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Utah Shakespeare Festival debuts new home but retains familiar feel

To quote “King Lear’s” Edmund, “The wheel is come full circle: I am here.”

But “Lear” was last year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

This year, the festival’s 55th season, the “here” looks far different than in previous years — thanks to the debut of its new home, the $38.6 million Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts.

USF still unfolds a few blocks from Cedar City’s cozy, small-town downtown, on the campus of Southern Utah University.

And the festival grounds still showcase an old friend: the Randall L. Jones Theatre, which debuted in 1989.

But the Randall — this being friendly Cedar City, where folks are on a first-name basis — has a big, bold “B” emblazoned on its exterior, testifying to its new status as part of what everyone’s calling the Beverley Center, continuing the first-name tradition. (The scripted “B” was inspired by arts patron Sorenson’s own signature.)

The festival’s new, open-air Shakespeare theater doesn’t have a first name. It’s just the Engelstad, named for the Las Vegas-based family foundation responsible for the largest donation in USF history.

Engelstad

A few steps away from the Randall, the Engelstad boasts some amenities its predecessor (the now-retired Adams Shakespearean Theatre) lacked, from an elevator to help handicapped audience members reach the balcony to bathrooms you don’t have to leave the theater to use. (Huzzah!)

On the outside, it’s not the Elizabethan-era replica the Adams was — but inside, it’s still a “Wooden O,” to use Shakespeare’s own term. (Which originated in “Henry V,” one of this season’s productions.)

Which means that, after the familiar festival trumpet fanfare calls audiences to their seats, longtime festival patrons will feel very much at home. (Indeed, once the play starts, they may forget it’s an entirely new theater.)

Crucially, the Engelstad preserves the Adams’ versatile, two-tiered stage — exactly the sort of space where Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed.

Even more crucially, the new theater preserves the reach-out-and-touch-someone intimacy between actors and audiences that gives the productions a palpable vitality and undeniable immediacy, whether it’s Sam Ashdown’s Henry exhorting audience “yeomen” to join his battle or “Much Ado About Nothing’s” malaprop-prone constable Dogberry (John Plumpis) bantering with an especially vocal viewer.

The Engelstad also provides audiences with an entirely new source of drama: worrying about the weather.

There’s no more rain stage, so if sudden mountain storms materialize, the show will most probably go on — sometimes with a short wait, as when a downpour delayed a “Three Musketeers” sword fight and hail halted “Henry V” during preview week. But forget about using an umbrella; buy an emergency poncho at the theater instead — or a ticket for a seat beneath the overhanging gallery. (Just don’t forget your jacket — those Cedar City summer nights can get downright biting for those of us who dwell in triple-digit hell.)

The festival’s black box-style Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre (just say “Anes”) doesn’t make its first bow until late July, but you can’t miss it — not if you pick up your tickets at the new, Anes-adjacent USF box office.

Other traditional USF attractions have new Beverley Center homes as well.

Morning-after discussions of the plays and seminars spotlighting festival artists now take place in a grove between the Randall and Engelstad theaters.

And an expansive lawn just north of the Engelstad serves as the setting for free, pre-performance greenshows where you can watch, and join in, themed songs and dances, whether traditional folk tunes or “Shake It Off” — in Gaelic — during the Irish pub night greenshow. (There’s even a puppet show during Paris bistro night.)

Greenshows have been part of festival summers for decades.

Amazing Grace

But the Beverley Center offers another free option for festival-goers: the new Southern Utah Museum of Art.

With rotating exhibits and a permanent gallery of Southern Utah landscapes by museum benefactor Jimmie Jones (thus enabling visitors to see the area’s scenic wonders without ever leaving Cedar City), the museum and USF’s new theaters remind us (to borrow the Bard’s words once again) that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Read more from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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