Shakespeare in the desert

Every summer, in the heart of the Great Basin, where steaming desert meets bucolic Mormon towns, where tradition is so triumphant that polygamy is still a live controversy, a small public university produces some of the best theater in the world.

Geographically, Cedar City, Utah, is about as close to being in the middle of nowhere as it is possible to get in America, but intellectually it is at the forefront of national live theater. Having won a Tony award as the best regional theater, it is by no mere chance that it was selected as one of three U.S. venues to premiere the stage version of the Oscar-winning film, “Shakespeare in Love,” which I saw there last month.

Every summer, in repertory on three stages (one a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater), it creates a magical mix of 16th century drama and 21st century comedy for the thousands of fans who pour into this small city of 31,000. Despite, or perhaps because of, the crowds, Cedar City with its unusually temperate climate offers some of the best inexpensive lodging and restaurants to be found anywhere (We ate at the Pastry Pub and stayed at the M Star Motel, both a short walk from the theater; I recommend both.)

Nearby is two-mile-high Cedar Breaks. The small national monument, one of the least-used sites in the national park system, was created to preserve a 3-mile-wide, 2,500-foot-deep crater, with trails wrapping around the crater’s periphery and plunging to its floor. From the rim, views of the valley floor and encircling mountains seem to go on forever.

“Shakespeare in Love” is the fourth play I’ve seen in Cedar City in recent years, and they have all been of a quality comparable to the best theater in New York. This year’s nine-play season of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which continues until Oct. 21, includes three regional premieres and two world premieres.

The handsome three-theater complex is on the campus of Southern Utah University, a couple of blocks from the center of town. The large speaking cast, supporting staff and backstage crew combine students with top-flight national professionals. The cast for “Shakespeare in Love,” for example, includes 39 actors, 16 of them members of the Actors Equity Association.

Photo by Thelma Bowles.

While “Shakespeare in Love” was an award-winning film written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, the stage version has never played in New York or, until now, anywhere in the U.S. (It did have a successful run in London).

The play is a big, complicated, sophisticated comedy, requiring split-second timing and repeated scene changes, all of which director Brian Vaughn managed with seemingly effortless finesse. Enjoyment of the play is much enhanced by at least a rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.

To an unusual degree, the actors are relaxed and clearly enjoying themselves. It may have taken a lot of hard work to create theater of this quality, but their labor is obscured behind much pure fun. For example, after the actors took their last bow at the end of “Shakespeare in Love,” the lead character (Quinn Mattfeld) depicting Shakespeare, grabs the lead actress (Betsy Mugavero) performing his entirely fictional love interest, Viola de Lesseps, and bends her over in a passionate and mutual kiss. It is apparent these two like each as much off stage as on stage.

The festival’s goal is to stage all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays between 2012 and 2023. The current Shakespeare productions are “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” More contemporary offerings include “Guys and Dolls,” “How to Fight Loneliness,” “Treasure Island” and “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged).”

Presenting “Romeo and Juliet” and “Shakespeare in Love” back to back creates a fascinating dynamic because the latter’s plot concerns the Bard’s comic frustrations with trying to write Romeo and Juliet’s tragic teenage love story, which he fictionally titled “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.” Ultimately, the Bard’s own love for Viola removes his writer’s block and inspires him to create the role of Juliet. Needless to say, this is all pure fiction, because no one knows anything at all about Shakespeare’s private life or how or why he composed his stories.

The festival also includes a number of side offerings, many of them free: backstage tours, lectures by distinguished actors and directors, even “The Greenshow,” a free nightly music-and-comedy performance preceding each show, which is a play in itself.

For information and tickets go to bard.org, email guestservices@bard.org or call 435-586-7878.

Cedar City is about 600 miles west of Albuquerque, a drive through dramatic red rock country of southern Utah and northern Arizona, past the north rim of the Grand Canyon and over Navajo Bridge—a dramatic span floating high above steep-walled Marble Canyon and the muddy, tranquil Colorado River. It all makes for a fine getaway.

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