Prospero, daughter Miranda and crew brave a shipwreck. Peter finds his prelude to Neverland across the ocean. And an American debutante braves amorous advances aboard an Atlantic Ocean liner.
Water and boats loom large in the opening of Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 52nd season. But it’s more useful to see this year’s summer offerings, starting June 24 and running through Aug. 31, as the festival’s big, bold bid for risk-taking productions. It will stretch theater from its most condensed and potent forms, outward into repertoire rarely produced or explored.
With Shakespeare’s “King John” festival audiences will be treated to one of the Bard’s lesser-known treasures among the history plays, to the fantastical book-end of the far more familiar “The Tempest.”
That same rule applies to the festival’s contemporary offerings on tap, from Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men,” made familiar by its film adaptation, to the regional premiere of Rick Elice and Wayne Barker’s “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel of sorts to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
“Looking for balance in programming is always harder than it sounds,” said David Ivers, the festival’s co-artistic director. “For us, that means preserving the expectation of programming that’s allowed us to survive, but also stage productions that let us become a presence in new works.”
Passions old and new • Phillips said he made his own passion known early on, by adding “Love’s Labour’s Lost” to “The Tempest” and “King John” for the traditional offering of three Shakespeare plays in the outdoor Adams Theatre
“I personally pushed for it,” he confessed. “It has an immediate ‘snap’ at the end. It’s not wrapped up all neat and tidy, like Shakespeare’s other plays.”
Those put off by the potent energy of Rose’s quintessential courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men,” can opt for the froth of “Anything Goes.” Drenched in Cole Porter songs, and with a narrative engineered in part by P.G. Wodehouse, it’s directed by the festival’s consummate musical curator, Brad Carroll.
But the festival’s biggest coup is the regional premiere of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” This hybrid creature of fantastical drama and musical elements so enchanted Phillips, along with festival co-artistic directors Brian Vaughn and David Ivers, that all three huddled inside a New York City deli to plot a strategy for securing its rights just minutes after seeing its New York Theatre Workshop production in spring 2011.
Festival staff fell in love with the production even before it went to Broadway, after which it later garnered five Tony Awards. After badgering Disney Theatrical Productions with emails and phone calls, the festival was granted conditional use. Disney, no doubt, also knew the festival could provide a valuable measure for the production’s future potential for family-oriented entertainment. Vaughn signed on to direct.
“It was all bit hairy for Brian, but I knew he could do it because he’s the boy who never grew up,” Phillips said.
Mixing the timeless themes of voyage and self-discovery, the play follows orphan Peter’s journey across the sea to a fictional island. There he meets Molly, who brings him out of his personal darkness and into a new identity. Much like “Wicked” created the backstory to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” this play traces the origins of an already beloved story and treats audiences to a new story that also makes the familiar one more vital.
It’s rendered in a style similar to English vaudeville, Vaughn said, with direct narration from characters peppered with music.
“It celebrates the theater in its purest form, along with the nature of storytelling, without mass production values,” Vaughn said. “We were completely captivated in that first viewing.”
Phillips can’t help but point out that, this summer at least, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is the only venue in the nation where the show can be seen.
“Everyone asked us how we got this show,” he said. “We were just in the right place at the right time, and we were very determined.”
Shakespeare, sensuous and serious • Throughout its more than 400 years on the stage, “The Tempest” has taken place on island-and-sea sets that, for the most part, come across as austere and punishing. Under B. J. Jones’ direction for this summer’s production, the set will be decidedly Caribbean, even tropical.
“There’s a sense of steel drums and palm trees, with lots of magic tricks in between,” Phillips notes.
The real “brave new world” among this summer’s Shakespeare offerings, though, is “King John,” the Bard’s 1595 play of “war for war, and blood for blood.”
It will be the festival’s first installment of Shakespeare’s “complete the canon” of history plays, which will be done in historical order, rather than in the chronological order in which they were written. Intriguingly, the festival gave the directorial keys of this vehicle to an actor who crashed its doors early in her career.
Director Robynn Rodriquez played the role of Constance in a recent production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but knew the work even earlier when she sought out the best possible audition pieces for women.
As mother to Arthur, King John’s nephew and stumbling block to the throne, Rodriguez claims Constance is “one of the fiercest mothers in the canon,” and an anchor of wisdom in a play about the shifting interplays between legitimacy and power.
“This is my directorial debut, and my first job is this rather thorny play,” Rodriguez said. “But frankly, I’m a person who loves a challenge. King John is a character we think we know from tales such as ‘Robin Hood,’ or the play ‘Lion in Winter.’ But he’s more than a mythical character. While not perhaps a great king, he’s fodder for wonderful stories, and this is one of the best.”
A room with a view • The political intrigue of “King John” on the festival’s outdoor Adams Theatre will be matched—perhaps even exceeded—by the same themes on display at the indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre.
Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” has long been considered a classic “well-made play” for its almost microscopic examination of human motives so tightly constructed and focussed that it takes place in one spare room. But festival co-artistic director David Ivers, director of this production, said he was at first attracted to the work for its political themes. When cast against our own era of political gridlock, he said the play’s impact becomes magnified.
“As dramatic literature it’s a shining example of character analysis,” Ivers said. “As a play of relevance, my hope is that it might expose the fact that we’ve perhaps lost the time in which twelve men can sit in a room and be open to having their minds changed.”
While the drama is well-known across the generations, Ivers said he hopes to create an atmosphere in which the audience nonetheless feels it’s seeing the play for the first time.
“Someone said during rehearsal that it’s like playing Act V, Scene 2 of Shakespeare for 90 minutes. Those are usually Shakespeare’s longest scenes, in which he puts the most bodies on stage,” Ivers said. “It’s a lot like trying to figure out the staging of spilling pencils. You must do a certain amount of math, and then hope no one sees that math revealed in the play.”
As a concentrated view into the minds of dramatic characters, “Twelve Angry Men” may prove the ideal entry point into this year’s summer offering of the festival. It’s also a point from which the rest of the festival’s offerings—from light to dark, from whimsical to serious, and from dense to expansive—extend outward.
“Every year we do our best to put together a program that says, in essence, ‘If you’ve been here before, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come back,” said R. Scott Phillips, the festival’s executive director.
Utah Shakespeare Festival
P The Utah Shakespeare Festival presents its 52nd summer season of plays June 24 through Aug. 31 on the Southern Utah University campus in Cedar City.
Shakespeare classics • In the outdoor Adams Theatre: “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” directed by Laura Gordon; “The Tempest,” directed by B.J. Jones; and “King John,” directed by Robynn Rodriguez.
Contemporary plays • In the indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre: Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men,” directed by David Ivers; Rick Elice and Wayne Barker’s “Peter and the Starcatcher,” directed by Brian Vaughn; and “Anything Goes,” directed by Brad Carroll.
New American Playwrights Project • series directed by Charles Metten in the Auditorium Theatre. Series includes Larry Parr’s “Shunned,” Ed Morgan’s “Twenty Seven,” and Tom Cavanaugh’s “Adam & Yoshi.” For contemporary adult audiences.
Tickets • $31-$72; at 800-PLAYTIX or http://www.bard.org.
Also • The festival offers ticketed backstage tours and free daily literary and production seminars, play orientations and greenshows. The Grind Coffee House, 19 N. Main St. in Cedar City, also hosts live cabaret shows featuring festival actors and crew Thursdays, 11 p.m. beginning July 18.