Islands, seas & shipwrecks

Utah Festival champions Peter Pan, Cole Porter and Shakespeare

Henry Woronicz levitates as Prospero in a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival

Henry Woronicz levitates as Prospero in a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

At the 52nd Utah Shakespeare Festival, media and audience attention seems to be fixated on the ultra-theatrical production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” That’s fine, and young people particularly seem to get all the physical comedy, pop-culture references and malapropisms.

At the matinee I attended last week, pockets of youngsters hung on every word and burst into giggles at throw-away references I didn’t get. For adults, the new play, grounded in the classic story of Peter Pan, is a fast-moving display of contemporary storytelling.

“Starcatcher” is a prequel to the famous J.M. Barrie tale of a boy who doesn’t want to grow up. It’s an invention to be compared to another Broadway hybrid, “Wicked” and its parent, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Based on a series of young adult books, “Peter and the Starcatcher” has been adapted for the stage by Rick Elice. It begins on a ship bound for the imaginary Kingdom of Rundoon. What happens to a captive orphan boy with no name constitutes the storyline. He ends up with a name, an identity and his wish to just be a boy – forever.

Directed by Brian Vaughn, this first regional theater production is high in energy, colorful, whimsical and, to say the least, entertaining.

That said, the other five USF productions also are first-rate. They range from a stunning smoke-and-mirrors Shakespearean “Tempest” to a tart-smart reincarnation of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” In between lie an elegant Regency-era staging of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and the rarely seen but clear-as-cut-glass performance of “King John.”

The sleeper of the season may well be a taut exploration of Reginald Rose’s American classic “Twelve Angry Men.” Directed by the festival’s co-artistic director David Ivers, “Angry Men” naturally builds to its final and climactic reversal. Why? There is no intermission. A company decision was made to establish and sustain the play’s varying tensions straight through.

The cast is superb and costuming on point for a drama that burst on the American scene in the mid-1950s. For anyone who has seen the Henry Fonda or Laurence Fishburne movie, it is worth seeing the original play mounted in period style.

The other festival sleeper may be “King John.” It is an early history play where Shakespeare concentrated on the power struggles facing the youngest son of Henry II. Director Robyn Rodriguez has trimmed the work to run about two-and-a-half hours. But what’s most important is clarity. The power struggles and their consequences are extremely clear. Corey Jones portrays the troubled monarch who must constantly defend his accession to the throne. Melinda Pfundstein (Constance, mother of Arthur) exemplifies fierce courage in her portrayal with a spellbinding speech about grief that brought the audience to stunned silence. Steve Wojtas delivers a resourceful Philip the Bastard whose speech on commodity held contemporary relevance.

Productions of “The Tempest” usually explore stage effects to underscore the theme of Prospero’s magic. When the exiled ruler appears to be levitating, it is but one of many unbelievable effects in this colorful staging. Ably brought to life by veteran actor Henry Woronicz, Prospero is a fierce older man and tender father. Ariel (lithely etched by Melinda Parrett) glides in and out of the island kingdom, seen and unseen, and unusually creates a little sexual frisson with her master. Directed by B.J. Jones, this “Tempest” may be the most visually beautiful I’ve ever seen.

For light, snappy relief, the festival musical this year is Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” It’s a sleeper of sorts. It takes a while for Porter’s satire on American hypocrisy to emerge as it does in oddball celebrity worship and class conflict. The music is delicious. The dancing sublime; who could ask for anything more?

There’s much to relish at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. There are free actor, costume, prop and literary seminars, or discussions, every day. Every production gets its own introductory lecture if you want to learn more. The campus is cool and green, and if you want to venture into nearby Zion or Cedar Breaks national parks, they’re a short drive away. Cedar City is a full day’s drive, but with minimal planning, you can see all six productions in three days. That’s what I just did with a brief sojourn in a very hot but spectacular Zion Canyon.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

“Twelve Angry Men” is staged from curtain to curtain with no intermission in the summer production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival

“Twelve Angry Men” is staged from curtain to curtain with no intermission in the summer production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Corey Jones, far left, as King John, Fredric Stone as King Philip of France and A. Bryan Humphrey as Cardinal Pandulph in the USF production of Shakespeare’s “King John.” Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival

Corey Jones, far left, as King John, Fredric Stone as King Philip of France and A. Bryan Humphrey as Cardinal Pandulph in the USF production of Shakespeare’s “King John.”