One of my favorite lines is ‘If she and I be pleased, what’s that to you?’ That’s really the whole message of the play, the personal versus the public. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little gleam in my eye knowing that it’s my wife, sometimes, when we’re having these moments together. – Brian Vaughn
CEDAR CITY — Brian Vaughn and Melinda Pfundstein had to pause for a moment on a recent morning as they calculated how many seasons they’ve been with the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
“It’s been so long, we’re forgetting how long we’ve been here,” Vaughn said.
“I think this is my 18th season,” Pfundstein said, checking her biography in the 2015 souvenir program to be sure.
“So this is my 22nd season,” said Vaughn, one of the festival’s two artistic directors.
Throughout their years with USF, the two have shared the stage in many productions, including playing a few lead roles opposite each other. This season, they’ve been brought together again under the direction of festival founder Fred Adams in William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” with Vaughn as Petruchio and Pfundstein as Katherine.
Many elements combine to mark this season as special: “The Taming of the Shrew” was among the productions performed during USF’s inaugural season in 1962, and Adams directed it then as well; it was also performed in the first season of using the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, which was completed in 1977 and will be closed at the end of this season; and Vaughn and Pfundstein, who credit Adams and the festival with helping bring them together, will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary on the closing night of the theater, Sept. 5.
Adams remembers first noticing Vaughn as “a talented 18-year-old” while Vaughn was performing as John Merrick in “The Elephant Man” at then-Southern Utah State College in 1990. Vaughn got his start at USF as a performer in the Greenshow while still a student at what is now Southern Utah University, then he worked as an intern actor, gradually working his way up the ranks within the acting company, he said.
Pfundstein’s path into theater was a little more roundabout. Her freshman year at SUU, she was a psychology major with a bit of acting experience from high school, and she auditioned for a role in a university production of “The Secret Garden” that Adams was directing. He was out of town during auditions but recalls what happened.
“Our costumer videotaped the auditions with all of the students,” Adams said. “She called me long distance, and she said, ‘Oh, Fred, I have found a girl here that is so unbelievable I can’t even begin to describe her, but wait until you see her tape!’ It was Melinda.”
When USF lost an ensemble woman for that summer’s production of “The Mikado” two weeks before the festival was to start in 1996, Pfundstein said, she was pulled onboard to fill the role.
“It was just like a whole new world, and I went back my sophomore year and changed my major and dove in,” she said.
Vaughn graduated from SUU before Pfundstein was a student there, so the first time he laid eyes on her was when he returned to host the Thunderbird Awards at SUU. Pfundstein had been nominated for performer of the year.
“And that was the first time,” Vaughn said. “I was like, ‘Who is that? Who is that beautiful lass over there?’ — ‘Lass,’” he added with a laugh. “I’ve never used that phrase before in my life.”
The two later met and began dating while performing together in a 2001 production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at USF.
“We dated for some time and then ended up getting married, and we both share similar interests and now have a family,” Vaughn said.
“In many ways, Fred is responsible for … our entire courtship, us being together,” Pfundstein said. “I never would have been a theater major had it not been for Fred.”
Though they’ve had starring roles opposite each other, it’s an exception rather than the rule, they said. And when they are sharing the stage, the parts and plots differ from their reality.
“He’s usually trying to kill me off,” Pfundstein said. “We haven’t played happy couples very often. We did ‘Winter’s Tale’ together …”
“That’s happy in the end,” Vaughn said.
“In the end,” Pfundstein agreed.
“And then we did ‘Cyrano (de Bergerac),’ but (our characters) didn’t end up together,” Vaughn said.
The two also played the baker and the baker’s wife in the 2014 season’s “Into the Woods.”
“It’s not something we seek out,” Vaughn said. “It just sort of comes as one of those things. Last season, Jeremy Mann, who directed ‘Into the Woods,’ he was really interested in having both of us in it, and same with Fred (Adams) in this; he just thought it would add another level, a layer there, to the characters and to the show.”
Vaughn added that he’s grateful to be able to occasionally play opposite his wife, particularly in “The Taming of the Shrew” because it’s a “tricky play.”
“Knowing that you have somebody that you trust exclusively from the get-go, that built-in trust that is already established, I think measures in volumes and is helpful,” he said.
The story revolves around a father named Baptista and his two daughters. Bianca, the younger sister, has two suitors vying for her hand, but her father won’t allow her to marry until someone first agrees to marry the older sister, Katherine. With her sharp tongue and hot temper, Katherine is regarded by all who know her as an unpleasant shrew, and it seems the daughters will never marry. Then Petruchio arrives on the scene and decides he will woo and marry “Kate.” But she resists, and he resorts to several unconventional methods in his efforts to “tame” her.
“I do think Petruchio goes too far in an attempt to try to get her to see differently of her own demeanor. … There are elements of Petruchio that I do not think I take on; I like to think that I don’t inhabit some of the braggadocio qualities of him,” Vaughn said.
“He’s never starved me,” Pfundstein said with a smile.
“But I think the true goal for (Petruchio) is to really show (Kate) how much he cares for her and loves her, not only for face value but also for this other side of her which is inside of her, her own strength,” Vaughn said.
Pfundstein said her relationship with Vaughn gives them both something special to draw from in creating the relationship between their characters.
“Our biggest tool as actors is ourselves and our experience and our own reference points,” she said. “So certainly the attraction is there already. … There are things he’ll do that I have a personal reference point for, so I have an immediate connection and response to those things that I might not if somebody else were playing Petruchio.”
By the end of the play, Kate appears to have been subdued. But the way she delivers her final speech carries a lot of weight in the overall theme and message of the production, and Pfundstein said her approach is one of truth rather than irony — truth that she’s learned in her relationship with Vaughn.
“I think the line in the last speech, ‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,’ I think that’s the point there, too, that this is one person who you’re allowed to let down your guard with, you’re allowed to let down those walls that protect you, your mask that you wear through the day to get you through the day,” Pfundstein said. “This is one person who, if it’s right, is the person you can let all of that go with.”
While their relationship informs part of their performance, Vaughn said, the play in turn reveals an important truth about relationships in general.
“Everybody has their own relationship that from the outside perspective might seem completely crazy and bonkers; but inside, the internal aspect to that relationship is a complete understanding and acceptance of one another,” he said. “One of my favorite lines is ‘If she and I be pleased, what’s that to you?’ That’s really the whole message of the play, the personal versus the public. And I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little gleam in my eye knowing that it’s my wife, sometimes, when we’re having these moments together.”