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Adventure inspires Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 56th season

Updated June 29, 2017 - 1:49 pm

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s only been a few years since veteran Utah Shakespeare Festival actors Quinn Mattfeld and Betsy Mugavero last worked in Cedar City. (Three years for Mattfeld and two for Mugavero, who met at the festival in 2009 and have been a couple ever since.)

But when they returned to USF’s home base this year, they didn’t recognize the place.

“We drove in,” Mattfeld says, “and all of a sudden, somebody dropped (New York City’s) Lincoln Center in the middle of Cedar City.”

OK, so maybe Southern Utah University’s new Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts (which USF shares with the Southern Utah Museum of Art) isn’t quite Lincoln Center.

But as the festival launches its 56th season this weekend — the second in its new home — the mix of new and time-tested elements reflects changing times in Cedar City, on stage and off.

Off stage, Brian Vaughn became the festival’s sole artistic director last month when longtime colleague David Ivers departed to run the Arizona Theatre Company. Also in May, the festival named theater veteran Frank Mack as its new executive producer, replacing R. Scott Phillips, who retired in March after 40 years with USF.

On stage, the festival’s intense repertory schedule — opening six plays in six days, with another three arriving later in the season, “makes us extremely unique,” according to the busy Vaughn, who’s also directing USF’s regional premiere of “Shakespeare in Love” (inspired by the Oscar-winning 1998 movie) and playing gambler Sky Masterson in the musical favorite “Guys and Dolls.”

Rounding out the festival’s opening lineup: the regional premiere of “Treasure Island” (adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic), plus the Shakespeare favorites “As You Like It,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

With “Shakespeare in Love” at USF’s outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, “Midsummer” will be staged indoors — with a time shift to the art deco Jazz Age — at the Randall L. Jones Theatre.

Mattfeld takes on “Shakespeare in Love’s” title role, while Mugavero plays the future Bard’s muse, Viola — who inspires him to write “Romeo and Juliet” — and, in “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet herself.

The opportunity for Mugavero to play opposite her real-life husband gives “Shakespeare in Love” a special meaning, she says.

“With every character you play and every play you’re in, you’re using your own life to bring life to the character you’re playing,” she comments. “Quinn and I, we get to fall in love in a new way.”

In “Shakespeare in Love,” that is. In “Romeo and Juliet,” Mugavero may be Juliet, but Chicago-based Shane Kenyon, a festival newcomer, is her Romeo. (Mattfeld, by contrast, plays Juliet’s hothead cousin Tybalt, whom he describes as “a complete psychopath.”)

“Romeo and Juliet’s” title characters “have become lifted into the territory of cliche and generalized as archetypal lovers,” according to director J.R. Sullivan, who’s directing this season’s production. But “when you dive in and pull it apart, it should be revelatory.”

A former USF associate artistic director, Sullivan has directed multiple productions in Cedar City, but “Romeo and Juliet” marks his first production in the new outdoor theater.

“It’s magnificent,” Sullivan says of the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre. “All the facilities — and the potential, which I think is especially magnificent.”

Vaughn echoes that assessment.

“It’s like taking a bigger breath,” he says. “It feels a little bit more majestic.”

And the overall USF complex — which includes the Anes Studio Theatre, offices and shops, plus new locations for seminars and nightly preplay Greenshows — has “helped provide a campus for the artists,” Vaughn notes. “There’s a great energy with the space we haven’t had.”

On stage, to Mattfeld, “it feels like the same old magic” as USF’s previous outdoor stage, the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. “And new magic. It feels very new and fresh, which is very exciting.”

It also feels familiar for audiences who can see “Romeo and Juliet” and “Shakespeare in Love” on the same stage, Sullivan points out, making for “a great meal and then dessert.”

Ultimately, Vaughn says, “it’s about the festival experience,” he says of another season in Cedar City. “It’s different than just going to see a play and going home at night.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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