A few oases in the drama desert
Cedar City, Creede, Durango and Pagosa open summer seasons

From left, Michael David Edwards (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Michael Littig (Fabian), Phil Hubbard (Sir Toby Belch), and Shelly Gaza (Cesario/Viola) act out a scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night.”/ Photo by Karl Hugh

by Judith Reynolds

It’s a mystery why some summer drama festivals thrive and others sputter and die. A few years ago, the Durango Shakespeare Festival had a short, sporadic life. Although artistically successful, it died for lack of leadership and patron support. It has been replaced by a thin series of outdoor readings, overly hyped as “Voices in American Drama.” The series concludes at the Fort Lewis College outdoor amphitheater July 12, with a reading of “A Moon to Dance By.” Written by Los Angeles-based Thom Thomas, the play centers on D. H. Lawrence’s lover, Frieda von Richtofen, and her estranged son.

The Diamond Circle Melodrama has begun a robust 46th season. Despite its success, the enterprise will ironically close at the end of August. Cause of death? A family dispute. (See May 24 Telegraph). That leaves Durango with one July reading on the ivory mesa and alternating melodramas downtown.

Those who love summer theater continue to travel to Creede and Cedar City, Utah, for some of the best theater to be had any time of year. The Pagosa Music Boosters complete their run of “The Sound of Music” at 7:30 p.m. on July 5-7, and now there’s an addition, a new little drama company called Square Top Theatre.

If you’re starving for top-notch, live summer theater, make Cedar City a destination. It may be an eight-hour drive, but this oasis in the desert is well worth it. The enormously successful Utah Shakespearean Festival has already launched its 46th season and runs through Sept. 1. With a $6-million budget, Utah Shakespearean Festival has a reputation for high production values. Fortunately, acting and directing equal the sumptuous sets and costumes. Brimming with equity actors from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, plus a smattering of drama grads from across the country, the company succeeds on all counts.

Last week, the festival opened six productions in six days. I relished every one. Three Shakespearean plays anchor the season: a Middle Eastern-flavored, spice box production of “Twelfth Night;” a powerful evocation of “King Lear;” and a somewhat troubled version of the rarely seen “Coriolanus,” the bard’s last tragedy. In addition, the company presents “The Matchmaker,” Thornton Wilder’s play that spawned the musical “Hello Dolly;” and George Bernard Shaw’s marital parry, “Candida.” That’s a rich, six-course banquet, and for dessert the festival has boldly backed a new musical based on Ken Ludwig’s 1989 farce, “Lend Me a Tenor.”

With book and lyrics by Peter Sham and music by Brad Carroll, “Tenor: The Musical” transforms the original material into something fresh and new. The playwright has given his blessing, and it looks like Utah may have a hit with this world premiere.

“Tenor” begins as if it were spoofing both opera and Broadway. A brisk exposition, followed by a stylish ensemble number sets up the arrival of an international opera star in Cleveland for a fund-raiser. Then things get really interesting – plot, comedy and music. One overlapping scene mixes genres, and by the time the first act ends, you’ve been treated to a whirlwind of musical styles. Three years in the making, the musical shines with energy and charm. I’m betting on a promising future.

In contrast to the rapid heartbeat of “Tenor,” Shaw’s “Candida” has a steady, sparkling pulse. This comedy about marriage is brisk, bracing and made to light a match in your mind.

Wilder’s “Matchmaker” also mixes styles. Comedy, drama and even farce cross paths. It would be unnerving if not done well, and Act I on opening night faltered slightly.

That’s probably been corrected by now. For those dedicated fans of “Hello, Dolly,” if you haven’t seen the original play, it’s more complex and reveals many of Wilder’s humanistic themes, especially in four unexpected monologues.

Of the Shakespearean offerings, “Twelfth Night” charmed with its dreamlike quality, great story of mistaken identities and breathtaking effervescence. The look is entirely Middle Eastern: Moorish tiles and carved screens fill the stage, and actors romp in harem pants, vests, turbans and spangles. You can all but smell the incense and hear the bazaar.

Unfolding in a group of surprise actions with unexpected responses, the play ends in a series of sudden, clear recognitions. The always troubling subplot involving Malvolio, a self-righteous steward who is the object of tomfoolery, is more disturbing than usual. The brilliant Donald Sage Mackay avoids clichés; his Malvolio is never the buffoon but a man made foolish by nasty tricks

The much awaited production of “King Lear” finds a minimalist set with only a throne placed on a great disk – a map of the world. By intermission, when the tragic consequences of Lear’s decisions unravel, the disk cracks apart. It’s a stunning moment. And in its violence, it contrasts to the closing tableau – a pieta with Lear holding his dead daughter in his arms. It’s one of several stage pictures that give the audience a moment to let the full weight of the tragedy seep into memory’s eye.

Of the Shakespeare offerings, only “Coriolanus” seems cloudy and unrealized. Based on a historical figure, the play is highly political – arguments, power struggles and divisive factions. Director Henry Woronicz specifically invited James Newcomb to play the title role, a supremely arrogant warrior-politician. The part calls for stubborn determination to the point of stupid defiance, exile and hateful revenge. Newcomb’s taught, muscular interpretation and small stature create a living version of the Napoleon complex.

All in all, the 46th season at the Utah Shakespearean Festival is a diamond in the desert. Cedar City is an oasis unto itself with its green grass, gardens and water, like gold, running along its wide gutters.

In sharp contrast is the dry landscape of Creede, where the Creede Repertory Theatre started its season in early June. Running through Sept. 22, it’s an ambitious, seven-part summer program heavy on comedy. I haven’t been yet, so the following should be taken as preview copy only.

Ken Ludwig’s comedy of disguises, “Leading Ladies,” will remind you of “Some Like it Hot.” The premise involves two guys who disguise themselves as women, but their goal is an inheritance. Jeffrey Hatcher’s “To Fool the Eye” involves another disguise, a young hat maker posing as a prince’s lost love. In Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Eliza Doolittle is transformed into a high-tone lady by a quirky linguistics scholar. If you’ve never seen this classic, don’t miss it. Edward Albee’s “Everything in the Garden” cannot be called a comedy, his bite is too savage. Albee always holds up an uncomfortable mirror.

A water shortage (sound familiar?) lies at the heart of “Urinetown: the Musical.” The consequences are uncomfortable, but not in the way you think. The Tony-Award winning musical calls for a large cast, and it’s ambitious for Creede to schedule this in an already challenging season.

Finally, Theresa Rebeck’s “Bad Dates” is a solo show that reveals what it’s like to be single in our society. And “Boomtown,” which opens July 6, introduces improv comedy with plenty of audience participation.

The as yet untried and unseen new theater company in Pagosa Springs, Square Top Theatre, opens its first season July 5. Performing in the Square Top Theatre across from Town Park, the company begins with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

Producer Charlie Pepiton, 28, has moved to Pagosa with his wife Rebekah, he said in a telephone interview last week. Rebekah will be teaching art in Pagosa. Pepiton works for Shechem Ministries, a Kentucky-based organization whose purpose it is to restore and/or retain preachers of the Independent New Testament Christian Church.

“Our mission,” Pepiton said of the new theater company, “is to explore the connection between individuals, community and faith. We’re interested in finding plays that explore the transcendental quality of life. Our concept for the Shakespeare is that adults can get lost in childish games.”

A five-member cast will take on at least three roles each to fill out Shakespeare’s play. Running eight performances only, the show opens July 5 and closes July 29. •

 

 

 

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