Since 2014, my wife has attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival, usually with a friend, on a week that the kids and I are camping somewhere. We have dropped by occasionally if we are camping in the area. Back in 2016, however, we joined her for a second trip to see the fall plays. (They used to have some in summer, some in fall, with a brief overlap if you did it right. At this time, they appear to be doing just one set of plays throughout the whole period.) That 2016 trip was a lot of fun, so we returned in 2021. We were hoping to go last year, but my wife started her new job as ICU manager, and couldn’t get sufficient time off to go. This year, we made it happen again.
Because we saw six plays in four days, I decided again to just write up all of them briefly in one post, rather than try to find time to write longer posts. These are in the order we saw them. The only play we didn’t see was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m sure it was really good, but we wanted a day to hike Kanarra Falls, and that precluded seeing an extra afternoon performance.
Romeo and Juliet
This play was a last minute change (relatively speaking) at the Festival. Originally, they had planned to do West Side Story, but a brutal winter led to flood damage to the theater, including the necessary sound equipment. With neither the budget nor the time to replace and rewire everything in time for rehearsals - which would have to start early - it wasn’t going to work. So they grabbed the old warhorse as a replacement.
I have, of course, seen Romeo and Juliet a lot of times (to say nothing of performing the delightful music written by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev), so the draw here was seeing what USF could bring to the work.
All modern Shakespeare performances have cuts, as aficionados know - if nothing else, the constant recapping of the action (so those not paying attention could catch up) is unnecessary and distracting. And also, nobody has time for a four hour play. This means that one of the things that is different about the performances is where the cuts are, and how many. I have noticed that the more amateur versions - high school and college - have deeper cuts than USF prefers, for obvious reasons.
In this case, I was pleased that the scenes with the nurse were left fairly intact. They seem to be the first cuts made these days, and I think the play loses some depth when the poor influence of the nurse is omitted. Juliet is, after all, very young (originally 12, but in this version, 15), and the nurse’s romanticism and scheming only feed Juliet’s impulsiveness.
One of the biggest artistic decisions in any production of Romeo and Juliet is how to portray the lead characters. What motivates them? Are they young and silly, melodramatic, rebellious, or some other core emotion?
Juliet (Naiya Vanessa McCalla) and Romeo (Ty Fanning)
In this case, Ty Fanning played Romeo as very youthful, and lacking control of his emotions. This is in contrast to Mercutio (Ryan Ruckman), who was portrayed as a grizzled war veteran with PTSD. (Which explains both his speech about Queen Mab - also often omitted - and his inability to ignore Tybalt.) I really thought Romeo was outstanding in this production.
I wasn’t quite as sold on Juliet. And when I say that, I do not in any way wish to imply that Naiya Vanessa McCalla did a poor job. Her acting was actually excellent, and her character consistent. (And despite what an older woman complained about in the discussion afterward, she didn’t talk too fast - none of us had any difficulty understanding her.) Rather, what I am ambivalent about is that she seemed too strong for the character - more of a rebellious, headstrong woman rather than a naive girl. I’m not saying this isn’t a possible interpretation, just that I’m not entirely sold on it.
I’ll give some call-outs to some of the other actors as well. Alex Keiper as the nurse was delightfully daft - she has a real gift for comedy. Mercutio, of course. The always imposing Paul Michael Sandberg as Montague. And Gilberto Saenz as Tybalt - an incredible amount of energy and presence - he’s a young actor to watch, as he was excellent in other roles too.
The staging was period correct - an advantage of the larger budgets that this festival has. (We attended the seminar on costuming, which was fun. So much goes into the design and execution. Lots of labor, for sure.)
Overall, the usual excellent work that USF always brings to any play.
Fun note: We attend the discussions of the plays, which is always fun and enlightening. Believe it or not, there were a handful of people for whom this was their first time seeing R&J live.
Emma, the Musical
I am a Jane Austen fan, although it appears I haven’t read any of her books since I started this blog. Back in my late teens through twenties, I read her big three: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. I should probably put her back on my reading list this year or next.
I have seen the Gwyneth Paltrow movie version of Emma, but not the more recent one. This is also my first time seeing the musical.
