Cedar City • On a dark and stormy night, a mysterious actor known only as The Vagabond walks into a ramshackle Southern Utah tavern. The appearance of the stranger, an actor with Shakespearean flair, sets chaos into motion as the wild wind outside continues to howl, tossing around chandeliers, tables, farm implements and even animals.
That’s the opening gambit for a farcical comedy set in Utah territory before statehood. It’s director Joe Hanreddy’s second location-specific adaptation of George M. Cohan’s “The Tavern,” which opens Tuesday, Sept. 19, in a Utah Shakespeare Festival regional premiere. The comedy plays through Oct. 21.
“It’s the heightened theatricality of melodrama that we’re after,” the director says of a story where the wrong person is always appearing at the door at just the right time for maximum comedic effect.
The Vagabond has the same kind of disruptive effect as the Cat in the Hat, says Andrew May, describing his character as having “complete diarrhea of the mouth.” As The Vagabond seeks care for another stranger, known only as The Woman (Melinda Parrett), others begin to suspect him of local crimes, such as the recent stagecoach robbery of the Utah governor and his entourage.
While a “Wizard of Oz”-scale storm rages outside, The Vagabond is like a human storm, “and he creates a great tornado of comedy that surrounds him,” May says of the challenging role, which features as many lines of dialogue as the title character of “Hamlet.”
To heighten the comedy, The Vagabond even dares to break theater’s fourth wall to underscore the machinations he is creating. While other characters can hear those asides, they remain completely confused about whom he is talking to.
In addition, there are the character’s ongoing vocal high-jinks and distractions. “When you ask him a question, he goes off on a full-page monologue without answering the question,” May says. “He befuddles everyone. You never get a specific answer back, but you get a full story that will send you on the wrong track.”
This version of “The Tavern” has its own backstory: May played the role of Tom Allen, the fiancé of the governor’s daughter, in Hanreddy’s 1996 Wisconsin-specific adaptation for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, which also featured Brian Vaughn as Zach, the son of the tavernkeeper. More than two decades later, Vaughn, now USF’s artistic director, commissioned Hanreddy to create a Utah adaptation of the wildly successful comedy.
Theatergoers should appreciate the bits of Utah history and references woven throughout the story. Hanreddy consulted with local historians and drew upon pulp fiction and cinematic classics to create a comedy that has what May describes “a nice Western twang.”
One practically guaranteed punchline will come when The Woman wakes up from an unconscious spell to ask: “In what queer corner of the world am I in?” The Vagabond answers, simply, “Utah,” says May, the New York-based actor who is in the process of transplanting his family to what his character refers to as “the magnificent wilds of Utah.”
Raise a glass
The Utah Shakespeare Festival presents the regional premiere of “The Tavern.
When • Opens Sept. 19 and continues through Oct. 21
Where • Randall L. Jones Theatre, 300 W. Center St., Cedar City
Tickets• $32-$60; 800-PLAYTIX or bard.org/tickets