunderson, "The Book of Will" is only a couple of years old in play years, but highlights an event that took place a few hundred years ago, as Henry Condell and John Heminges, Shakespeare's old friends and colleagues from the King's Men, worked to gather and publish his complete works. The cast, led by René Thornton Jr. and Chris Mixon as Condell and Heminges, respectively, delivered a witty, jovial and at times moving tribute to the Bard as they took the audience through many of the playwright's most famous speeches, woven in and out of the story of how his collected works reached the public. Katie Cunningham as John's wife, Rebecca Heminges, served as the firm but bright voice of hope even as her husband and his friend Henry struggled to get the work out. The play served as a delightful love letter to Shakespeare and was an especially cozy chaser after the tragedies of "Hamlet."
Content advisory: "The Book of Will" contains some adult language and a few bawdy jokes.
— Cristy Meiners
“MACBETH,” through Sept. 6, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 Shakespeare Lane, Cedar City (435-586-7878 or bard.org); running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes (15 minute intermission)
Wayne T. Carr and Katie Cunningham are no strangers to tragedy. Last year, Carr took on the role of Othello, falling into a state of “jealousy so strong that judgment cannot cure.” This year Carr returns to tragedy as the bloodthirsty Macbeth, this time blinded by his desire for power. Cunningham shined as Iago’s wife, Emilia, in last year’s “Othello.” Watching her discover her villainous husband’s betrayal was heart-wrenching, and Cunningham brought that same emotional depth to “Macbeth” as Lady Macbeth. She had a commanding, practically hypnotizing stage presence as she went from being the strong one who told Macbeth after King Duncan’s murder that “a little water clears us of this deed” to being overcome with guilt, fretting back and forth and obsessively rubbing at an imaginary spot of blood that seemed etched in her conscience.
Because of their prior experience together, Carr and Cunningham were a powerful — and power-hungry — duo in this production. Eerie music, stage fog and the three witches, played in all their creepy glory by Sarah Hollis, Emma Geer and Betsy Mugavero, added even more darkness to the macabre story.
The outdoor setting of the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre was a great fit for “Macbeth,” as the sun began to set after King Duncan’s murder and the gradually darkening sky reflects the story’s gruesome twists and turns. At the same time, though, the outdoor setting sometimes made it difficult to hear the actors deliver their lines.
A surprising highlight during this preview performance of “Macbeth” came when Carr forgot a line. It was a fleeting moment that was instantly rectified when a person backstage shouted out the line to Carr, who went on seamlessly without another mistake. But for me, that brief second broke down a barrier and was a reminder of how much work and dedication (and memorization) goes into putting on the Utah Shakespeare Festival year after year and sharing these timeless stories.
Content advisory: “Macbeth” is heavy on the murders and includes an abundance of supernatural, bloody scenes.
— Lottie Johnson
"HENRY VI: PARTS TWO AND THREE," through Aug. 31, Anes Theatre, 101-199 W. University Blvd., Cedar City (435-586-7878 or bard.org); running time: 4 hours (30 minute intermission)
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not good to be king. That was the takeaway message from USF's four-hour production of "Henry VI: Parts Two and Three," even if the only person in the show who seemed to know it was the only man wearing the crown for any length of time. After producing "Henry VI, Part One" last year, the festival opted to offer the last two parts of this rarely seen history play (set during England's War of the Roses) as one slightly abridged marathon. There was no doubt that the audience felt the four-hour running time, but not because the productions didn't give us anything to think about or keep up with. In fact, the plays' constant action and the characters' ever-shifting allegiances ensured that this was an entertaining venture, especially with the talented cast of actors who guided the audience through Shakespeare's convoluted world of ever-changing loyalties.
Jim Poulos played Henry VI as a man who possessed genuine depth and sensitivity, even if he couldn't empathize with his warring nobles and relatives. Stephanie Lambourn was Henry's wife Margaret, and she well conveyed her character's furious ambition and wily nature, especially in "Part Three" as she moved into her role as a warrior-queen. Dan Kremer gave the production weight and gravity as England's — and Henry's — lord protectorate, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He was a pleasure to watch, sparring with other nobles and stately in his royal furs. Kremer, like almost everyone in these productions, played a number of parts, and while it was remarkable to see these actors shift from role to role, their Hydra-like dance did require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. In that regard, I also found director Henry Woronicz's decision to continually update the characters' clothes — they started in Renaissance garb, but ended in contemporary army fatigues — a little distracting, although I did sense the greater purpose of showing the characters' evolution. While "Henry VI" is a worthy endeavor on its own, in this age of lengthy sequels and prequels, it might be best to think of these two plays as a bloody setup for all the wickedness that is to come in Shakespeare's next history, "Richard III."
Content advisory: There are no shortages of battles and murders in both parts of "Henry VI," and while they aren't graphic, they are intense.
— Cristy Meiners
"TWELFTH NIGHT," through Sept. 7, Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 Shakespeare Lane, Cedar City (435-586-7878 or bard.org); running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (15 minute intermission)
"Twelfth Night" is one of Shakespeare's most charming comedic confections of mistaken identity that, if you look closely, deals with surprisingly weighty subjects: bullying, the capriciousness of love, even alcoholism. I've seen "Twelfth Nights" that lean into some of its darker undertones, and I have to say, I was happy that the USF's current production was not one of them. In a season packed with heavy plays, this "Twelfth Night" was something of a cool and refreshing drink after hours on Shakespeare's battlefields. Sarah Hollis was a vibrant and knowing Viola, one half of the shipwrecked twins, playing her (and Viola's alter ego Cesario) with an appealing confidence that felt fresh and contemporary, while Betsy Mugavero's coy Olivia left little doubt why Orsino (René Thornton Jr.) and later Sebastian (Tristan Turner) fell for her easily. And while, like any good comedy, this one ends with a handful of weddings, the onstage couple who seemed to enjoy each other the most were the drunken Toby, played with an easy charm by Todd Denning, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by a brilliant Josh Jeffers. But it was the man who ended up alone who gave the audience its biggest laughs — Chris Mixon's Malvolio was preening, proud and wonderfully silly. With his forced smiles and thudding "ha, ha, ha's," Mixon gave this bright, airy production the extra lift it — and the festival — needed.
— Cristy Meiners
Content advisory: "Twelfth Night" has a few innuendos, but is suitable for all ages.