The Utah Shakespeare Festival

I love theater. I love Shakespeare.   In fact, I was a bit of a drama club geek in high school and even played Phoebe in aproduction of As You Like It. By the way, Phoebe is a country bumpkin who falls for a woman dressed as a man – yep, I only get the smart roles. So attending the Utah Shakespeare Festival was a no-brainer for me.  The festival is located in Cedar City approximately 2 ½ hours outside of Las Vegas. Cedar City is a sweet retreat equipped with fresh air, beautiful red rock mountains, and a quaint desert town. The festival is primarily located on the campus of Southern Utah University and this year marks the 50th anniversary of this Tony-award winning celebration of theater. Festival founder, Fred C. Adams, created this fine event, which now draws seasoned actors, agents, and hungry audiences.

My visit in August was not my first experience at the festival. I originally attended in 2002/ 2003 and was very impressed by the scale of the event. This was no barnyard show with grandma serving sweet tea. These actors were serious, the sets were extraordinary, the costumes were intricate, and the performances were moving. I saw two shows – Man of La Mancha and The Servant of Two Masters – and thoroughly enjoyed them both. In fact, I had a bit of crush on David Ivers who performed in Masters and showed himself to be quite brilliant in the field. Lucky for me (and the whole production team), Ivers is now one of the artistic directors and word is he’s now a permanent resident in Cedar City. Ivers is creatively partnered with the gifted performer, Brian Vaughn, the second half of the artistic directing team.

For my second festival visit, I planned to attend as many shows and events as possible during my weekend stay. I wanted a well-rounded artistic experience. This year there are six production shows to choose from during the summer season.  The Bard’s plays on display include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet, and Richard III. Not a fan of Shakespeare? Not a problem! The name of the festival can be deceiving, but there are a variety of more modern shows as well. This year includes The Music Man, Noises Off, and The Glass Menagerie. Aside from the formal productions, there are a whole host of special events such as panel luncheons with the talent, a backstage tour, a costume display , and a greenshow. The costume display and greenshow are free, so there is plenty to do if you are low on dough. Not only that, the university campus is lovely and I recommend an afternoon stroll around its beautiful grounds.

The festival has three theaters in which to show their productions: the Auditorium Theatre, the Randall L. Jones Theatre, and the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. That last one is a real treat. Adams Shakespearean Theatre is considered to be close in design to the original Globe Theatre.  This sixteenth century reproduction is open to the air above with seating for 888. The theater is so well-designed that the British Broadcasting Company utilized it for filming a series on Shakespeare. Holding true to its replica roots, only the Shakespeare plays get to grace the stage. I have walked through and around this great space. If you have ever seen Shakespeare in Love, you have a pretty good idea what Adams looks like. You feel like you are walking back in time, which only enhances your play experience.

With such a wide variety of plays, it can be tough to choose which ones to see. I chose Noises Off, an off-kilter British comedy that is a play within a play. I am a fan of dry, British humor (think Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard) so I knew I would enjoy it. The premise includes a cast of fumbling actors attempting to piece together their performances during the final dress rehearsal – hours away from curtain. Act One lays the framework of their sad play, hinting at the rocky relationships, the bad habits, and the poor acting that will be the play’s demise. There are two intermissions for two really good reasons – after Act One (the “rehearsal”), the stage crew turns the entire set piece backwards to show the behind-the-scenes antics during the “live” show in Act Two, then the stage is righted for the final act.  Act Two is the meat of the play and with the unique point of view, the real fun begins. Expect major laughs with some carefully planned stunt work. In my opinion, Quinn Mattfeld stole the show as Garry. Mattfeld had great comedic timing, was quick on his feet, literally danced around the pratfalls, and his reactions were appropriately over-the-top. I have to give a shout out to Melinda Parrett who also stood out as prim Brit Belinda. Overall, a great show and I highly recommend it. Also, if you don’t have to use the loo during intermission, I suggest watching the stage crew make the transformations between acts. Pretty impressive.

During one of our lovely, sunny afternoons we attended the greenshow. This is a free 30-minute performance given in the courtyard behind the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. The greenshow is light and fun with dancing, skits, and singing. We packed a picnic and enjoyed dinner on the grass beforehand. There are festival characters selling treats, performing woodworking, and interacting with the crowd. So even before the performance began, there was plenty to experience. Be sure to get there a little early as the grassy knolls fill up quickly.

