Poor, Poor Falstaff

The Utah Shakespearean Festival

Utah Shakespearean Festival Let me see if I can get this straight.

Old Falstaff, grizzled and burly though he may be, decided it was time to really show his true affections for the women. He decided to court two of them - Mistress Margaret Page and Mistress Ford - at once, but he isn't after just their love. He also is interested in their husbands' money. He writes duplicate love letters and sends them off. The adoring ladies read them and swoon until: 1) they realize who the letter is from and; 2) that Falstaff is making a run on both of them at the same time.

These women are no faint-hearted weaklings, though. They lead Falstaff on a strange chase de amour, only it was not much a chase: dimwitted Falstaff ends up the fool each time. Things get somewhat complicated when the beaus catch wind that their women might be leading a secret double life, until the women let them in on the joke. When that happens, Falstaff becomes a sitting duck for the conniving pairs, eventually ending up in a river, in women's clothes and in the haunted forest at midnight wearing a pair of reindeer horns in hopes of blending in with the local nightlife.

Yes, welcome to the Tony award-winning annual Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City. No one could do it better.

Cedar City Next 3 Exits

Utah Shakespearean FestivalSort of like those five-second commercials from Hollywood Video, a two-paragraph rundown of a Shakespeare play can do it no justice. But if Shakespeare is to get any justice at all it would likely be found here, in little ol' Cedar City, which for 39 years now has hosted the Utah Shakespearean Festival. The 350-person crew this summer brought six more plays to life: Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The War of The Roses, Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Michael Frayn's Noises Off, and Sir James M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

In June the Utah Shakespearean Festival was awarded a Tony for the best regional theater in America. What was unusual about the award was that regional theater awards almost never go to productions originating in such a small town as Cedar City. The award usually goes to towns with art theaters, late-night discos and Vietnamese restaurants. Not to places introduced by "Cedar City next 3 exits" on the freeway.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival was founded in 1961 and presented its first season in 1962. Originally, its purpose was to draw tourists already in the area to visit nearby national parks, but all along the main driving force has come from young actors who wanted to produce great theater. That first summer students put on three plays on an outdoor platform. Exactly 3,276 spectators came that first year. By 1999, 155,000 ticket-holders viewed 195 performances in three theaters over an 11-week season. The festival is now a year-round operation with a full-time staff of 27 and a budget of nearly $5 million.

Now, the festival's host, Southern Utah University, is envisioning a sort of Shakespeare studies center at the university, and the surrounding community has evolved to reflect the emphasis on and pride in the plays.

Next year's line up has already been selected. The plays will be Julius Caesar, The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Varona, Ah, Wilderness!, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Pirates of Penzance.

One Good, One ... uh ... uh ...

I got to see two plays when I was in Cedar City with my friend Melissa a few weeks ago, plus part of the rowdy Greenshow, a free outside show between the afternoon shows and the evening shows.

The Merry Wives of Windsor has become one of this summer's stars, and with good reason. The hilarious play is beautifully produced and easily accessible to most audiences. Let me give you the official rundown:

Sir John Falstaff, a mischievous but debt-ridden gentleman, decides maybe the way to get rich is to court a rich woman. He sends identical love letters to Mistresses Ford and Page. But the women are smarter than this. They feign interest but instead turn the tables on Falstaff, first tricking him into a laundry basket that is dumped into the river and later disguising him as a fat woman. The husbands become suspicious and try to catch their wives doubletiming them, but finally the wives tell the husbands what is going on and everybody in the end joins in to pummel Falstaff into a poor man's submission.

Meanwhile, the Pages' beautiful daughter Anne falls in love with Fenton, a man whose sexuality or self-confidence appear to be in doubt. Anne herself is being courted by Doctor Caius, a French physician, and Abraham Slender, the dorkus nephew of one of the Pages' friends.

True to form with a bawdy Shakespeare play, the characters and even a dog swirl in and out of the action, led by Mistress Quickly, the French doctor's servant, who merrily joins in to help continue the false assumptions and mistaken identities.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is great because it is theater at its most basic: enjoyable, time-displacing, and mood-altering.

The other play I saw was Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard which, though flawlessly acted and produced, seemed to fail in every way that Wives succeeded. Now, no one ever accused Chekhov of being the people's poet, and prospective theatergoers ought to be aware of what they are getting in to before they buy tickets. For the play I was at there was a steady stream of people filing quietly out of the theater all through the first half of the show, and during intermission there was a veritable stampede for the door; when the second half began only a few dozen remained.

After years in Paris, Madame Lyuba Ranevskaya returns to her family farm in the Russian countryside only to find it heavily mortgaged and about to go to the auction block. Lopakhin had been a poor peasant but he is now a rich merchant. He offers Ranevskaya 50,000 rubles to save the estate but she has to allow the land to be subdivided into summer homes. And that would mean the loss of her beloved cherry orchard. She declines.

By summer's end all the money is gone but Ranevskaya throws an opulent and somewhat pathetic farewell ball. Then, Lopakhin bursts in to say he went ahead and bough the place any. In a terrible sweep of sorrow and misfortune everything, from the reality-challenged Ranevskaya to the heartbreaking family servant Firs, goes to hell. It is the disintegration not just of Ranevskaya and her estate and family, but also of the entire Russian society. The play ends with the sound of axes tearing into the cherry trees.

If you ask me, the main problem with all Checkhov's plays is that they seem to go on about 90 minutes too long. I don't think the theater-going public necessarily demands a sort of action-packed sappy drama, but in a Chekhov play you get a certain amount of sustained and tiresome repetition - mixed in with a healthy dose of pathetic depression and self-delusion. It all adds up to be quite a brutish evening.

Theatergoers I talked to after my weekend in Cedar City were all enthusiastically happy about the plays they saw. Especially popular was the hilarious Noises Off, a story about three struggling actors, and the ever-popular Peter Pan, a flying boy who duels with a pirate. For the connoisseur there is also The War of the Roses, a compilation of the Henry VI trio. And this year's fall schedule includes Driving Miss Daisy and Always ... Patsy Cline.

Plays are shown in three theaters: the Auditorium Theatre, which is your standard theater; the Randall Theatre, which is a beautiful new complex with lots of windows and wood; and the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, an outdoor theater replicating the marvelous theaters built precisely to handle Shakespeare's plays. In addition to the plays there are also seminars, backstage tours, play orientations, and the Royal Feaste.

I feel kind of bad for dissing The Cherry Orchard, so let me leave you with a few lines from my favorite Lou Reed song ...

Romeo Rodriguez squares his shoulders and curses Jesus
Runs a comb through his black ponytail
He's thinking of his lonely room the sink that by his bed gives off a stink
Then he smells her perfume in his eyes
And her voice was like a bell ...
And Romeo had Juliette
And Juliette had her Romeo ...
The perfume burned his eyes, holding tightly to her thighs
And something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone.

Festival Facts:

This summer's Utah Shakespearean Festival runs from June 22 to September 2, and again from September 14 to October 14. Day shows are relaxed and casual, evening shows are only mildly more formal.
For ticket and theater information visit www.bard.org
A nice place to stay within walking distance from the theaters is The Best Western El Rey Inn & Suites.
For breakfast try Betty's, in an old house at 227 S. Main. Offering lunch and dinner in another old home - and where water comes in pewter mugs - try Adriana's, which is close to the theaters at 164 S. 100 West.
Cedar City, at 5,000 feet, has four distinct seasons. Summers feature warm, sunny and mostly dry days with most nighttime temperatures dipping into the 50s.

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