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CEDAR CITY - Actor Brian Vaughn is wandering through a brick courtyard on the grounds of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, heading to an alumni luncheon, when he's interrupted by a theatergoer.
Fans often stop Vaughn here, as the Southern Utah University graduate is one of a handful of recognizable actors considered "festival favorites" in a company that doesn't believe in celebrity casting. At a matinee performance the day before, Vaughn deadpanned his way through a leading turn as Gordon Miller, a wily play producer in the Art Deco-toned farce "Room Service." The next night, he would make visible the thoughts of Hamlet, the dangerously volatile Danish prince, in a role that's considered the Everest in the mountain range of theatrical characters.
"Brian," says the man on the courtyard, "I want you to meet my wife. We've been coming here for years, and she's a big fan of your work." For a minute, Vaughn freezes, caught between making nice and showing up at the luncheon late as a diva, before he turns and smiles to pose for a photo and sign a program.
Vaughn's definitive Hamlet and Richard Kinter's pitch-perfect, crotchety Norm in "On Golden Pond" are the hallmark performances of the USF's 2006 season. Vaughn's tour de force plays as a success story for the 34-year-old Phoenix native who has grown up as an actor, from bit player in the pre-play Greenshows to lead of the big show, over 13 summers in the company.
For all his leading-man talent, offstage in midday sunlight, Vaughn's features display the nondescript appearance of a character actor. At 5-foot-10 1/2 , with an average frame, slim build and hair the color of mud, he'd be difficult to pick out of a police lineup. As he describes himself: "I'm not really Joe Goodlooking."
His festival résumé sounds like the plotline of a made-for-TV movie, progressing from Greenshow reject to intern actor to veteran of more than 20 productions, most notably in comic roles. A casting director saw one of Vaughn's early Cedar City performances and hired him as a company member for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, where the actor earned his Equity union card.
Here's the melodramatic twist: Even his love story developed on a Cedar City stage. Vaughn met Melinda Pfundstein in USF's 2001 production of "Pirates of Penzance." The couple fell in love while playing husband and wife in 2004's "Henry IV Part 1," then got hitched for real in a Las Vegas ceremony after the 2005 summer season. "It is kind of corny," admits Vaughn, during an interview he won't finish until he praises the work of his "Hamlet" colleagues.
'A religious experience': This season has developed into another kind of love fest for Vaughn, who has earned superlative notices from visitors ranging from "Monthy Python" comic legend Eric Idle to National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, who called the show "the best overall 'Hamlet' I've ever seen live onstage."
"Brian is Hamlet," says festival founder Fred Adams, who recalls seeing something special in the actor back when he was a teenager performing in a high-school theater workshop. "People are so passionate about this production," says Nancy Melich, the retired Salt Lake Tribune theater critic who leads festival literary seminars.
"Watching Brian Vaughn is what it must have been like to be in the audience for 'Streetcar Named Desire' with Marlon Brando," raved longtime Utah theater artist Nancy Roth, one of the co-founders of Salt Lake's Pygmalion Productions, who termed watching the young actor a "religious experience."
"This guy is an innovative genius. He moves like Fred Astaire, with grace and fluidity, his power in his whole being, voice as well as movement."
University professors who teach Shakespeare say they are hearing new nuances in the Bard's prose, as spoken by Vaughn, under J.R. Sullivan's direction. "Hamlet needs a nimbleness of mind and great physical dexterity, and these are things that Brian is blessed with and uses," Sullivan says. "It's quite a thing to make thinking so active, and that's a hallmark of his performance, to be moment-to-moment with his own thinking."
List definitive Hamlets, and you're talking about the 20th century's best actors: John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, along with movie-star turns by Ralph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, even Ethan Hawke. That history translates into a burden of expectation weighing down any new production of the world's most-performed play.
Sullivan believes the play is so popular because its themes - about illusion vs. reality, seeming and being, acting and truth, mortality and revenge - transcend familial and political relationships to question the nature of existence.
The story is so relevant, so universal, so alive, it has been translated into Russian, Afrikaans, even Zulu, and now there's a new rock opera, "Hamlet in Space," set to premiere near Berlin this fall. "You can be living in a commune in Australia all your life, and if you see a man clad in black holding a skull, you would know that's Hamlet," the director says.
"Who hasn't thought of playing Hamlet?" Vaughn asks, remembering his student days when he imagined speaking those famous speeches on the boards of the outdoor Adams Shakespearean stage. As a young company member, he recalls playing Laertes in the USF's 1997 production, drinking in the clarity of Martin Kildare's language.
Transparent authenticity: Vaughn faced off with his ambitions last fall when he started working on the role of the brooding young prince. With a reputation built on the success of his physical comedy, he was spooked by the question: "What am I going to do that's different than anybody else's Hamlet?" A piece of advice from a friend calmed him: "You won't get it right," the actor told him. "Some nights you'll get 80 percent. Some nights you'll get 40 percent."
Vaughn describes Hamlet as a guy on a proverbial quest to find himself, someone "who has one thought and within that has five other thoughts he gets lost in." Onstage, the actor works to channel his emotions into his performance. If Vaughn feels tired or has a cold, then Hamlet does as well.
"There's a debate in the first act about 'Who's there?' and that's the whole play," he says.
And what sets apart Vaughn's portrayal is its transparent authenticity, the way he takes the audience along on the journey of his character's mind. "I trust comic actors, because they have to live and breathe with audience reactions," Sullivan says. "Brian has a oneness with the audience, he's humble that way. He knows that all bets are off each night. He's fearless as an actor and a person, which is why he's so good for Hamlet, and why he's poised for greatness."
At the alumni luncheon, the actor fields an array of questions, talking about the realities of unemployment for actors, about the variety of roles he has been offered at the Cedar City company, even the age of his character, who scholars believe was in his mid-30s, just like Vaughn.
From the back of the room, one woman asks what's next for Vaughn, who's interested in directing, and then follows up with a question that is the biggest compliment of all: "How old do you have to be to play King Lear?"