CEDAR CITY — My dear lords and ladies, the 2017 Utah Shakespeare Festival season is underway and you should get thee hence to this Tony Award-winning tribute to the Bard and the stage.
Showcasing a variety of performances ranging from classic Shakespeare to Shakespeare reimagined and other stage spectaculars, plus “The Greenshow,” lectures and more, the festival takes place at The Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts on the Southern Utah University campus in Cedar City.
I kicked off the festival with Shakespeare’s most iconic love story, “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened Saturday in the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre.
Romeo and Juliet is running through Sept. 9 and will be shown in repertory with a stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love,” the Academy Award-winning film which imagines how Shakespeare might have come to write one of the world’s most famous love stories. The two plays will share casts and scenery.
The Engelstad Theatre is also host to Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” which will run through Sept. 7.
The most wonderful thing about attending the Utah Shakespeare Festival is the ambiance. The moment patrons set foot on the grounds of The Beverley they are immediately transported to the Elizabethan-era (minus the smells).
Men and women in costume stroll the grounds with delicious pastries for sale while “The Greenshow” plays on an outdoor stage. The beautiful Engelstad Theatre – designed and built in the style of the era – stands over the grounds and bugles herald patrons to their seats for curtain call.
If you are a fan of the festival, which has an almost 60-year history at SUU, you might even spot its founder, Fred C. Adams, strolling around, greeting guests with his infectious smile. And all of that is before the play even starts.
I chose to review Romeo and Juliet because I really wanted to see classic Shakespeare and what is more classic than Shakespeare’s tragic tale of star-crossed lovers set against the backdrop of a bloodline feud to outlive the centuries? The cast and crew of the 2017 season delivered exactly what I was after; straight Shakespeare … with a few delightful surprises.
I was mainly surprised by how funny the play was for a story that is so tragic. Of course Shakespeare is known for his wit and the potential for hilarity is written right into the words but I found myself enjoying the actors’ interpretations so much I was laughing out loud through most of the first half.
That is in large part due to a stellar supporting cast, particularly some incredible turns by Redge Palmer (Peter, servant to Juliet’s nurse), Leslie Brott (nurse to Juliet) and Jeb Burris (Mercutio, Kinsmen to the prince and friend to Romeo).
As a servant to a servant, Palmer’s part as Peter is small, but every time he was on stage, he embraced his character fully. Palmer was funny and sympathetic and couldn’t help but be lovable.
For her part, Brott was outstanding. She owned every scene she was in. Brott’s nurse was funny (really funny) but also a steadfast presence in the show. One thing I love about Shakespeare is that he wrote stories for everyone. You could be the Queen of England or a pauper and there is likely a character or storyline that is relatable.
Shakespeare’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet plays a pivotal role as the one who actually raised Juliet and is in her confidence but who is also aware, especially in the end, of whose house she is in and where her loyalties must lie.
Brott does an excellent job on stage of relating wit, motherly affections toward Juliet and a solid understanding of the complexities of the class system in which the story is set.
The central story of Romeo and Juliet is that of the two young lovers who are so passionate for each other that they take their love all the way to their early graves, but it is also a story of miscommunication, bitter rivalries and the follies of youth, particularly their lusty ways.
And the latter is the most evident in the way Burris portrayed Mercutio. Without any spoilers, let’s just say that if I were young Juliet I would be on the balcony saying “Mercutio, Mercutio, wherefore art thou Mercutio.”
Burris steals the show as Mercutio, at once making the audience laugh with his bawdy and appealing mannerisms and then making them cry at his inevitable demise.
It is a good thing that Mercutio must die otherwise Shane Kenyon (Romeo) would never have a chance to come into his own.
For all my talk of how witty and funny Romeo and Juliet is in the beginning, it is, in the end, a tragedy; and in this tragedy the body count is pretty high.
Mercutio is the first to go and his death sets off a chain of events that leads to the ultimate tragic ending, but it also leads to some of the best acting on the Engelstad stage.
As I said before without Mercutio getting the axe, or sword rather, Kenyon as Romeo would never have a chance to show what he is truly capable of. I didn’t love Kenyon’s Romeo for most of the first half. To be fair, I don’t like the character to begin with, I think Romeo is fickle and sappy and spends far too much time pining on love.
Kenyon’s Romeo is likewise whiny and there was something in his manner of speech that made Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter (a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) a little too obvious. That being said, once the plot makes a sharp turn toward the dramatic, Kenyon’s Romeo is a different beast.
And it happens quick. As Romeo defends Mercutio’s life in a battle against Tybalt, Kenyon’s grasp on the powerful dramatic scene really grabbed my attention. Here was a Romeo that was multi-faceted and commanding. I liked it.
And what of our young Juliet? In order for Romeo and Juliet to work, the role of the heroine must be perfectly cast. For this version of the show, I think they nailed it. Betsy Mugavero (Juliet) really inhabited the character. Physically, Mugavero is petite and youthful, meaning the audience didn’t have to stretch to believe she could be “not 14” as her nurse so ably tells the audience.
Juliet goes through a really quick maturation throughout the play from a young girl besotted by romance to one willing to take her own life in order to preserve the honor of the vows she had made to Romeo. Mugavero is exciting to watch throughout this growth process.
My favorite scene of the entire play is Juliet’s soliloquy (an act of speaking one’s thoughts allowed regardless of any hearers, especially by a character in a play) before she takes the potion meant to put her in a death-like state of sleep. It was breathtaking to watch.
I have a love/hate relationship with Romeo and Juliet. If I ever get the chance to meet William Shakespeare in the next life I have some major questions for him. Starting with why on earth some of the supposedly responsible adults allowed and even made possible a marriage between Romeo and Juliet in the first place.
That being said, the language is divine and the actors made every bit of the dialogue make sense through their performances.
This story is a cautionary tale about love and hatred and bias that is as applicable today as it was in the late 1590s when it first debuted on the stage. It was well worth the watch, and, as I said before, it really is for everyone.
Was the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s version perfect? No. But it was perfectly Shakespeare.
“Romeo and Juliet” plays on various nights through Sept. 9, to see a schedule or to buy tickets click here.
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