Just call it the season of the "Hill-Beyond-the-Hill," the year the Utah Shakespeare Festival sets its sights on the next 50 years. No relaxing. No easy breaks. Just more innovative programming, risk-taking and tight scheduling that will carry William Shakespeare's torch into more rigorous years for the Tony Award-winning theater company.
The festival's summer lineup represents a dramatic range of stories, from the epic sweep and tender story of Claude-Michel Schonberg's "Les Miserables," matched with the poignancy of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the comedy of "Merry Wives of Windsor" and the lightness of "Scapin," a MoliÃ¨re adaptation. There are also two darker visions: Friedrich Schiller's "Mary Stuart" charts the vicious, taut political machinations of Elizabethan England, while Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" serves up a sizzling platter of violent revenge and no-holds-barred gore.
Theater festival, concentrated • The task is so daunting that it makes sense that Utah Shakespeare Festival head Scott Phillips sounds a tad exhausted over the phone, while troubleshooting that all shows, as well as the set, design and costume shops, are on track for next week's opening productions.
To top it off, much of Cedar City and even the Southern Utah University campus, the festival's base, are in the middle of construction, which includes torn-up sidewalks and roof installment. Phillips offers his personal guarantee that all hammering and pounding will be silent once it's showtime.
Burnishing his professional concern in facing challenges is the undercurrent of pride. "Opening all six shows puts an extra strain on us, but it's the right thing to do for our audience as a destination theater in these economic times," Phillips said. "To my knowledge unless you find evidence otherwise on the Internet we're the only regional company opening six productions in three days."
Utah's Jean Valjean •If the disparate offerings of this year's festival seem a little haphazard, it's because fate intervened.
Most of theater's make-or-break moments take place during auditions and performance, but just like other events in life and business, sometimes the process changes with a timely phone call. Brad Carroll, a frequent USF music director and composer, was scheduled to direct "The Drowsy Chaperone" until he got the call about a change in plans from Brian Vaughn, the festival's co-artistic director.
"There was silence on my end of the phone," Carroll said. "But of course my answer was 'Yes.' "
After all, the festival had been wooing production rights for "Les Miserables" for a decade, Phillips said. After Carroll got the news last November that Jean Valjean and the rest of the 1832 Paris uprising would make it to Cedar City, he wasted no time in plotting the course.
Watching high-school students perform the musical on DVD, Carroll said he was struck by how resilient the story and song of "Les Miserables" were, even without the high-tech spectacles of the touring productions that audiences have come to expect. For all its historic sweep, "it's really a story of a few individuals set against a backdrop of upheaval, war and corruption," Carroll said.
The intimacy of the story meant the show could translate well to the festival's 769-seat Randall L. Jones Theatre, where backstage space for rotating sets is limited. At the same time, Carroll wanted no compromise when it came to the musical's epic feel.
"This should be Utah Shakespeare Festival's version of 'Les Miz,' not a carbon copy of whatever's been done before," he said. "On that, we were all in agreement. Quite frankly, if they'd said otherwise, I wouldn't have taken the job."
A seasoned musical director and composer, Carroll co-wrote with Peter Sham the musical adaptation of Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor." The show wowed Utah Shakespeare Festival audiences in 2007, then found a home on a London stage last fall at Plymouth's Royal Theatre.
There was an exacting eye on auditions for Jean Valjean, the redemptive prison inmate at the heart of "Les Miserables." After flying to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City to fill the role, Vaughn and co-artistic director David Ivers received an audio recording from Utah native J. Michael Bailey.
"It stopped us in our tracks," Carroll said. All three went to Las Vegas to hear Bailey sing live, and they were sold by his natural ease.
"It's great we can offer this pivotal role to a Utah boy, but this was after looking all over the country," Carroll said. "He takes the role seriously, but not to the point of making himself sick, as most actors can."
Shakespeare in the raw • Henry Woronicz knows all about the checkered legacy of "Titus Andronicus," one of Shakespeare's earliest plays and only his second tragedy after "Richard III."
T.S. Eliot called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." On the other hand, influential Polish critic Jan Kott called it the key to understanding the nature of Shakespeare's genius, while director Julie Taymor crafted it into spectacular Off-Broadway and film productions.
Woronicz played the Roman general Titus for a 1986 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, and will be directing the story for the first time at this summer's festival. 'Titus' is not a great play, but it makes for great theater," he said.
The back-and-forth revenge that locks Queen of Goths Tamora with Titus, and tragically enmeshes their children, involves plenty of violence, from rape to mutilation and cannibalism. It was a big hit with audiences during Shakespeare's time, hibernating during the genteel Victorian era, then came raging back in our era of zombie movies and news footage from Rwanda and Kosovo.
"It reflects events out there in the world and asks serious questions about revenge, so that we can't just wrestle with the images of this play as abstractions," Woronicz said. "To me, that's a big reason 'Titus' is staged more frequently."
Live theater, of course, offers contradictions in staging violence that contemporary audiences are more used to seeing distanced by a TV or movie Woronicz said he wanted to offer another contradiction, as well, in depicting brutality alongside beauty. To that end, on the festival's traditional Adams Shakespearean Theatre, he sought set and costume designs that would appear differently from this season's other Shakespeare offerings. Specifics remain under wraps, but Phillips said "Titus" is one of the season's largest shows in terms of scale and logistics.
Woronicz offers hints. "I'm loath to do Shakespeare in Roman togas," he said. "Let's face it, men have knobby knees, and it looks like a bad 'Star Trek' episode."
Largest season ever • As usual, this year's festival offers many homecomings among cast and crew. Woronicz first set foot in the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1983, playing Henry V and Antonio in "The Merchant of Venice." Kate Buckley, director of Schiller's "Mary Stuart," directed "Julius Caesar" for the festival in 2008. "It's like coming home," Buckley said of returning this season.
Then there are homecomings that stretch back to childhood. Julianne Crofts Palma was in junior high school when her parents brought the family from Farmington to Cedar City to see the festival. She was entranced by the festival's Green Show of dancers, actors and musicians clad in Elizabethan garb, hawking baked tarts and dancing rounds to authentic instruments.
Years later, in 1985, she joined the Green Show as a dancer. In 1999 and 2000, she directed the Green Show. Her family raised and her master of fine arts in theater long completed, this year marks her return, again as Green Show director.
"It's the glue that ties the festival together," Palma said. "People drive from all over the country to see Shakespeare under the stars, but the Green Show's the atmosphere."
With stage crew rushing back and forth between the Jones and Adams theaters, Cedar City vendors baking tarts, and fund-raising continuing for the festival's new $26.5 million theater, there's plenty of buzz sparked by the festival's opening week.
"It's without a doubt the largest season we've ever produced," Philips said. "Still, whenever someone asks me how this year's festival is different, I always tell them it's only different by eight plays."
Utah Shakespeare Festival
When • June 21-Oct. 20 with plays "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Mary Stuart," "Titus Andronicus," "Scapin," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Les MisÃ©rables," with "Hamlet" and "Stones in His Pockets."
Where • On the campus of Southern Utah State University, 315 W. Center St., Cedar City
Info • Visit http://www.bard.org or call 800-PLAYTIX or 435-586-7878.