Plays just part of fun at Utah Shakespearean Festival

This is, I suppose, a ‘girly’ thing,” a middle-age woman said to the group assembled in the grove. “But I kept wanting to fix Desdemona’s hair.”

“Othello” director J.R. Sullivan looked at her a moment, then replied, “Well, that would have made for an interesting moment.”

That’s the Utah Shakespearean Festival for you. You never know when you’re going to get an argument from a distinguished scholar, a life-long thespian, or an “ordinary” woman who just wants to fix Desdemona’s hair.

Driving to Cedar City to see just one play and then hurrying home limits your experience. The fun for many of us is in comparing the six summer productions, and dueling with strangers in orientations, seminars and on the street. The play may be the thing, but at the festival, it’s only part of the thing.

We’ve been told since childhood that Shakespeare is great, but at the fest, nothing is assumed. It’s all about how you can defend your position.

During the opening week, for example, I was surprised to hear moderator (and fest founder) Fred Adams say he didn’t think racism played a major role in “Othello.” I remember a 1968 production in which the audience gasped when the black Othello passionately kissed his white wife, Desdemona. Adams argued that Shakespearean audiences wouldn’t have reacted that way. He said the real problem with the Moor was that he was an outsider, a military man, which is to say, of lower class than the residents of the Court.

On another night, moderator (and actor) John Oswald contradicted scores of critics by saying he thought “Two Gentlemen of Verona” was a great play. (It’s often referred to as the work of a gifted but not yet seasoned writer.) Oswald said he felt people make the mistake of thinking the plot is about two men who consider the friendship between two males much more important than the love in a male-female relationship. He argues that it’s about two men and two women who learn how to handle love in a mature way.

There are always conflicting opinions when “The Taming of the Shrew” is around, as it is this season. Is Shakespeare saying that women should be subservient to their men? Or is he mocking that attitude? Or is he just writing about two very stubborn, abusive people who learn to bend to one another?

My advice: Go to the plays — even to those that have gotten negative reviews within these pages — stop by the free preshow orientations (at 7 p.m.) and the morning after seminars (at 9 and 10 a.m.), and come prepared to argue, especially with the moderators. There’s no “right” opinion. I doubt you’ll feel underqualified to speak. The talk is alternately simple, enlightened, emotional, silly. That is to say, always entertaining.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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