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Just about every day of this summer, Betsy Mugavero's characters will be falling in love onstage at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Some days, Mugavero, as the well-read Viola de Lesseps, is falling in love with a rakish, struggling playwright, played by Quinn Mattfeld, in the regional premiere of "Shakespeare in Love," a backstage story set during the writing of "Romeo and Juliet."
Other days, Mugavero, in the classic star-crossed role of Juliet, is naively, desperately falling for Shane Kenyon's teenage Romeo, while her character's cousin, Mattfeld's street-brawling punk Tybalt, is banished from Verona in "Romeo and Juliet."
Casting Mugavero as the leading lady in both plays is the most obvious of the connective tissues between the company's productions of "Love" and "R and J." Another handful of actors are dual cast in both shows, which share scenic and costume designers. The plays' stories unfold with overlapping scenes and mirrored moments, such as when Mattfeld's Shakespeare plays Romeo in rehearsal as his playwright character is writing the role.
Both plays open this week as part of the Cedar City company's forward-focused slate in its 56th season, which continues through Oct. 21.
The lineup includes a rare USF world premiere, of Neil LaBute's dark contemporary drama, "How to Fight Loneliness," as well as two additional regional premieres, "Treasure Island" and the madcap comedy of "William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)." (See box for play run dates and ticket information.)
But getting back to love stories: What makes Mugavero's acting challenges more rewarding is that her frequent scene partner is Mattfeld, her real-life husband. And in the couple's charming, Shakespearean backstory, the actors met eight years ago in USF rehearsal rooms.
Then there's this additional offstage challenge: Between rehearsals and shows, Mugavero and Mattfeld are busy caring for their 6-month-old son, August. ("It takes a village," Mugavero says of the actors and staffers who are lending a hand as babysitters. "The entire festival is keeping us afloat.")
The rare opportunity to play onstage together gives the couple a chance to see their relationship with fresh eyes. "It's very Shakespeare," Mattfeld says, referring to all the characters in the canon, like Rosalind, who masquerade as somebody else. "Something about that mask, and I mean that metaphorically, allows you to experience a deeper level of connection."
Or maybe their stage work is a public form of couples therapy. "We get to cry together, and get to be present with one another. And make out," Mattfeld says.
Mugavero adds: "It's fresh for us every time we rehearse the play. We're operating moment-to-moment together through the circumstances we are playing."
Another love letter • The pairing of love and adventure is a theme woven through the season's plays, says artistic director Brian Vaughn, who is directing "Love," as well as playing the gambler Sky Masterson in the 1950 musical "Guys and Dolls." "It's about finding the alchemy of love in a bunch of different ways, as well as the adventure one undertakes that's a propulsion into uncharted territory."
Uncharted territory is a metaphor, too, for the 56-year-old theater company, whose leadership continues to evolve.
In May, Vaughn was promoted to artistic director after splitting the role since 2011 with his regular acting partner David Ivers, who this month took over the leadership of the Arizona Theatre Company.
As a parting gift, longtime theatergoers will have the chance to see Ivers' work directing Vaughn in LaBute's "Loneliness," which opens Aug. 25 in the company's new Anes Studio Theatre.
In September, USF will welcome Frank Mack, its new executive producer, replacing R. Scott Phillips, who retired in March after working with founder Fred Adams for more than 40 years to build the Cedar City theater company. (Just this week, Phillips announced his candidacy for Cedar City council.)
Theatergoers will also have the chance to see Adams, 86, play an elderly servant in "As You Like It," acting on the festival stage for only his fourth turn during the main season. (Longtime festival patrons are familiar with his work as a director as he's led more than 30 USF shows over the years, while also notably leading regular play orientations.)
J.R. Sullivan, a former USF associate artistic director, is thrilled to help break in the Engelstad theater, which opened last year. "It's beginning to lose that new-car smell, but it's gaining the sweat and presence of more and more productions," he says.
This season, the company is pausing its cycle of history plays, instead producing the Shakespeare comedies "As You Like It" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Also new is a zany contemporary comedy, "William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)," which opens July 28.
The truth of 'Romeo and Juliet' • The beauty of returning to such a well-known Shakespearean classic as "R and J" is rediscovering the story's astonishing power, says Sullivan, the director.
"The journey of the story isn't what's going to happen, but us watching these characters not know what's going to happen," Mattfield says. "Because we're watching the people go through a story, and they don't know how it ends. There's great humor, great irony and great drama, and there's great trauma in it."
In his direction, he's aimed at helping the cast focus on the specificity in the script's language, emphasizing the ways the playwright's expression evolves as the tragedy unfolds.
"One of the worst things you can do to Shakespeare is to speak it beautifully," Sullivan says. "If you play the truth, if you connect, and if you listen and you do all that honestly and if the play is directed with verve and clarity, all of that will emerge quite naturally."
"R and J" is usually summarized as a story about young love, but it's also about the circumstances of hate. At the end, a character says: "All are punished."
"I think that's of primary importance here," Sullivan says. "We are all culpable," adding that should seem like a relevant theme to contemporary theatergoers.
Bill Black's costumes offer richness in 1500s-era silhouettes and lush fabrics, suggesting the privilege of Verona's two leading families. Scott Davis' set design incorporates Elizabethan elements, with Zodiac pictures above the stage, as well as Corinthian-style columns on both sides, the director says.
The action of the play moves through the theater space, with entrances on both sides of the stage and using the aisles, all strategies employed in Shakespeare's day to draw theatergoers closer to the players.