So, the obvious first: there is no way a two hour musical can truly capture the nuance and character development of an Austen novel. Even the gold standard, the six hour A&E Pride and Prejudice, loses a bit of the depth - that’s the problem with adapting books in general. The medium doesn’t allow for the slow pace needed for that level of depth.
That said, I quite liked the musical version of Emma. Given the constraints, it brought out the core of the book rather well, and, with really just one exception, got the characters right. This was greatly helped by the perfect casting.
First of all, Allie Babich as Emma captured perfectly what makes her loveable even though she isn’t a naturally likeable character. She is a busybody, arranging other people’s lives - often badly. She has a cruel streak when it comes to humor. And she is gratingly privileged as the only child of the most prominent man in her small town. But she is also human, and grows throughout the book. Babich was so vibrant and effervescent in the role that her Emma became mostly naive and thoughtless, not malicious, which her both frustrating yet sympathetic. Which is just perfect. I cannot think of how the portrayal could have been improved - it was spot on.
Likewise, as the sometimes crusty and always blunt Mr. Knightly, Rhett Guter (who is insanely talented at acting, singing, and dancing - and magic) got the tone so perfectly that he literally felt like my own imagination of the character come to life.
And Laura Brennan as Harriet. Oh my goodness, she was so good. That kind of “just a bit too loud and gauche” feel - and both the pathos of being snubbed at the dance, and the glory of being loved later.
The only exception to the characterization was Robert Martin. And that is more the fault of the musical adaptation than the actor. In the book, he is smart and sophisticated, but he is more of a silent bumpkin in the musical - so not a whole lot for the actor to do. (Cameron Vargas did what he could. He got more to do in The Play That Goes Wrong - see below.)
But the rest were so good. Melinda Parrett as the shabby Miss Bates, Heather Renner as the talented but poor Jane Fairfax, Jim Poulos as the icky Mr. Elton, Marissa Swanner as the snobbish yet tacky Mrs. Elton. Oh, and Chris Mixon as the ever so curmudgeonly Mr. Woodhouse (I don’t like change!) Gilberto Saenz played Frank Churchill, in a totally different look than his Tybalt. Again, I think he is a young actor to watch.
All the singing and dancing was excellent. My youngest said it was her favorite…at least until she saw The Play That Goes Wrong. She is the perfect age (12) to get the humor of an Austen story.
I should mention a couple of fun things about the source material. I had not realized that Austen pioneered the particular perspective that Emma uses - third person, but from Emma’s perspective. (This meant that Emma was on stage pretty much the entire time…) Nowadays, this is everywhere - it feels like at least one of the most “normal” voices in fiction. But it was revolutionary at the time.
Second, Austen was NOT a fan of George IV, the prince regent. When it was suggested (strongly) that she dedicate her next book to him, she did…in a pretty snarky manner. But even more amusing is that Mr. Knightly’s given name is….George. But Emma refuses to use it. “I can’t possibly call you George!” I guess when you are a famous author who just signed an unusually favorable publishing contract, you can afford to poke fun at royalty.
Timon of Athens
This is the one that was the big draw for us this year - one we haven’t seen before. We are hoping to see all of Shakespeare’s plays live at least once. My wife is ahead of me by a bit, because she saw the Henry VI plays at USF several years ago. But both of us are getting close to the complete set.
Timon of Athens isn’t pure Shakespeare - it was co-written with Thomas Middleton - a satirist whose dense writing is not always easy, but has been respected by literary sorts. He’s no Shakespeare, but nobody is - Middleton is considered to be in the same tier as Ben Jonson.
Timon is a dark play, highly cynical, and bitterly satirical. It questions the basis for society - whether human bonds can ever be altruistic rather than grasping and mercenary. Written at the same time as Lear, it also shares much with Moliere’s Le Misanthrope.
At the beginning of the play, Timon is a wealthy and generous man - he feasts his friends at banquets, bails them out of debtors’ prison, and spreads his wealth around. One could say he embodies one of Christ’s more puzzling admonitions: to use worldly wealth to make friends.
