Women Performing Lead Roles In 2018 Utah Shakespeare Festival

Jul 6, 2018, 6:21 PM | Updated: Jul 10, 2018, 4:01 pm

CEDAR CITY, Utah – The Utah Shakespeare Festival opened its 2018 season Thursday night. The company is focusing on the idea of intolerance in its productions. The festival has eight productions during the summer and fall seasons – four are Shakespeare’s; four others from playwrights of different centuries. They not only expose intolerance, but there is another theme this year – women.

“An equal pound of fair flesh,” says the character of Shylock.

The actor playing that character is Lisa Wolpe, and playing the role of Antonio is Leslie Brott. Even after 56 years, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is presenting Shakespeare like you’ve never seen. Women are performing the lead roles of Shylock and Antonio in, The Merchant of Venice.

Brott has some advice for audiences.

“I’m not thinking of myself as a man. I’m not a man, but I am a person who understands the challenges this character faces. You’ll let us tell the story just fine by sitting back and not worrying about the gender,” she says.

The idea for the casting of women came from the show’s director, Melinda Pfundstein.

“It started with Lisa. I saw her do her one-woman show, The Alchemy of Gender, just a year ago and long before directing Merchant of Venice was an idea for me, I heard her speak Shylock’s words and it haunted me all year,” says Pfundstein. “When Merchant of Venice came up, the next thing out of my mouth was, ‘Can I cast Lisa Wolpe,’ and, thank goodness, Brian (Vaughn, artistic director) said, ‘yes, I think we can do that.’ The casting grew from there. I thought we needed more women in roles to support a woman playing a man in a role and so, it’s been a great adventure.”

Lambourn as Mistress Margaret Page in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018.)

This year’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is set in the early 20th century and focuses around women’s right to vote.

Frank Mack, the festival’s Executive Producer says, “You can see the origins of contemporary comedy happening in a play written, 400 or so years ago.”

“The nice thing about this play, is that, once again, Shakespeare is letting us know that women are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and taking care of their community. That’s really the focus of this play is that it’s a community that knows, cares for and loves one another,” says Leslie Brott, who plays Mistress Quickly.

In Shakespeare’s time, the 16th century, all of the roles in every theatre, went to men. Women were not permitted to be actors. This season, the Utah Shakespeare Festival has as many women in the company as men.

Tracie Lane, who plays Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part One, says this is an important statement.

“I’m just really thrilled and honored to be a part of the company that is working toward gender parity in the arts,” says Lane. “This work is important and, in many ways, long overdue and so, I’m proud to be there and be a part of the company doing that work this season.”

Equally important as the focus on women, is the theme of intolerance. Shakespeare addressed it in the three previous plays and in Othello.

It is also the theme in the powerful musical about the friendship of Huck Finn and escaped slave, Jim, in Big River.

“Everyone has moments of intolerance or blindness,” says Brott. “That’s just what we need to wake ourselves up to – is that we can all have a little bit more compassion in our lives.”

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of Henry VI Part One. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018.)

The festival always provides audiences with a reason to laugh. The Foreigner may ultimately focus on injustice but there is hilarity along the way. As there is in the 17th century French farce, The Liar.

“It’s the opportunity for us to produce the greatest plays ever written and to produce them beautifully and magnificently in this fabulous new arts center and in our three wonderful theatres,” says actor Melinda Pfundstein.

A favorite onstage with audiences, Pfundstein has a fervent hope for this festival’s future.

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of The Merchant of Venice. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2018.)

“I hope it continues to grow and, at the same time, I hope that it continues to be intimate. I think people who come and spend time on these grounds understand what an intimate environment this is where actors and artists and patrons get to engage with each other. I think that is really special about this place,” she says.

The festival offers seminars and backstage tours throughout the day as well as matinee and evening performances. Every morning, audience members can gather to talk about and ask questions about the previous day’s performances with some of the cast and each director. It is a highlight for many.

There are two other productions, An Illiad – a tragedy, and The Liar – a comedy.

Four productions at the Utah Shakespeare Festival run through the beginning of September, four others through the middle of October.

For information on dates, times and tickets, visit bard.org.

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Women Performing Lead Roles In 2018 Utah Shakespeare Festival