Festival heartthrob Brian Vaughn is a powerhouse as Cyrano, ever-appealing even with a protruding proboscis. That he plays opposite his real-life wife Melinda Pfundstein as Roxane—they’ve also just had a real-life baby—is a bit of casting genius. Staging the play on the outdoor Adams stage, the customary venue for the festival’s classic Shakespearean plays, was another bold move, and the theater proves to be a more than adequate setting for Cyrano’s swashbuckling and courtly interludes with Roxane.
The familiar story follows the charismatic poet who could bravely hold his own in any duel, but must express his longing for the lovely Roxane through the handsome but tongue-tied soldier Christian. Roxane is oddly oblivious to the ruse; like many in love, she only sees what she wants to. And so this tale of misguided romance goes until the final moments when we get to learn if Cyrano will reveal his true feelings to Roxane, and if he does, will she requite them? That answer is a long time coming, it seems, with the play’s running time of nearly three hours. However, the ending—though familiar to many—did not disappoint as a widespread rustling of Kleenexes could attest.
Meanwhile, back at the dairy farm in Fiddler’s Anatevka, beloved family patriarch Tevye (Matthew Henerson), his wife and five daughters (the oldest, Tzeitel, played by Melinda Pfundstein) grapple with the idea of romantic love displacing the matchmaker’s role in marriage, upsetting the apple cart of tradition. Fiddler on the Roof’s memorable tunes like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man” make this production a festival crowd-pleaser. There’s even a real fiddler on the roof (a male, no less), bowing his strings to Tevye’s musings, and vigorous Russian Cossack dancing in “To Life.” It’s hard to find anything severely off the mark with Fiddler, though some attending the literary seminar the next day lamented that the production did not wow them like they hoped it would, despite spot-on performances. One person concluded she probably had just seen it too many times.
Fiddler fatigue, or perhaps even festival fatigue? This is a challenge faced by most arts organizations, as patrons sport more and more gray hair or no hair at all. Festival-goers worth their salt often have seen it all by now. So how to attract them back, along with the next generation?
One way is to daringly re-imagine productions as director Jane Page did with The Taming of the Shrew. Here is a Shakespeare production set in 1947 Italy during the conclusion of the Allies’ occupation, performed on the indoor Randall Jones stage (a tad unconventional approach at USF but not unheard of). Petruchio (Grant Goodman) becomes a sexy and full-of-himself American G.I., while Melinda Parrett’s Kate is equally self-aware, not about to be led around by anyone. But when she meets a man intent on marrying her—a man attracted to her but who must first find a way to tone down her bitchy, headstrong ways—she ultimately submits, agreeing to play the game in order for love to come knocking on her door. Kate’s final speech in the play, taken literally, remains a hard pill for any feminist to swallow, even in a play overflowing with hotness and great production values.
Thank God for literary seminar director Ace Pilkington who, the next day, assured playgoers that Shakespeare was not a sexist, that he stood up for women time and again in his plays (even though women of his time were considered property of their husbands), and that in her final speech, Kate is agreeing to be in on “the joke” and appear tamed to demonstrate her love for Petruchio. The play’s 20th-century take, combined with the actors’ confident chemistry, make this one compelling production. Most in the audience seemed oblivious to dialogue in Shakespearean verse, easily following the character intrigues and laughing at jokes—no Cliffs Notes needed.
Now that’s Shakespeare, as you like it.
UTAH SHAKESPEAREAN FESTIVAL @ Cedar City, Summer Season Through Aug. 30. 800-PLAY-TIX