But, as the more familiar character from the parable of the Prodigal Son finds out, what really happens is that those “friends” are nowhere to be found once the money runs out.
Timon overextends himself, and his faithful steward Flavius is forced to deal with creditors calling in the debts. Sure that his generosity will be reciprocated, Timon sends word to his “friends” that he needs a bit of cash, but he is turned down. From there, everything spirals, and Timon loses it all.
Before he leaves his home, he invites the “friends” to one last banquet, where he serves them lukewarm water and rocks, while railing against them for being false flatterers, only interested in his money.
After that, Timon heads for the wilderness, where he lives on roots and reviles all of humanity.
Two additional characters are of particular interest. The first is the general, Alcibiades, who, like Timon, was a real person. (Shakespeare draws these characters from Plutarch, as he does the story of Julius Caesar.) Alcibiades is banished for standing up for one of his soldiers, who is accused of murder. He later returns to find Timon a shell of who he was.
As the dramaturg for the festival noted, Alcibiades is essentially a proto-Coriolanus - Shakespeare is working on the character for the play he would soon write. In the context of the festival, the same actor (James Ryen) plays both characters.
Second is the cynic (in the original sense), Apemantus, who serves as a foil for Timon. She (the part is played by Nell Geisslinger, and the pronouns changed accordingly) comes to Timon’s feast, and is a wet blanket, refusing even his food, because she has no interest in being corrupted by him. Later, she visits him in the wilderness, and they come oh so close to being friends. In many ways, they are now soulmates. But he insists on hating everyone. And she mocks him for only embracing the cynic lifestyle because he was forced to by poverty. And so they part foes despite it all.
Making a dark and cynical play like this work requires care - a few scenes were cut, both for length, and because Timon’s misanthropy gets pretty misogynistic, which feels weird now, because his “friends” are all male in the original. (In this version, they are equally male and female.) Time constraints apparently led to the cut of the scene in which he is visited by prostitutes, who he advises to go and infect all of Athens with venereal disease.
The key to the way USF did this was the incredible talents of Elijah Alexander in the title role. He was so good and so believable both as the generous aristocrat and as the misanthrope. Apemantus was also excellent, and the perfect foil.
I’ll also mention that Timon was set in Elizabethan times, with all the costumes and an army of props to go with it. In particular, the way portable boards were hung on the characters to form the table was brilliant.
I’m not sure Timon will ever be a favorite, but it does have some really witty satire, and, done well like this, it makes for an emotionally compelling story.
A Raisin in the Sun
Last fall, the kids and I listened to an audio dramatization of this play, and found it compelling. I hadn’t realized how into it the kids were, until we saw it at the festival, and they remembered and anticipated a lot of plot points. My 15 year old said it was his favorite of the plays this year, because of the complex and nuanced characters.
I won’t go into the plot much, because I wrote about it already - you can read my post here. I do want to mention that I appreciated that USF put the scenes with Mrs. Johnson back in - not only do they give comic relief - much needed in this play, given the drama - but they also develop the issue of a black family moving to a white neighborhood more fully.
What I will mention are some of the best things about the production. First, the set - designed by Jason Lajka, who also designed the amazing sets for Emma and The Play That Goes Wrong - all of which use the same theater, and so have to be assembled and disassembled in an hour and a half - came up with a recreation of a Chicago apartment from the 1950s. It was incredibly convincing in every detail. An audience member who grew up on the Southside commented that the apartment was perfect - and the accents of the actors brought her back to her own family and neighbors.
The acting was superb in this play, which is so important in a family drama like this. There is a lot of tension and trauma and hard feelings, so cutting through that to get to the core reality that they are a loving family at heart is key to pulling the play off. The director apparently made sure there were a lot of touches and physical engagements to offset the often harsh words. I think it worked really well.
I also want to mention that my wife and I went to a late-night fundraiser for the actors (through a program to get agents and casting directors to Utah to see them in action.) It was a fun night, with a Disney movie theme. The absolute best part of the show, however, was when Corey Jones (who plays Walter in the play) did “Friends on the Other Side” from The Princess and the Frog in amazing full costume. Damn. Someone put this man on Broadway already.
