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Salt Lake City Weekly Guilty Pleasure

Transporting Shakespeare to Cedar City is still a delight.

By Soctt C. Morgan

AUGUST 18, 1997:  For 36 years, the Utah Shakespearean Festival has been bringing the sounds of Shakespeare to Southern Utah. But is the festival really offering anything new, or just sticking to tradition?

Last year, I was flipping through the pages of a Shakespearean Festival brochure when a colleague's remark made me rethink my views on Shakespeare.

"I think Shakespeare is great and all," she said, "but I think it's time we as a culture moved on."

I gave her a surprised look, so she replied, "There are so many other playwrights in English literature. I don't see why we always have to dwell on Shakespeare."

Needless to say, I was shocked at this attack against "the world's greatest playwright." How could anyone question the legacy and impact of William Shakespeare on Western culture?

Yet, as I prepared to visit the 1997 Utah Shakespearean Festival, I thought about my colleague's criticisms of Shakespeare. Of the four Shakespearean plays offered, only Pericles was one that the festival had never produced before. And with a top ticket-price of $35 for each play, one wonders why you couldn't save money by renting film adaptations of Henry V, Twelfth Night and Hamlet on video.

Thankfully, my faith in Shakespeare was confirmed, for the festival was still able to show off the scope and breadth of the Bard's work. You can understand the greatness of Shakespeare when you realize that these Elizabethan plays can still entertain and enlighten audiences of today.

While each of the festival's six productions are expertly done, the two that stand out most are Pericles and Hamlet.

With Pericles, audiences get to see the results of recent attempts to produce every Shakespearean play, no matter how obscure or unpopular. Surprisingly, this is precisely what makes Pericles so refreshing, even if scholars question the authenticity of this less-than-top-notch Shakespearean play.

Jam-packed with plot (including incest, shipwrecks, kidnapping and prostitution), Pericles boasts solid performances from Gary Armagnac as Pericles and A. Bryan Humphrey as Gower/Chorus. Both are able to keep the production on-track, despite director Michael Addison's indecisive take on the material. While Addison's mix of campiness and seriousness are occasionally at odds, Pericles is still a rewarding experience.

Lance the night away: Don Burroughs as King Henry.
With Hamlet, audiences are also treated to another modern trend with Shakespeare: that of transporting his plays into modern settings. While this trend is often done just to please dictatorial directors' concepts, this modern Hamlet actually makes sense.

Taking a page from Ian McKellan's fascist Richard III, director Howard Jensen has set Hamlet in an imaginary 1930s fascist Europe. With the Denmark royal family suffering internal struggles and the military leader Fortinbras conquering other European nations, Hamlet helps to strengthen Shakespeare's modern connections by drawing parallels between his plots and modern history.

Aside from Ophelia's "mad" costume that makes her look like a diseased fairy from the festival's new Midsummer's-themed Royal Feaste, the period costumes and weathered art deco unit set of Hamlet provide some of the most striking images at the festival. But even with the modern setting, Shakespeare's ponderings on life and death in Hamlet continually resonate and ask audiences to contemplate their own existence.

So it was slightly disappointing when much of the passion from Hamlet's actors felt manufactured and mechanical at times. Although Martin Kildare worked very hard at portraying Hamlet, he wasn't quite successful at making his time-worn dialogue sound fresh. But despite these shortcomings, there is much to recommend in Hamlet.

With the festival's other two Shakespearean productions, audiences can choose from a well-known comedy and history play.

Filled with a generous amount of physical humor to match the witty dialogue, Twelfth Night is a pure delight. Aside from Scott Janes' forgettable Orsino, the entire cast is stellar. Armagnac and Humphrey's once again offer solid performances in respective roles as Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio, in addition to Carol Johnson's pleasing turn as Olivia and Brooke Behmke's unpretentious take on the clown Feste.

As for the festival's Henry V, a sturdy performance from Don Burroughs cannot conceal the unevenness of director Paul Barnes' production.

Deemed by Barnes as "the greatest pro-nation, anti-war play ever written," his Henry V is a bit confusing when it tries to bring out these conflicting themes. Perhaps if the play were judicially trimmed and focused less on minor characters, Henry V might be more engaging for the audience.

Bard day's night: Carol Johnson and Gary Armagnac in Twelfth Night.
Still, Henry V ends on a wonderful note, as the proposal scene between Burroughs and Carine Montbertrand as Katherine gives the audience something truly rewarding.

And for the "icing on the cake" to the meat and potatoes of Shakespeare, the festival offers spectacularly fluffy productions of Brandon Thomas' Victorian farce Charley's Aunt and Sandy Wilson's The Boyfriend, a musical homage to bubbly '20s musicals.

Taking in both of these productions is a guilty pleasure, for both are filled to the brim with fast-paced humor. Although the creaky writing of Charley's Aunt and the narrowly-averted saccharine overdose of The Boyfriend are very apparent, one can't deny the exuberant joy that both productions provide.

Although you could harp about the loss of non-Shakespearean drama (the festival has produced Ghosts, Waiting for Godot and A Streetcar Named Desire in past seasons) you do have to take the festival's bottom line into account. How else can you lure tourists in t-shirts, shorts and fanny-packs to watch Shakespeare without some light-headed fluff in the repertoire?

But then again, if you look at the Utah Shakespearean Festival's 1998 season, you might change your mind. Utah does not need another damned production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I'd rather have any worn-out Shakespearean play over Joseph any day.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival presents Charley's Aunt, Hamlet, Henry V, Pericles, Twelfth Night and The Boyfriend in repertory until Aug. 30 in Cedar City on the campus of Southern Utah University. Call (801) 586-7878 or 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) for tickets and performance information.


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