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Salt Lake City theater companies are opening four very different fall season shows this week, headlined by a production of "Buried Child," a rarely seen dark family comedy by Sam Shepard. Also on the docket are the Grand Theatre's "Young Frankenstein" musical, the stage adaptation of Mel Brooks' wildly popular 1974 film comedy; Hive Theatre's original play about artistic ambition and twisted clowns; and a revival of People Productions' "The Exonerated."
"Buried Child" • Director Lane Richins calls the play a bit more realistic, less absurd, than much of the playwright's work. "I like the fact that it was funny," he says. In 2011, Richins directed another of Shepard's works, "True West," for the Wasatch Theatre Company.
The playwright mixes a realistic plot with elements of symbolism in his depiction of three generations of one fragmented American Midwestern family, set against the backdrop of the economic downturn of the 1970s. Its main theme, Richins says, is the exploration of genetic versus environmental identity, as a dark secret comes to light when a grandson returns with his girlfriend to the family farmhouse and isn't recognized.
In some ways, Richins says, "Buried Child" set off the kind of thematic ripples that echoed through Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," which Silver Summit and Utah Repertory theater companies teamed up to produce last year.
"If you have a family, and if you've ever had problems with your family, you're going to connect to this," Richins says. "I want people walking out of here thinking: 'You know, maybe my family ain't that bad.' "
The cast includes Justin Bruse, Michael Croker, Stein Erickson, Barb Gandy, Natalie Keezer, Aaron Kramer and Andrew Maizner.
"The Secret Lives of Clowns" • Jared Greathouse says his company's latest dramedy might seem less experimental than his Hive Theatre's usual fare. (This summer, for instance, Hive produced "Cock," a script with no stage directions and no sets, that directed actors not to do the usual pantomime or stage business, such as pretending to eat.)
That said, in "The Secret Lives of Clowns," Greathouse plays Mr. Wiggles, a punked-out clown in blue face "with a wild imagination and a hedonistic appetite," as he is described in marketing materials.
Greathouse, who co-founded the Hive Theatre Company in 2010 with his wife, Tiffany Greathouse, says the story is concerned with the question of what it means to be an artist in a place, like perhaps Salt Lake City, that doesn't make it particularly easy.
The script tells the story of Johnny, a theater critic and teacher, who is jolted from his comfortable-seeming life by the news of the murder of a former clown-school friend. His former clown persona, Mr. Wiggles, appears in Johnny's imagination to prod the critic about his long-neglected artistic ambitions.
Overall, Greathouse says the story might be considered conventionally plotted, but it's also "a little absurd, a little scary and pretty funny." And there's some onstage juggling.
Directing the show is Sam C. McGinnis V, with Greathouse as Mr. Wiggles and Austin Stephenson as Johnny. Other actors include Tiffany A. Greathouse, Thomas Bo Brady, Zachari Michael Reynolds and Andrea Peterson.
"Young Frankenstein" • If you liked watching Mel Brooks' twisted comedy poking fun at the genre of horror movies, the Grand Theatre hopes you'll be drawn to the musical version.
Director David Schmidt says he's been a fan of the movie since it was released in 1974. "I love all the jokes, and we still tell all the jokes in our family," says Schmidt, who heads the vocal program for the University of Utah's theater department.
Schmidt is returning to the Grand after directing the theater's popular production of "Little Shop of Horrors" last October. "This kind of show, the big musical comedies, are his specialty," says Seth Miller, the theater's interim artistic director.
"Young Frankenstein" is the story of Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein as you probably know, that's pronounced "Fronk-en-steen" who inherits his family's Transylvania estate as well as his ancestor's interest in mad science, working with his famous assistants Igor and Inga.
The musical includes all the iconic lines, but the story unspools a bit differently, thanks to the addition of character development. "There are some solutions and some endings that aren't in the movie, and they're fun and surprising," Schmidt says. Then there's this: The stage musical is in color, he adds, with a laugh.
"Really, we're just doing Mel Brooks' humor onstage," Schmidt says. "They're going to go home laughing and hopefully go to see the movie."
Schmidt praises his cast as "incredible," from leads to the ensemble roles. "Directing is 90 percent casting, 10 percent directing, and I got it all right on this one," the director says.