I was gratified to note that even the older, whiter (and often more conservative) audiences that USF tends to draw were strongly engaged in this play, with many commenting afterward that it was one of the best plays they had seen anywhere. Hansberry’s play isn’t the easiest for white audiences - and it isn’t really written for them. But I think it is a truly compelling look at the issues we are still facing in the United States.
This is another rarely performed play, although we saw it five years ago down at Theatricum Botanicum. I discussed it at length in that post, so I will try not to duplicate it.
The best thing about this particular production was James Ryen. Good lord, he dominated the stage the entire play. He’s a big guy, and built, and looks like the sort of badass general who has no time for politics. He was surprisingly sympathetic, coming off not as a mere arrogant boor, but as someone who never wanted the political role in the first place, who is then punished for being bad at it. He’s obviously flawed, and his flaw destroys him, but he is no villain.
Also excellent was the spare set and phenomenal lighting. Occasionally you see something like this where the tech stuff adds so much to the story that you cannot imagine it without it. The setting was modern - kind of an urban with jeans and leather sort of vibe - with modern military gear. Except they all used sticks rather than firearms or swords. An interesting choice, with intricate choreography for the battles.
I would also mention yet again that the Tribunes are fascinating in this play. They are kind of the petty local politician sorts that are just good enough at demagoguery to royally fuck things up. They can’t entirely decide what they want, and don’t like it when they get it.
Shakespeare was a monarchist, and while that shows to a degree, nothing in Shakespeare is that simple or black and white. Everyone in this play is problematic. Autocracy doesn’t work well. Democracy doesn’t work well. And even the republican representation of the pre-Empire Rome isn’t working particularly well. Shakespeare explores the flaws in each form, rather than offer facile answers.
To illustrate this, and the reality that everyone experiences Shakespeare differently, Coriolanus was Hitler’s favorite play. And also the favorite of Jewish Communist playwright Bertold Brecht, who fled the Nazis. For very different reasons.
(In retrospect, Hitler perhaps embodied Coriolanus a bit too much - his hubris ended in his death and the destruction of his empire.)
As a final thought, the plebeians were scattered throughout the audience, making it seem like we were part of “the people” throughout. It felt immersive and intimate.
The Play That Goes Wrong
This is another play that we had seen before - at our outstanding local small theater, The Empty Space. My kids loved it the first time, and greatly enjoyed this version as well.
Again, I won’t belabor the plot, since I have already discussed it.
There are some differences in the staging. Most obviously, USF has a FAR bigger space to work with, and a budget exponentially bigger. So, for the most notable example, the study on the second floor, which collapses, gets a real cantilever system, rather than a folding table and whatever voodoo the ES people managed to perform.
USF also utilized the talents of a number of actors with incredible athleticism and physical comedy skills. Several were trained clowns, which really added to the humor. Jim Poulos in particular was uncanny in his ability to move his body around in a humorous manner.
Inspector Carter (Rhett Guter), Thomas Colleymoore (Blake Henri), Perkins (Chris Mixon),
Cecil Haversham (Jim Poulos), Florence Colleymoore (Nazlah Black) (standing)
Charles Haversham (Jeffrey Marc Alkins) (on chaise lounge)
Apparently, this play required a significant number of extra rehearsals, just to get all of the details of the stunts down - for safety. Between people flinging themselves out of windows and the set collapsing at the end, the whole thing looks calculated to hurt someone. It doesn’t, of course, but it does require actors to be pretty athletic.
I did also want to mention that, while the USF version was excellent in every way, seeing a professional version like this made us appreciate just how much ES managed to do in their version, without the money and space. We love USF and other pro productions, but don’t overlook the little guys either - local theater often brings it as well.
So, those are the six we saw this year. As usual, the level of professionalism and imagination makes USF a highlight for us. The last couple times, my wife and I have also enjoyed the seminar discussions and the various presentations by actors and those behind the scenes. It is a week-long experience the way we do it. Eventually, the kids will be up and out and won’t be there with us, but we are looking forward to making this a kind of date trip in the future.
Previous Utah Shakespeare Festival plays: