At first glance — and at second, third and fourth glance — this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival lineup looks … well … eclectic.
And not just because the offerings from William Shakespeare himself include comedy (“The Merchant of Venice” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”), tragedy (“Othello”) and history (“Henry VI, Part One”). The award-winning festival in Cedar City has put together a program that includes a modern-day retelling of “An Illiad,” the Obie-winning comedy “The Foreigner,” the Mark Twain-inspired musical “Big River,” the 17th-century farce “The Liar” and the premiere of “Pearl’s in the House,” a musical about iconic performer Pearl Bailey.
It’s a disparate lineup. But it was selected with an eye toward what all the productions have in common.
“We started to look at the collection of plays and began to notice an overarching theme that is certainly very current in our world right now — the idea of intolerance and the adverse affect of intolerance on humanity runs through all the shows,” said artistic director Brian Vaughn. “It’s something that we thought was worth exploring. And we wanted to actually turn that on its head and say, ‘How can we live in a more tolerant world?’”
(The festival opens this week — two plays premiere on Thursday; two more on Friday; and two more on Saturday.)
It’s a long way from Washington, D.C., to Cedar City, but the national news influenced what theatergoers will see at the 2018 Utah Shakespeare Festival.
“In the wake of our  election, we sort of said, ‘What is this shifting tide of events in our world?’ And then some of these plays just began to come up,” Vaughn said.
“Henry VI, Part One” was already being prepped for 2018, and it deals with faith and zealotry and religious intolerance — Joan of Arc leads the French to victory but is captured and burned at the stake. “Othello,” of course, deals with racism.
“That’s probably the most obvious one,” Vaughn said.
But there are others. “Big River” centers on Huckleberry Finn and Jim, an escaping slave, and examines race relations.
“It’s a very moving story about people coming together,” Vaughn said. “And I think the music is just incredible.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” — which has been reset in the early 20th century for this production — is “about female empowerment,” Vaughn said. “It deals with women’s rights and the right to vote.”
The question of gender roles in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is amped up by cross-gendering a number of the parts — women playing what were originally male roles.
“That was very important in the thinking behind the play, that many of those characters within that play are marginalized voices,” Vaughn said. Comparisons to current events are not hammered home, but the “audience can see the play, but on top of that also see this more current thinking that can be sort of infused together.”
“Foreigner” is about a meek Englishman “who finds his voice and speaks out against injustice.”
“The Liar” is an adaptation of the Pierre Corneille play “about a lover who can’t tell the truth and his servant who can’t tell a lie. And all you have to do is look on television or on our phones and question what is truth and what is fiction,” Vaughn said. “It is kind of a yarn — a romp, as it were — but underneath it is some very present social commentary.”
And “Pearl” is not just about Bailey’s career in entertainment, it’s about her work as a civil rights activist. She died in 1990, but the issues she worked for “are certainly part of the conversation today.”
The Shakespeare Festival workshopped “Pearl” a year ago, but “this will be first time there’s been a full production of this anywhere, and it’s happening here,” Vaughn said.
“Othello” has never exactly been subtle. And civil rights is a clear plot thread in “Pearl.” But most of the through-line in the festival lineup is more subtle.
Vaughn quickly points out that the Shakespeare Festival is “not a political theater” and has no intention of trying to tell anyone what to think.
“That’s not what we’re getting at here,” he said. “What we noticed in the plays is that there are some thematic issues that are basically about people overcoming intolerance to find love. And that is really at the heart of who we are as human beings. And if [audience members] don’t see that when they come to the play, it’s OK. Because I think these plays speak for themselves. That’s always the goal.”
The festival’s mission statement calls for productions that “entertain, enrich and educate.”
“You can see some of those themes in the plays and, hopefully, come out more enriched,” Vaughn said. “You can not see them and, hopefully, be entertained. And there will be those who may be educated in the process. Who think, ‘Maybe I should think differently about this. Maybe this is something I never thought of before.’
“All of that is in there, but the basis is entertainment — people just enjoying themselves at a play and, hopefully, having a transformational experience.”
He’s not worried that anyone attending a performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” will find the production too political. It’s more likely that at least some audience members will find it too nontraditional, what with it looking like the characters are contemporaries of the cast of “The Music Man” or “Ragtime.”
“There are the Shakespeare enthusiasts who want to see their Shakespeare the way they want to see their Shakespeare, and sometimes it’s hard for them to step outside the box to see it differently,” Vaughn said. “You have those people who are, like, ‘I want to see Shakespeare in Elizabethan dress.’”
They can see that in “The Merchant of Venice.” And “Henry VI” is pre-Elizabethan; it takes place about a century before the reign of Elizabeth I.
But nobody in Cedar City is going to apologize for moving “Merry Wives” — first published in 1602 — ahead by about 300 years.
“Our goal is to look at [Shakespeare’s plays] through a different lens sometimes. Otherwise, they do become stale. And then it is a movie or a celluloid that is just on repeat,” Vaughn said. “The reality is we grow, our actors grow, directors have different takes on the plays. Each performance is different because it’s live. All of that is what’s great about it.”
“Othello” • June 28-Oct. 13 (Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre)
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” • June 28-Sept. 8 (Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre)
“Henry VI Part One” • June 29-Sept. 6 (Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre)
“The Foreigner” • June 29-Oct. 13 (Randall L. Jones Theatre)
“Big River” • June 30-Sept. 1 (Randall L. Jones Theatre
“The Merchant of Venice” • June 30 – Sept. 7, 2018 (Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre)
“An Iliad” • July 12-Oct. 9 (Randall L. Jones Theatre)
“Pearl’s in the House” • August 23-Oct. 13 (Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre)
“The Liar” • Sept. 14-Oct. 13 (Randall L. Jones Theatre)
The Greenshow • June 28-Sept. 8 (Ashton Family Greenshow Commons) — This free, family show — three versions — features music and magic. It begins nightly at 7:10 outdoors on the commons.
• Prices range from $20 to $79, depending on the production, the day and the seats.
• Tickets are available online (bard.org/tickets), at the box office (beginning June 22) or by telephone (800-PLAYTIX — 800-752-9849), Mondays-Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• On performance days, tickets are available at the box office from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; phone services ends at 7 p.m.
• Discounts are available for children, students, school groups, seniors, military and residents of Iron, Beaver, Washington, Kane, Garfield, Piute and Lincoln counties. Go to bard.org/tickets for more information.