Miller says the show will be a big production for the Grand, with a cast of 20 actors, a massive set and visually interesting props. "We went all out, especially for the laboratory scenes," he says.
Among the cast are Addison Welch as Dr. Frankenstein, Dave Hanson as The Monster, Trevor Dean as Igor, Arielle Schnidt as Inga, Angela Avila as Elizabeth Benning, and Ann White as Frau Blücher.
"The Exonerated" • People Productions is reprising its 2009 production of "The Exonerated," a docudrama that shines the spotlight on six people freed after serving death-row sentences. The show is a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.
The play, written by actors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, weaves together monologues and courtroom and prison scenes, drawing upon interviews with 40 former death-row inmates, as well as letters, court transcripts, case files and public records.
The play unfolds the stories of six people: Delbert Tibbs, a poet whose crime was hitchhiking while black; Gary Geiger, an organic farmer convicted of murdering his parents; David Keaton, a frightened 18-year-old who lost his faith; Kerry Max Cook, convicted of a murder/rape in Texas who watched more than a hundred of his fellow detainees go to their deaths; Robert Earl Hayes, guilty of dating a white girl in Mississippi; and Sunny Jacobs, kept on death row 13 years after someone else confessed to the crime.
Director Richard Scharine says the play is filled with "gripping stories of systemic failure and human resilience."
"Everybody's story is just so interesting, so epic," he says. "And the fact that these people survived, and they all came out of it in different ways."
Nationally, the play has an interesting history as a work of activism. In December 2002, it was performed (with Richard Dreyfuss and Danny Glover in the cast) for Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was deliberating his state's capital punishment system. In 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners.
In 2005, "The Exonerated" was adapted into a film, starring Glover, Susan Sarandon and Brian Dennehy.
The local cast features Jan Peterson, Earl Burnett, Rodney O'Neil Lewis, McKenna Jensen, Calbert Beck, Heather Maughan, Ward Chapman, Sean Sweeney, Bill Gillane, Paul Boruff, Nan Weber and Curley Green, with musical direction by Brian Sellmon.
"If we can put a human face on this, it won't be just a question of how many people are on death row, or how many years they've served," Scharine says.
New shows opening on Salt Lake City stages
'Buried Child' • Silver Summit Theatre Company presents Sam Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning dark family comedy.
When • Fridays through Sundays, through Oct. 24: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday
Where • Silver Sugar Space Arts Warehouse, 132 S. Jeremy St. (800 West), Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18, at silversummittheatre.org or at the door
'The Secret Life of Clowns'• An original work written by Hive Theatre co-founder Jared Greathouse, in which he plays blue-faced clown Mr. Wiggles, described as "a Punk-Fu party clown with a wild imagination and a hedonistic appetite." The dramedy tells the story of a theater critic living a seemingly happy life that's interrupted by the news of a brutal murder of an old clown-college friend.
When • Friday-Saturday, Oct. 9-10 and 16-17, 8 p.m., with additional 2 p.m. Saturday matinees
Where • Sorenson Unity Center, 1383 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15; hivetheatre.com/buy-tickets, or at the door
'Young Frankenstein' • The musical adapted from the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy film classic.
When • Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees, through Oct. 30
Where • Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $14; discounts for seniors, students, veterans and teachers; 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org
'The Exonerated'• People Productions reprises the docudrama about six people freed from death-row sentences. The production is a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project, where volunteer attorneys and law students work to free the unjustly incarcerated in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. The agency is investigating and litigating 41 cases and receives an average of 25 new requests for assistance each month. Among its success stories are those of Bruce Dallas Goodman and Deb Brown, who between them served 36 years for murders they didn't commit.
When • Friday, Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 18, 2:30 p.m.
Where • S.J. Quinney Law School, 383 University St., University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 ($10 students/seniors) at the door; reservations at peopleproductions.org
When • Saturday, Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Black Box theatre, Salt Lake Community College South Campus, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City; part of NowPlaying in Utah's free night of theater
When • Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23-24, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 25, 2:30 p.m.
Where • Social Work Auditorium, 395 S. 1500 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Also • For information about the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, visit rminnocence.org