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UTAH SHAKESPEAREAN FESTIVAL

"Involve Yourself in a Plot" is the theme for the 1992 Utah Shakespearean Festival.

But long before lovable rogue Sir John Falstaff gets involved with "The Merry Wives of Windsor," before novelist Charles Condomine becomes caught between his new bride and the apparitional teasing of his deceased wife in "Blithe Spirit," and before Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Marcus Brutus become enmeshed in the deadly political intrigue of ancient Rome in "Julius Caesar," the festival's far-flung artistic staff is involved, too - in months of intensive behind-the-scenes preparations.The festival itself doesn't begin until June 25, when preview performances will preface the official matinee and evening openings of this summer's six repertory productions.

But two weeks ago, the directors, designers and production personnel gathered in Cedar City for their second series pre-production meetings (the first being held in January in Los Angeles).

These meetings allow all of the designers - the people involved in creating the costumes, lighting, scenery, sound effects, music and the other artistic components of the productions - to discuss and coordinate their ideas and concepts for the plays.

"Blithe Spirit," for instance, will be pretty much straight forward and should maintain the "spirit" of Noel Coward's original, according to director Philip Killian and his staff.

But Eli Simon (who directed last season's stunning production of "Death of a Salesman"), is conjuring up some mischievous casting for "The Merchant of Venice." Fred C. Adams, the festival's founder and executive producer, is excited about Simon's proposals. I've seen what they're cooking up and I agree with Adams that audiences should be delighted with the different twist Simon has planned. (Sorry, that's all I'm divulging at this point - book your reservations, see the play and find out the rest then.)

The Utah Shakespearean Festival is one of a handful across the country that still presents a season of major productions in repertory. Most festivals, because of the difficulty of juggling casts and scenery, arrange their productions in "summer stock" fashion - mounting one production, then following that a few weeks later by a different show.

The Utah festival, however, clusters three shows in one theater, and three others on two other stages, providing patrons a variety of evening and matinee options during the space of just two or three days.

Adams, in his "state of the festival" address to directors and designers during the three days of intensive meetings, noted that there's a good reason the festival still presents its shows in repertory.

The majority of festival patrons come from areas at least a day's drive from Cedar City. It's not like Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, where someone will read a review in the newspaper and decide to go see a play that very night.

Cedar City is a "destination" and at least 50 percent of the festival's patrons attend all six productions.

But before festivalgoers begin arriving this summer, there is a massive amount of intricately coordinated work to be done.

With more than three decades of festivals under their collective belts, Adams and his year-round staff have developed one of the smoothest-running companies in North America. However, every season still comes with its own unique problems to be solved and issues to be ironed out.

For 1992, for instance, the festival is mounting one of its most difficult stage productions - Edmond Rostand's swashbuckling five-act spectacle "Cyrano de Bergerac," which requires a huge cast and some formidable scene changes.

This production is being directed by John Neville-Andrews (who supervised last season's magical "Misalliance").

Set in 17th century France, "Cyrano" shifts from moments of intimacy between Roxane, her large-nosed cousin, Cyrano, and her inarticulate lover, Christian, to grand scenes involving regiments of soldiers, Gascony guards and spectacular battles.

When the same stage (the festival's state-of-the-art Randall L. Jones Theatre) is being utilized - usually that same day - for either Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" or William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," it becomes obvious that an immense amount of planning and coordination has to come together to make the festival work.

This year, on the outdoor Adams Shakespearean Theatre stage, the festival will rotate "King Lear" (featuring Harold Gould of "The Golden Girls" in the title role), "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

The bulk of the conceptual and design work must be done before May, when the casts, crews and directors converge in Cedar City to begin the hectic flurry of last-minute casting, costume fittings, scenery construction and rehearsals for the shows.

- BOTH THE STAR AND DIRECTOR of "King Lear" - Harold Gould and Kathleen F. Conlin - were in Cedar City the weekend of the design conferences.

"I've done `Lear' before," said Gould, but not the title role.

"When I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in 1058 - How many years ago was that?? - I played Edmund (the Earl of Gloucester's bastard son)."

He also played Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," had a role in "Troilus and Cressida" and portrayed Tubal, Shylock's Jewish friend, in "The Merchant of Venice," which is among the four Shakespeare plays at the Utah festival this summer.

"Then, in the early 1960s, I returned to the school where I had taught, the University of California at Riverside, and did a production of `Merchant,' playing Shylock, but since the mid-'60s I haven't done any Shakespeare.

"I really felt it was time to come to grips as an actor with that language, with those images, with the demands on my technical facilities that you don't get a chance to exercise in television," Gould said during an interview at Southern Utah University.

Gould, who has appeared in a variety of film and television projects, is probably best known today for his role as Betty White's gentleman friend on "The Golden Girls."

He became involved in the Utah Shakespearean Festival through his longtime friendship with Producing Artistic Director Douglas N. Cook, who also taught at UC/Riverside.

"Doug and his wife, Joan, became fast friends over the years with me and my wife, and when Doug went to Penn State University, through all those years we kept in touch, and we knew about his association with the festival.

"We came up two years ago to see some of the plays and enjoyed it. Then Doug said, `We're going to be doing King Lear and would you be interested?'

"Of course, I jumped at it in my mind, but when you're involved in the whole Hollywood show business scene you have to think very hard about taking 31/2 months off. It's a commitment.

"But I felt that now, at my time of life, it was time to get back to Shakespeare for my own growth and development."

The weekend in Cedar City was Gould's second contact with director Kathleen Conlin.

"Both (meetings) have been very fleeting," he said. "The first was several months ago in Los Angeles, then again here - just quickly exchanging some ideas. Kathleen has some interesting ones, so I'll just follow along."

- FOR CONLIN, this summer marks her third year with the festival. Not only is she directing her third play (she supervised "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" in 1990 and "The Taming of the Shrew" last year), she is also now involved year-round as the festival's casting director.

"This is one of the best organized and best managed festivals that I've been associated with, and I find the quality of the festival overall to be among the best in the country," Conlin said.

"It's tough when you live somewhere else (she holds down a full-time administratrative post with the Ohio University School of Theater)," she said, "but I like working here. It's worth the investment of time and everything else."

"This year I must have seen 550 actors all across the country. That gives you an idea of how much paperwork comes into the office. I would imagine now that Rick (VanNoy, associate casting director) probably has screened over 2,000 applications," she said.

The casting process for the festival is nationwide. Conlin holds auditions at a few key training programs around the country and also sets up appointments with Actors Equity applicants and a few others, based on what's on their resumes.

"I really can't just take them off the street for this. It's much too complicated."

PHOTOGRAPHY/ BRUCE LEE