Summer Shakespeare

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

&quotAll; the world-s a stage." So it is, according to Jaques in As You Like It, and so it is in the summertime, when almost every city, town and village seems to offer &quotShakespeare; in the Park." Los Angeles is home to countless of these local productions, but it-s also close to two major outdoor Shakespeare Festivals, both of which are only a few hours drive away.

The first of these is perhaps the more unknown. Cedar City is not the first place most people think of for Shakespeare in the summer-but each year, for over forty years now, this small town in the heart of Utah-s red rock canyon country hosts three of the Bard-s plays in repertory.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival aims at more than mere summer stock, it tries to re-create a 16th century environment. Before curtain, many of the performers take part in the &quotThe; Greenshow," a sort of Disney-style simulacra where you can hear Elizabethan songs, eat meat pies, and see a lot of people wearing tights.

The performance of Taming of the Shrew that followed also tried to re-create the past. The sets, costumes, and blocking were all decidedly old-fashioned. This is not to say that it was a true period performance. Woman actually played the female roles, and English accents-to say nothing of true Elizabethan pronunciations-were avoided completely.

No, the Utah Shakespeare Festival does not try to present Shakespeare as it actually was performed in the late 1500-s, but rather, it stages Shakespeare in a manner that looks traditional-think Laurence Olivier-s filmed Henry V-but that really dates back only 100 years.

The theater employed a standard 20th century thrust stage-without a standing section. The color palate of the costumes was bright and showy-much more appropriate to the 19th century. And of course, the actors spoke in 21st century American English.

Yet despite the conservative surroundings, postmodernism is creeping into Utah, as at one point a character quietly sang a few lines from Kiss Me Kate, a reference to the Cole Porter musical that was inspired by Shakespeare-s Shrew.

But just because Shakespeare in Cedar City is a bit anachronistic doesn-t mean that it isn-t fun. The performance of Taming of the Shrew was lively and the cast members, for the most part, spoke their lines clearly and with conviction. The comedy was rendered broadly, but only occasionally did it descend into schtick. The one standout was a Los Angeles actor, Michael David Edwards, who played Tranio with the wide-eyed gusto of a young Donald O-Connor.

Now should you choose to drive a few hours in the opposite direction of Utah, you-ll wind up in Balboa Park, where San Diego hosts its Summer Shakespeare Festival.

The Lowell Davies Festival Theater also has three of the Bard-s works showing, and like its Utah counterpart, it also has a modern trust stage-but The Old Globe in San Diego has a distinctly modern style.

As opposed to the lavish Cedar City sets and costumes, the San Diego festival features a minimalist, more contemporary look. For their production of As You Like It, the set consisted of a mostly bare stage, with only a few trees when forests needed to be evoked.

Like the Utah Festival, most of the costumes in the Globe-s As You Like It were from the 19th century-but here this was an intentional choice. Director Karen Carpenter updated the action to Victorian times, a decision that often works nicely, adding a bit a class struggle to the sibling rivalry.

The acting, as well as the comedy, was played with more subtlety in San Diego; but for all its style, the As You Like It seemed a bit cold. Probably this was due to its Rosalind, played by Katie MacNichol. Instead of irresistible, the character seemed simply manic, as if MacNichol was trying recreate Katharine Hepburn-s triumphant Broadway Rosalind from 1950. But even a slightly chilly performance of a Shakespeare comedy still seemed like a pretty decent way to spend a warm summer night.

As You Like It continues at the Old Globe in San Diego, in repertory with Antony & Cleopatra and The Two Noble Kinsmen through October 3rd.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.