"If you're young, you're them," Sullivan says of the title characters. "If you're older, you're their parents, and you think of them as the very flowers of your heart and soul, of your own beings. They are two extraordinary young people, separately and together."
He adds: "Everyone wants to be in love like that, and I don't think that ever ends, at any age. Everybody wants to be in love fully and completely. It approaches the love of God, because it's a pure love. And in that sense, I think we are all drawn to it."
Falling in love, again • Which brings us back to Mattfeld and Mugavero. "I'm playing the namesake of this festival, which is not daunting at all," understates Mattfeld, who also plays Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls."
Mugavero says her characters are very different. Her Juliet is young, wide-eyed and sheltered, and she wears bows on her costumes that make her appear like a present. "As Juliet, I have to think everything's going to be OK and that we're going to work it out," the actor says.
In contrast, her Viola, Shakespeare's muse, is older and more sophisticated, willing to defy cultural conventions to masquerade as a male actor in his theater company. "I have a huge crush on Shakespeare because I love his work," Mugavero says. "In this play, Viola gets to have a huge crush on Shakespeare because she loves his work."
In their acting, the couple are able to draw upon their personal history at the festival. They met in 2009, when they were seated next to each other in the rehearsal room of "Henry V," also directed by Sullivan. They quickly fell into scribbling jokes back-and-forth on the margins of their scripts. Mattfeld details pre-rehearsal runs and a Vampire Weekend mixtape, and says that by opening night the pair had fallen in love.
In 2013, while playing opposite each other in "Peter and the Starcatcher," he staged a proposal on top of Angels Landing. Zion National Park served as the backdrop for their 2014 wedding.
Their dual roles this season have admittedly required a bit of navigation. "We tried to say at the beginning, let's not husband-and-wife each another, let's try to be actors," Mattfeld says.
He jokes that probably the next time they'll get the opportunity to play opposite each other will be in the roles of George and Martha, the vicious middle-aged couple in a production of Edward Albee's dark relationship drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
All the Beverley's a stage
The Utah Shakespeare Festival will offer nine plays in its 56th season. All plays are at the theaters of the Beverley Center for the Performing Arts on the Southern Utah University campus, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City.
At the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre
"Shakespeare in Love" • A regional premiere (one of three in the country), adapted by Lee Hall from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay, directed by USF artistic director Brian Vaughn. Opens Friday, June 30, and plays through Sept. 8.
"Romeo and Juliet" • The classic tragedy about love, directed by J.R. Sullivan. Opens Saturday, July 1, and plays through Sept. 9.
"As You Like It" • A romance about Rosalind and Orlando, woven out of disguises and beautiful poetry. Directed by Robynn Rodriguez. Opened Thursday, June 29, and plays through Sept. 7.
Tickets • $20-$75, at 800-PLAYTIX or bard.org/tickets
At the Randall L. Jones Theatre
"Guys and Dolls" • A plot summary for this well-loved musical comedy (with Frank Loesser's sassy songs, such as "A Bushel and a Peck" and "Luck Be a Lady") sounds like a "walked into a bar" joke, as the story follows the fortunes of a gambler, a missionary, a wanna-go-straight showgirl and a craps game manager. Directed by Peter Rothstein. Opens Monday, July 3, and continues through Sept. 1.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" • Shakespeare's popular tale of fairies and dreams, set in the Art Deco world of the Jazz Age. Directed by Kirsten Brandt. Opens Tuesday, July 4, and continues through Oct. 21.
"Treasure Island" • A regional premiere of a (who can help it?) swashbuckling musical tale about the young cabin boy Jim Hawkins and the epic pirate Long John Silver. Adapted by Mary Zimmerman from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel, directed by Sean Graney. Opens Wednesday, July 5, and continues through Sept. 2.
"The Tavern" • This satirical comedy is set into motion when a wind blows oddball characters into a remote Utah tavern, where they reveal themselves as they attempt to solve a crime. This new adaptation, with Utah references, is by director Joseph Hanreddy, from the original play by George M. Cohan. Opens Sept. 19 and continues through Oct. 21.
Tickets • $32-$60 ($4 additional fee for "Guys and Dolls"), at 800-PLAYTIX or bard.org/tickets
At the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre
"William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)" • A new vaudeville-infused comedy (by the guys who launched "the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," featuring a trio of comic actors telling the fake news story of a lost manuscript. Directed by Christopher Edwards. Opens July 28 and continues through Oct. 21.
"How to Fight Loneliness" • The debut of Neil LaButte's contemporary play, which received a staged reading last year, about a couple who are facing a wrenching decision about their lives. Opens Aug. 25 and continues through Oct. 14. Directed by David Ivers.
Tickets • $50-$54 for Anes Theatre shows, at 1-800-PLAYTIX or bard.org/tickets
Greenshow • Free shows at 7 p.m., conceived and directed by Christopher Utley.
Words Words Words
Staged readings of two new plays at the Anes Studio Theatre
"Shrew!" • Amy Freed's comedy will receive staged readings at 10 a.m. on Aug. 4, 5 and 30. It's a story based on this question: What would happen if "The Taming of the Shrew" were written by Shakespeare's female friend?
"Pearl's in the House" • Art Manke's play with music about Pearl Bailey, a performer who became a special representative to the United Nations, who explains her work.
Tickets • $10; contemporary content, not suitable for children; at 800-PLAYTIX or bard.org/tickets