Reviews of Three 2017 Utah Shakespeare Festival Plays

Viola and Nurse

Photo: Viola and her Nurse (Betsy Mugavero and Leslie Brott) from Shakespeare in Love

These are the three plays we saw this year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival–next year, we hope to see five! Two winners and a shockingly big loser; never disappointed in a play at this festival before now, and we’ve attended for years! But my hopes are high for the future of excellent plays at this professional theatre.

  • Shakespeare in Love, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard; adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, directed by Brian Vaughn. This love letter to all things Shakespeare is a lovely story and production, with romance, tragedy, and comedy in a satisfying mix. Quinn Mattfeld and Betsy Mugavero are perfect as struggling playwright Will Shakespeare and his muse, and aspiring actor (women were not allowed on stage in Elizabethan England), Viola de Lesseps. Will is working on his next play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, but he is not having any success until he meets Viola, who is disguised as a young man so she can audition for the play. Many additional characters add to the fun. Shakespeare in Love is full of clever references to Shakespeare’s plays. The play pretty much tracks the 1998 Best Picture Academy Award-winning film, but the stage production is well worth seeing. It mostly glosses over the fact that Shakespeare was married (a cold and loveless marriage entered too young, according to the play–but that doesn’t justify his behavior)  and the playgoer will have to suspend judgment on that for best enjoyment of the play. The production is especially effective because it is presented in the Globe Theatre-like Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre. I drifted out of the theatre in a delighted haze. This is a must-see at the 2017 Shakespeare Festival and could become a popular, repeated feature of the event.
  • Guys and Dolls, based on stories and characters by Damon Runyon, music and lyrics by Fran Loesser, book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, directed by Peter Rothstein. Styled “a musical fable of Broadway,” this 1950 Broadway hit has become a classic of the American musical stage with the stories of gambler Sky Masterson, Salvation Army-like missionary Sarah Brown, gambler Nathan Detroit, and his long-suffering fiancée, Miss Adelaide. The Damon Runyon characters are a lot of fun and the music and dancing are great. Melinda Parrett is a standout as Miss Adelaide and Quinn Mattfeld as Nathan Detroit seems almost to have to restrain himself from stealing the show. Brian Vaughn is good as usual, although his portrayal of Sky Masterson is avuncular, without the dangerous edge and passion that seem to be a part of the character. A worthwhile and enjoyable show.
  • William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged), by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, directed by Christopher Edwards, is the worst play I have ever seen, unfortunately, and I’m stunned that it was chosen for the festival. I say this not to be unkind, but to try to save theatre-goers from wasting their time and money. The production is fine–acting (three young men play all the parts), lighting, costumes, and overall staging are well done. It’s the play that’s the problem. I got all the humor and allusions; I know Shakespeare included elements of bawdy and farce in his plays, but this play is all bawdy and farce and no plot and no nobility or progress of characters, as Shakespeare included in all his plays. The playwrights need look only across the festival to Shakespeare in Love to see how this can be accomplished. The play in question centers around a supposed feud between Ariel (of The Tempest) and Puck (of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and goes on to introduce some of the Bard’s many characters in mixed-up circumstances. There are some clever comparisons of Shakespeare’s canon with the Disney’s work. Some of the meet-ups, such as the ever-indecisive Hamlet with the ever-decisive Lady Macbeth, are really a good idea. But many other audience members seemed as uncomfortable/bored/waiting-for-this-to-get-good as I was. Shakespeare appears at the end of the play as a self-proclaimed deus ex machina, and announces that the play is awful and should never be produced. Someone should have listened.

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