The concept behind “The Tavern” is intriguing. It’s a dark and stormy night at a frontier tavern when a mysterious and enigmatic stranger appears under suspicious circumstances. And this particular tavern just happens to be located right here in Southern Utah.
Thus begins the final major production of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 season and a world premiere for this particular version of the play.
No, playwright George M. Cohan is not a local. Neither is director Joseph Hanreddy, who adapted the play to for a Southern Utah locale. Yet Hanreddy is familiar with both the play and Southern Utah. A few years back he adapted “The Tavern” and set it in the Wisconsin backwoods for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where he was working as artistic director. And Hanreddy is no stranger to USF, having recently adapted and directed “Sense and Sensibility” for the festival, among other Utah Shakes productions.
Under Hanreddy’s creative direction, this adaptation includes references to Salt Lake City, Fort Harmony and Parowan, all of which serve to localize the play’s endearing humor. Additionally, Hanreddy has also directed the play in a way that emphasizes the visuals as much as the words. The blustery storm sends various objects flying past the tavern’s windows and every time the door opens, the tavern’s furniture slides across the stage.
It’s one of the more brilliant displays of theater magic seen on a Southern Utah stage in recent years. While spectacle is often the lure of Tuacahn Center for the Arts, USF is giving the amphitheater a run for its money with “The Tavern.”
Adding to the storm illusion is the acting. Hanreddy has emphasized the physicality of the play, in conjunction with movement and fight choreographer Robert Westley. When the wind is blowing through the open door, it truly looks as if the actors are fighting to move against the overwhelming gusts.
The most imaginative mover is Andrew May, who takes the lead role of The Vagabond. Fresh off delighting audiences as Peter Quince in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Squire Trelawney in “Treasure Island,” May is an absolute wonder whenever he’s on stage as the flamboyant and theatrical stranger with a Shakespeare obsession.
Like Hanreddy, May is also no stranger to “The Tavern.” He appeared in Hanreddy’s previous Wisconsin-based adaptation of the play but in the role of Tom Allen, fiancé to the governor’s daughter. The script allows for The Vagabond to be an exaggerated character and May takes full advantage of that freedom, leaping about the stage and surely winning over every member of the audience.
Although May steals the show, there is still something of an ensemble feel with standout performances from longtime USF actor James Newcomb as Zachariah Freeman, the tavern owner; Kelly Rogers (absolutely brilliant as Puck in the ongoing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) as Sally-Mae, a hired girl; the chameleon-like J. Todd Adams as Wile Ed Coats, a hired man; and the always splendid Melinda Parrett as The Woman, another stranger who shows up mysteriously.
This is also one of those plays where the technical elements are not just sufficient but actually become a major part of the production. As mentioned above, the way the furniture “blows” across the stage is a superb special effect and just part of the gorgeous scenic design by Linda Buchanan. The entire set is marvelously detailed. And although the massive window is unrealistic for a frontier tavern, it’s perfect for creating the effect of a storm outside and greatly enhances the storytelling.
Perhaps just as important as the visuals are the sounds. In fact, “The Tavern” sports absolutely stunning sound design by Barry G. Funderburg, especially when it comes to enhancing the reality of the storm.
Similarly, the lighting not only helps create the effect of a storm but also emphasizes the storytelling and humor, often capturing May in a spotlight effect as The Vagabond waxes theatrical. Props to lighting designer Kirk Bookman and co-designer Michael A. Megliola for their work here.
This is the kind of play where every technical element is integral and that includes the costume and makeup. Kärin Simonson Kopischke has created some fantastic threads, from The Vagabond’s gentlemanly wear to Wile’s red pajamas to the stately dress of the governor’s family. Also of note is the makeup work that gives Adams’ a strikingly realistic gray beard and, at one point, reddish frost-bitten hands.
Even voice and text coach Gale Childs Daly plays an integral role in this production with the potentially exaggerated but fantastically funny dialogue spoken by these frontierspeople, especially the tavern workers.
Overall, “The Tavern” is an unexpected play with surprises around every corner and a whole lot of laughs.
“The Tavern” continues through Oct. 21 in the Randall L. Jones Theatre at Southern Utah University’s Beverley Center for the Arts, 195 W. University Boulevard, Cedar City.
Joining “The Tavern” in the Randall through Oct. 21 is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (this critic’s favorite play at the festival this year). The festival’s Anes Studio Theatre also features two plays, “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)” and the world premiere of Neil LaBute’s “How to Fight Loneliness.”
Tickets for the Randall shows are $32-$75 while tickets for the Anes shows are $50-$54. Visit Bard.org or call 800-752-9849.