Bard-Wired

Ding-dong. Bard of Avon calling.

They’re here to sell you some Shakespeare. Even in an economy that’s got your bank account in a bunch, they’re hoping you’re buying.

"People need to reconnect to things important to them, and live theater can provide that," says R. Scott Phillips, executive director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which goes curtain-up Monday in Cedar City for its summer season, the schedule of hard-core Bard streaked with plays of a more modern mind-set.

Selective Willie S. hits — "Henry V," "As You Like It" and "The Comedy of Errors" — will be joined by the contemporary character study "Foxfire," Noel Coward’s "Private Lives," a quick-wit commentary on marriage and love that won’t let go, and the metaphorically minded musical "The Secret Garden."

The fall season (Sept. 18-Oct. 17) features "Tuesdays with Morrie," "The Woman in Black" and the breathless, bizarro Bard parody "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (abridged)."

But it was an ancient British monarch’s thematic kinship to a current American president that inspired this season’s selections, assembled last year. " ‘Henry V’ was the one I really wanted to do this year about this untried king, because we were going into a political election last year, regardless of who was going to win," Phillips explains. "But if Mr. Obama were to win, he’d be the new kid on the block, and how does that speak to someone’s experience? It’s been thrust on you, now what are you going to do with it? ‘Henry V’ was the key I wanted to build the rest of our season around."

For all the rich, centuries-spanning theater this season, the economy remains a ghost that haunts the festival, which saw its budget sliced by nearly $800,000 from last year, shrinking from $6.7 million to just under $6 million. Rehearsal weeks were reduced, a week of performances was dropped and 55 seasonal positions — including actors, dancers, electricians and carpenters — were eliminated.

Creative choices also were affected as officials rethought a decision to stage the musical "Pump Boys and Dinettes."

"It requires a musical director and an orchestra and it’s expensive," Phillips says. "We’re doing much smaller cast shows this year. If you have a really keen eye, you’ll see a little less scenery. Normally, we might have three costume changes for a lead actress, but instead we’ll have two. They are subtle differences, hopefully not so noticeable. But it’s all about the storytelling, if you’ve got the right actors. Strangely enough, the economy has helped, because with so many actors looking for work, we’ve got a very strong acting company."

Beyond the Shakespearean staples, the schedule embodies eclecticism. The festival had staged Coward plays, but not "Private Lives," one of his most notable works. "No one knows that wit and sarcasm as well as Noel Coward did, and we’ve reached the level of maturity where we could get the type of performers the play needs," Phillips says, citing stars Don Burroughs and Carol Linnea Johnson.

"The Secret Garden," starring 12-year-old Green Valley actress Ellie Smith, was chosen, in part, because it was relatively easy to stage from a production perspective, and its pedigree is impressive, based on a classic children’s novel. "Foxfire," co-written by the late Hume Cronyn for his late wife, Jessica Tandy, and starring the couple in the 1982 Broadway production, may be the most problematic in attracting audiences.

"I knew we’d struggle with that one the most," Phillips says. "A lot of people don’t know it, so they’re not buying tickets to it. They’re going to be sorry, because it’s going to be the surprise hit of the season. It’s got a great cast and because it’s such an intimate piece, the director is able to do a lot of nuance and create some wonderful feelings. People have to know it’s there."

Maintaining a fresh feel is crucial to the festival. "The festival is taking some exciting risks with some of the selections that embrace the tradition of the festival, but also pushes it to be more progressive," says David Ivers, now in his 13th year acting and directing in Cedar City, performing in "Henry V" and "As You Like It" this summer. "I began when I was 20 years old as an intern and skipped a couple of years here and there. Now as I turn 40, I look around and think, ‘Wow, there are still people here whose level of competence and accomplishment I aspire to.’ "

Businesswise, financial fears may not so much damage the festival as alter how audiences approach it. More "walk-up" business is expected because of delayed decision-making. "If they were buying tickets a month out, now they’re buying them a week out," Phillips says. "People are waiting, they’re on edge. It’s very nerve-wracking for us, trying to predict where things are going and how we’re going to make out."

And yet, he adds, slipping into salesman mode, "there’s something here that speaks to everyone. We’re only two and a half hours from Vegas, and it’s a heck of a lot cooler here in the middle of the summer."

Ding-dong. Tireless champion for the Bard of Avon calling.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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