Utah Shakespeare Festival: Devoted to the bard, a love affair with Jane Austen
Stage • A world premiere of a new Jane Austen adaptation makes news at the Cedar City theater company devoted to the Bard.

By Ellen fagg weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: July 1, 2014 09:12AM
Updated: August 14, 2014 02:51PM
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A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of "The Comedy of Errors." Courtesy | Karl Hugh

A 1960s-era Playboy bunny icon will hang from the watch fob of the philandering rogue John Willoughby in Utah Shakespeare Festival’s new stage adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility.”

The anachronistic detail that’s part of actor Sam Ashdown’s costume is so small as to be unnoticeable to most theatergoers, says costume designer Holly Payne. But it’s part of the effort to create fully fleshed-out characters through their clothing. And the costuming strategy is just part of the detailed technical stagecraft involved in bringing to life Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s new adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, which opens on Wednesday and plays through Aug. 29.

The play is big news this season at USF, as the world-premiere production is the first play commissioned by the Cedar City theater company and only the eighth new play to be produced by the company in its 53 seasons. It follows the Utah box-office success of Hanreddy and Sullivan’s 2010 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice,” which premiered earlier at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Also noteworthy is the production of the fractured-fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods,” directed by Jeremy Mann, only the second USF production of Stephen Sondheim’s work. It will play just ahead of the Disney-produced film adaptation (the headlining-grabbing cast includes Meryl Streep as The Witch and Johnny Depp as The Wolf), scheduled to be released at Christmas.

For Shakespeare lovers, the season offers a full slate of the Bard’s classics, led by the historical family drama of “Henry VI, Part 1,” the third in USF’s ongoing history cycle. There’s also the “The Comedy of Errors,” directed by Brad Carroll; “Measure for Measure,” directed by Laura Gordon; and “Twelfth Night,” directed by co-artistic director David Ivers, which will continue into October.

New productions in the fall will be Marc Camoletti’s “Boeing Boeing,” a farce about a playboy who is dating three flight attendants, directed by Christopher Liam Moore; and Steven Dietz’s “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” to be directed by Sullivan.

Austen originally published her comedy of manners under the pseudonym “A Lady.” Like the novel, the stage adaptation centers on the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, 19 (Cassandra Bissell), and Marianne, 16 (Eva Balistrieri), who are launched into a tough 18th-century marriage market without bringing much to the table, after their family is impoverished through the death of their father.

As dramaturg Sarah McCarroll tells it: Elinor and Marianne are cool chicks who live in the real world, young women whose lives are defined by the practical realities of economic survival.

The show’s Regency-era costumes reflect the characters’ economic and social class. Elinor and Marianne are onstage throughout the play — “you get to see the world circle around them” — so their simple-but-appropriate blue and pink linen dresses needed to be easy on the eyes, Payne said at a Salt Lake City event earlier this month previewing the show.

Wealthier characters wear costumes with flashier trim, bigger buttons and brighter colors. Male characters wear fitted pants and dramatic waistcoats, topped by white neckwear that serves to frame their faces. “If you don’t know the story, you could follow the story with the colors,” Payne said.

Austen’s distinctive descriptive voice is one element of what makes it difficult to adapt her novels for the stage. “Jane Austen writes perfect sentences,” Sullivan says. “Her sentences are marvels of proportion, balance and parallel construction.”

Hanreddy, who directed the show, worked with Sullivan to transform those perfect sentences into the dramatic building blocks of dialogue, while crafting scenes that segue seamlessly. That translated into Hugh Landwehr’s open set design, requiring some 50 pieces of furniture, including 28 chairs — which means backstage operations are highly choreographed, according to Ben Hohman, property and displays director.

Hanreddy and Sullivan also strove to create a sense of spontaneity in the script, as if characters are making the story up as they go along. “It’s that present, eternal now,” Sullivan says.

Austen’s novels offered different challenges in the adaptation process. “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, is filled with remarkable dialogue, while the characters in “Sense and Sensibility” keep secrets for more than 200 pages, and that shyness and reticence had to be built into the story, Sullivan says.

On closer readings of the novel, Sullivan began to more fully appreciate Austen’s artfulness. “I felt like I was every person in the book,” Sullivan says. “She put me in that person’s mind and heart, and I could identify with their passion.”

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Utah Shakespeare Festival

P Playing in repertory through Aug. 30: “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Measure for Measure,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “Into the Woods” and “Sense and Sensibility.” “Twelfth Night” will play through Oct. 17.

Also • Additional fall shows are “Boeing Boeing” and “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” which will play Sept. 17-Oct. 18.

Where • 351 W. Center St., Cedar City.

Tickets • Midweek shows are $28-$73; weekend $32-$77; at bard.org or 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878. Buy early: Prices can increase by as much as $10 as shows begin to sell out.

Tip • On Thursday nights starting July 11, the festival’s best talent shows off as part of a weekly after-hours cabaret show. Proceeds help fund trips by casting directors, agents and artistic directors, in an aim to help USF actors land future jobs. 11 p.m. Thursdays at The Grind Coffee House, 19 N. Main St.; donations at the door.

Also • Tickets for July 1-5 performances are $10 off; use the code “HAPPYFOURTH” at bard.org for the discount. Family-friendly matinees of “The Comedy of Errors” are July 9, 12, 15, 18, 23 and 26, and Aug. 2, 8, 14, 19, 22 and 30. Discount tickets are $15 when purchased before July 15. Use the code “FAMILY” when purchasing tickets at bard.org.

Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 season

Shows • “Henry IV, Part 2,” “King Lear,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “South Pacific,” “Amadeus” and “Charley’s Aunt,” which continues through the fall, when it will play in repertory with “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and Steven Dietz’s “Dracula,” adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel.

Tickets • At bard.org, 800-PLAYTIX or the ticket offices of the Adams Shakespearean and Randall L. Jones theaters.

Also • The season marks the last to be performed in the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, as construction will continue on the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts.