October 1, 2008

Shakespearean Festival Offers 3 Plays for Fall

By Erica Hansen Deseret News

CEDAR CITY -- The fall season is now under way at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, and what a lovely time to visit Cedar City.

With fall colors glowing against the red rocks, the festival has settled in for cooler weather by offering three new plays -- frankly, all worth checking out.

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"JULIUS CAESAR" (running time 2 hours, 15 minutes; one intermission)

It's a plot and subject that always seem relevant: power and politics; greed and ambition; love of country and love of fellow man.

In this fifth staging of the Shakespeare tragedy in the festival's 47 seasons, the backdrop of Roman pillars are familiar, but the men all wear modern-day Armani suits and contemporary battle fatigues while at war.

Director Kate Buckley chose to modernize the play in the hopes it "will be timely as well as timeless," especially in the face of today's political climate.

And, for the most part, it works well. There's something about the plotting and scheming that looks more menacing and seems more pertinent when done by men in modern-day dress.

But that is also what makes this Caesar seem more gruesome than I remember. When Caesar utters, "et tu, Brute?" and the stabbings begin (very well choreographed by Rod Kinter), I found myself grimacing each time a splash of red appeared on Caesar's stark- white suit and when the men each dip their arms in his blood.

Bill Forrester's equally stark set, consisting of Roman columns and some Army netting in Act II, also added to the cold, calculated feel.

The performances brought the fire and warmth -- Elijah Alexander as Caesar's loyal friend, Mark Antony, delivered the stirring "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech with conviction, and Jeff Cummings was the fiery, perhaps angry, conspirator Cassius. Remi Sandri, in the role of Marcus Brutus, played the noble countryman with a nice mix of strength, doubt, worry and resolve. The rest of the cast was equally on par, delivering the political tale with relevance.

The men, both the good and bad, looked dashing in clothing chosen by David Kay Mickelsen. And Donna Ruzika's lighting, coupled with a nice use of silhouettes, helped fill an otherwise mostly empty stage.

In this election year, the classic tragedy "Julius Caesar" seems wholly appropriate, and you may leave questioning who your friends are.

Sensitivity rating: Stabbing of Caesar, plenty of blood, suicides by stabbing.

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"MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS" (running time: 2 hours; one intermission)

You should know before seeing this comedy that it's based on a true story. David O. Selznick really had stopped production of the movie "Gone With the Wind" and brought in writer Ben Hecht.

Selznick really did lock Hecht and director Victor Fleming in an office for five days to work on the screenplay, surviving on nothing but bananas and peanuts. And, it's true, Hecht really hadn't read the book.

Though it sounds implausible, that's the stuff of which good comedy is made.

And good comedy it is. Directed by Russell Treyz, this farcical behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of American's most beloved movies is absolutely worth your time.

With Hecht at the typewriter, Selznick and Fleming tell him the story of the book; they act out scenes, discuss who has been cast and trade barbs over whose job is more important -- the writer or director.

Ron Hutchinson's script is very funny and quite fascinating as the men grapple with how to make Scarlett likable, how to get around the seeming "ode to slavery" and whether or not a line like "Tomorrow is another day" is worth having in the movie. Not to mention, the play is also an interesting look at America in 1939.

A fine ensemble of actors did their over-the-top best to garner quite a bit of laughter from the opening weekend audience. Neil Friedman (Selznick), Remi Sandri (Hecht) and festival favorite Brian Vaughn (Fleming) play very well off each other, and even during the characters' moments of exhaustion and fatigue, looked like they were having a great time doing it. Throw Kate Cook into the mix as Miss Poppenghul, Selznick's secretary, whose many variations on the line, "Yes, Mr. Selznick," garnered midscene applause, and you're in for a fun couple of hours.

Also, bravo to fight director Rod Kinter and the three men for pulling off a very funny bit, which I won't explain here so as not to ruin it. And, as always, Bill Forrester's set and David Kay Mickelsen's costumes easily transport you to Hollywood, 1939.

The more familiar you are with the movie, the funnier the show is -- but you don't need to be a "Gone With the Wind" nut to appreciate it. However, if you have been known to say "fiddle dee dee" or "war, war, war," this show is a must see.

Sensitivity Rating: Mild language, and a few mild racial/ religious slurs for comedic effect.

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"GASLIGHT" (Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes; two intermissions)

Sitting in the house during the second intermission, I overheard two folks talking about how this play compared to the movies (it has twice been adapted). With frantic urgency, I found myself doing anything possible not to overhear something that would ruin the ending of this play.

Directed by J.R. Sullivan, "Gaslight" is about Mrs. Manningham, who upon hearing footsteps overhead, seeing the gaslights dim and noticing objects disappearing, worries she is going mad, just like her mother.

"Gaslight" is a good, old-fashioned Victorian thriller. And, in the hands of the superb cast, most notably, Elijah Alexander (Mr. Manningham) and Tyler Layton (Mrs. Manningham), a thriller it is.

With a sinister glare, a dark brooding manner and a large menacing stage presence, Alexander played evil and unlikable so well that even during curtain call, the audience, unable to let go, erupted in a chorus of "boos." In the many shows I've been to, I've never seen such a reception. Which, as an actor with the task of being unlikable, must feel pretty good.

Layton's meek and humble characterization offered a wonderful contrast to Alexander and only made the couple more believable and more flawed. Mark Murphey as Rough added some comic relief. Although at times seeming to spoof Sherlock Holmes a bit -- the classic Londoner in a long coat with intricate facial hair -- his timing was well-delivered.

The Victorian costumes, designed by Bill Black, are gorgeous, done in rich and textured fabrics. Bill Forrester's set is a perfectly dim-lit and depressing house, and Donna Ruzika's lighting captured the essence of the different gaslights brilliantly.

"Gaslight" is much slower-paced than we're used to today. Those who are impatient might not enjoy it, and having two intermissions always makes an evening seem longer. But if you can let go of your daily worries, shut off the cell phone and slow down a bit, you'll find yourself immersed in a different world, where things aren't always as they seem and the London fog a bit unsettling.

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