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The bard on the road

Utah Shakepearean festival reaches out to the masses

From two historic opera houses in Nevada to a variety of gymnasiums and multipurpose halls in schools throughout the Mountain West, the Utah Shakespearean Festival's latest touring production — a pared-down edition of "Romeo and Juliet" — is taking the Bard to the masses.

Mostly teenage masses.

This newly mounted touring show, packed aboard a truck and a 15-passenger van, is not unlike the horse-drawn productions that traipsed across the British countryside in Shakespearean times, according to USF education director Michael Don Bahr, a former high school drama teacher who also directed the production.

The scenery and props are designed around a "one-size-fits-all" concept. The production can work just as well in a remote junior high school multipurpose room as it can in the Grand Theatre (where it's scheduled for two of its nine remaining public performances).

The tour, which began Jan. 22, has already made swaths through much of Nevada and Arizona. Beginning Tuesday, it will make 19 stops in central and northern Utah, winding up April 17 in Richfield. By the time the 83-performance road trip ends, the troupe will have gone as far north as Wood River Middle School, near Sun Valley, Idaho, and as far south as Tucson, Ariz.

Eight actors from throughout the country (and with impressive credentials) portray 17 different roles. Trimmed down to a 75-minute length, the school performances are followed by brief, post-show discussions and three hands-on workshops ranging from stage combat to character development.

"The production is mostly aimed at junior high and high school youths, but we do get into some grade schools, too," said Bahr, interviewed via his cell phone while driving through central Utah en route to a meeting with several Ogden school teachers. (In conjunction with the tour, Bahr and his Cedar City-based staff mail out study guides and hold in-service training sessions with many of the school teachers, providing ways to get their students involved — and interested — before the production arrives.)

"The teenage themes in 'Romeo and Juliet' make this great for junior and senior high schools," Bahr said. "Shakespeare talks to the parents and the youth of the past, but it translates so clearly to the present because he's so universal. He's always relevant. There's always some modern-day, personal application that the audiences take away, especially with this show, and in the 'talk-back' session."

Bahr said the troupe's first performance was Jan. 22 at the Iron County Youth Correction facility in Cedar City. "It's all boys, and when the show was done, one of the kids raised his hand and said, 'I don't know if this is cool or not, but I cried at the end. When you (Tybalt) killed Mercutio, you really made me feel the pain.' "

Another question that's come up during the post-show discussions is, "Do you think Romeo and Juliet were in love with each other, or were they victims of lust?" "Clearly, when you're a teenager," said Bahr, "all you know is that, one moment, all you think of is that it's love. Not until later in life do you get a perspective on it.

"Shakespeare tells us up front that Romeo and Juliet are going to die. The entire play takes place within five days. It's about love being nipped in the bud. It's magical and romantic, but Shakespeare cautions us about quick love."

Bahr noted that the hiring interviews that are conducted before putting the troupe together take on a slightly different slant than most casting calls. The members of the touring ensemble have to be good teachers, too. They have to be ready to field questions during the discussions, and they're also all involved in the workshops. Two of the cast are involved in professional "improv-comedy" troupes. There are eight actors plus two technicians — and everyone pitches in to help unload the scenery, then load it back up.

Jay Webb, a Cedar City resident, portrays Tybalt, and also serves as the company manager. Others in the cast are Katie Pace of Brigham City, who plays four roles, including Lady Capulet; Shanna Jones of Salt Lake, as both the Nurse and Prince; Gabe Combs of St. George, as Friar John and Capulet; and Sean Critchfield of Las Vegas, as Friar Lawrence and Benvolio. Skye Myers, also from Las Vegas, plays Juliet and Sampson; Eric J. Stein of Sherman Oaks, Calif., is Romeo; and Steven Townshend of Chicago, plays Montague, Mercutio and Paris. (While she's from Las Vegas, Myers studied at the U. and has performed for Plan-B in Salt Lake City.) Also in the company are Ryan Brooke of Zionville, Pa., technician and lighting director, and Vonetta Flowers of Spencer, Ohio, as stage manager.

"These kids love to perform for student audiences," said Bahr. "The students are really visceral. They squeal and giggle and laugh. During the fight scenes, they're so wrapped up. You can't fool them. They are the most honest of all audiences. Then, in the evening, there's a much more grown-up crowd — and they sometimes laugh in different places."

Performances thus far on the trip have included nearly a week at the Community College of Southern Nevada, and gigs in two historic venues — Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nev., and the Eureka Opera House in Eureka, Nev.

During the next few weeks, they'll give two student performances on Thursday and Friday morning at Hale Centre Theatre, and one performance at ARTEC, an alternative high school in Kearns.

Bahr said that much of the funding for the tour comes from POPS — the Professional Outreach Programs in the Schools.

It's a unique Utah program that helps fund school visits by the planetarium, the Utah Symphony, and others, in cooperation with the Utah Office of Education and several corporate sponsors and private foundations.

"Other states have contacted our schools, inquiring about this great collaboration," Bahr said. "Because of POPS, the money is able to go twice as far. It's one of the good things the Utah Legislature and the education department have done together."