Bard Times

Gettin' the Shakes, are ya?

Relax, the Bard's not hard.

"Shakespeare, that's my thing," says actor Michael Harding, ex-Merlin of Excalibur's "Tournament of Kings" and one of the hardest working thespians at this year's Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City.

"I find Shakespeare easier to memorize and I have an affinity for the rhythms," says Harding, who's on the call sheet for "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "Othello" and "Cyrano de Bergerac."

"But when you're trying to sell Shakespeare, you have the problem of people's biases, because since high school, they've been told by English teachers, 'You probably won't understand this, but we have to teach it.' That's absurd."

("That man that hath a tongue, I say, is no man, if with his tongue he cannot win a woman." -- "The Two Gentlemen of Verona")

Polish your pickup skills with the ladies by learning to speak fluent iambic pentameter.

The festival's annual class is in session, the summer syllabus (through Aug. 30) featuring Billy the Bard's "Othello," "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "The Taming of the Shrew." They'll share a midsummer night's marquee with the mega-schnozz star of "Cyrano de Bergerac," the beleaguered musical milkman of "Fiddler on the Roof" and the satirical scalpel wielded by Moliere in "The School for Wives," in which a female-fearing middle-aged man grooms his naive young ward for marriage.

("The fault lies in mistakes within my plan."-- "The School for Wives")

Fest folks found a mistake but fixed it.

"We've changed the rotation schedule of the plays, and it came out of discussions with our Southern Nevada patrons," says festival director R. Scott Phillips of locals making the 21/2-hour trek on $4-per-gallon gas. "A lot of them come up on subsequent weekends, and in the past, if they came every Saturday, it was always the same plays. But now we'll offer more variety. They might come up and see 'Fiddler' and 'Two Gentlemen,' but the next Saturday, it could be 'Cyrano' and 'School for Wives.' "

("Reputation! Reputation! Reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation!" -- "Othello")

A reputation for repetition should be sidestepped not only logistically, but artistically. "There are only 37 Shakespeare plays, so you're going to see a lot of 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Othello' and 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' " Harding says of the festival's core crowd. "How do you keep that audience coming back? It's a constant dilemma. But every time you get a new director, you get a new show.

("My nose is gargantuan! You little pig-snout, you tiny monkey-nostrils, you virtually invisible Pekinese-puss, don't you realize that a nose like mine is both scepter and orb, a monument to my superiority?" -- "Cyrano de Bergerac")

Smell a certain chemistry? That's because Brian Vaughn as the poet with the prominent proboscis has sniffed out the scent of a special woman -- his Las Vegas-reared spouse, Melinda Pfundstein, portraying the fair Roxane. A decade into her festival tenure, Pfundstein finds herself in both familiar and unfamiliar terrain in twin roles.

"It's a much faster process working with him, because the relationship is already there and it's much more comfortable," says Pfundstein of "Cyrano," pairing with her other half for the third time. "And our best friend in the world (veteran festival actor David Ivers) is directing. Between the three of us, we're not afraid to be frank with each other. We know each other's language."

("But Mama, the men she finds ... the last one was so old and he was bald. He had no hair."

"A poor girl without a dowry can't be so particular. You want hair, marry a monkey." -- "Fiddler on the Roof")

Matchmaker, matchmaker made Pfundstein's other match a challenge, casting her in "Fiddler" as Tzeitel, eldest daughter of Tevye the milkman. "I had never even seen 'Fiddler,' hadn't seen the movie, didn't know the soundtrack, only knew snippets of songs," she says. "But it's exciting for us actors to work on more than one thing at a time like this. It keeps our brains engaged."

("This is the way, to kill a wife with kindness, and thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor." -- "The Taming of the Shrew")

Time hasn't tamed the enduring appeal of the 47-year-old Utah Shakespearean Festival. "It's definitely gotten bigger and -- I don't want to put this the wrong way, because professional isn't the way to put it, but the water got deeper," Harding says. "The Tony Award (as 2000's Outstanding Regional Theatre) was a real turning point because every actor in the United States wanted to work here after that. There's just a higher sheen on everything."

("I took by the throat the circumcised dog and smote him, thus." -- "Othello")

That one gives us the Shakes, ya know?

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at or 702-383-0256.