One show I was really excited to see was the second annual Bardway Baby. This is a late night show held in the Auditorium Theatre and as implied, it only happens once a year.  We had the luck of being able to come during the one weekend it would be on the bill. Bardway Baby showcases the actors performing a wide variety of Broadway songs, many of which I did not recognize but enjoyed none-the-less. This was an opportunity for the actors to have a little fun and step outside of their daily scripts. What makes this event so unique is the actors are working for free (!) but all the proceeds go towards improving the cast and the performances brought before you every year. I knew this was a special event not to be missed, having heard of its popularity from the inaugural show last year.  Festival performers not in the show, acted as volunteers handing out lists of the Broadway pieces for the night and gold party beads. It was fun seeing Juliet without her Capulet garb or seeing the talented dancers up close. After a long day of work, you would expect these actors to be exhausted. But it certainly did not show. At 11:30pm the actors and audience alike were rambunctious and ready to party. It was a packed house! You could feel the energy in the room. The performances were fresh and full of life. They were also a little naughty thanks to a lingerie-clad number from Gypsy courtesy of the aforementioned, Melinda Parrett. There was a beautiful tribute to the founder with a closing performance by all participants singing Don’t Stop Believin’ ala Glee arrangement. Thanks to balloons and frisbees flying through the theater for the finale, this was truly a celebration of the actors who make this festival come alive. A must-see if you can swing it.

So if you are keeping tally, I saw a Brit play, a greenshow, and an ode to Broadway. But my favorite event was not on campus, nor was it in a theater.  It was in a coffee shop. Before you un-like my posts, let me explain. Much like the fundraising behind Bardway Baby, I love the idea of supporting the arts.  When I was younger, I used to tell my dad that I wanted to someday be a starving artist. Take my drawing and writing to the next level and be Bohemian. Clearly, I had no idea what I was talking about and it’s easier to say that when your parents are still footing the bill for your existence. There is nothing glamorous about starving for your art. And it’s harder than you think. Well, the late night Cabaret in a downtown coffee shop raised funds to bring agents to the festival. To make sure that these artists won’t starve and will continue to get great gigs, it is essential to expose them to the right industry people. According to a couple of festival volunteers, an agent from New York was in our midst at the Cabaret that very night. Consider this a high end audition for the actors not yet vetted. With only a simple stage, the performances are more raw, more real, and literally at your fingertips. Another packed house. Plus, the show included not just singing, but dancing, saxophone-playing, piano-styling, and some fancy guitar work. There was a lot of laughing, hooting, and hollering throughout the show, making it a very fun night. I especially loved Alan Patrick Kenny’s rendition of Rianna’s Please Don’t Stop the Music. He performed the piece with only his piano and a killer attitude. It is not surprising that he is the music director and conductor for the festival. He also did some amazing work on stage at Bardway Baby that deserves mentioning. In general, I was in awe of the fresh, hungry talent that night and I hope Mr. New York recognized the actors’ potential. You never know – I could have just seen the next big thing only a few feet away from me.  I like inspiration with a latte on the side. Now that’s very Bohemian.

So why haven’t I talked about all the Shakespeare plays I saw? Because I didn’t see any. Not one. My husband’s not a huge fan of the notoriously confusing language. Also, I have seen many  Shakespeare works over the years and opted to keep this visit lighter. I do plan to go again – this is an amazing event if you haven’t already noticed – and I hope to see a bone fide Shakespeare piece in the beautiful Adams theater. I had hoped to wander more on the campus, see the costume exhibit, and take more pictures but we actually got a call from our close pals that there was bit of a family emergency back home. Our visit was cut an entire day short. When it comes to family, the festival can wait. Next year, I will be in line for another great show. I am ready to let the Utah Shakespeare Festival inspire me all over again. See you at the box office!

Links I liked, researched, and utilized for this article:

And when you are not traveling and just want a furry friend to snuggle up with, consider a rescue pug (okay, it doesn’t have to be a pug, but doggy adoption is a great way to go!). Check out the local adoption sites in your area.

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