SOUTH SALT LAKE — If the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City seems too far, too long and too complicated with kids, have no fear.
The 7th annual Shakespeare Festival for Kids and Adults With Short Attention Spans, put on by the Utah Children’s Theatre in South Salt Lake, starts Saturday, Aug. 18. It’s designed to help children — and anyone who struggles to sit through Shakespeare — better appreciate and understand the writer who many regard as the English language's greatest.
“The purpose of the festival, really, and the purpose of our theater is to train the young audiences now to grow up and become the audiences of tomorrow,” said James Parker, the theater’s executive director. “We definitely see ourselves as a catalyst for people to go and experience Shakespeare elsewhere.”
The centerpiece of the festival is an old Californian twist on Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night.” The play tells the story of Viola, who’s separated from her twin brother during a shipwreck and dresses up as a man named Cesario to work for Duke Orsino.
Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino, who’s in love with a local gentlewoman name Olivia, who’s in love with Cesario — who’s actually Viola. The original play takes place in Illyria, but the Utah Children Theatre’s version takes place in Southern California in the 1870s with Mexican and Spanish characters.
Duke Orsino will be like Zorro, said Joanne Parker, director of “Twelfth Night” and mother of the theater’s executive director. Malvolio, the steward of Olivia’s household, will be a bullfighter. And Sir Toby will don a mariachi hat as he loudly sings. Joanne Parker affectionately referred to Olivia as “señorita Olivia.”
“We’re going to celebrate the Hispanic culture,” Joanne Parker said. “The whole piece has a lighthearted spirit. It’s so lighthearted and pretty and fun and celebratory.”
The costumes, set, music and dancing will revolve around the historic California theme, but despite drastically changing the setting for “Twelfth Night,” the script will remain surprisingly loyal to Shakespeare’s work.
Although the festival’s claim to fame is Shakespeare for children, the text is never modernized or, as Joanne Parker put it, “dumbed down.” The versatility of Shakespeare’s play allows it to be adapted to several different settings without altering the text. To help children understand the plot despite the difficult script, actors rely on a lot of pantomime and strong storytelling skills.
The theater cut out some of plot for length (each condensed play runs about an hour and a half with an intermission halfway through) and will occasionally add lines for clarity. But even when they do, the writers try to use lines that are already part of the text.
“We work tremendously hard to keep it classical as well as understandable,” Joanne Parker said. “You take certain words and you clarify it, but you try really hard to keep as much as the poetry and the delightfulness of the plot moving with (Shakespeare’s) rhythms and his marvelous way of putting things poetically.”
In addition to "Twelfth Night," the festival also includes a puppet show with handmade marionette puppets and a waffle party. Although there's no age restriction on "Twelfth Night," the theater typically recommends it for children ages 4 and up.
The play’s authenticity is enhanced further by Utah Children’s Theatre's thrust stage. Just like the theaters in Shakespeare’s day, the theater’s seating forms a deep U close to the stage. The sets and theater tricks are minimal.
“When you get into a large theater, it can sometimes act like a screen,” James Parker said. “That’s one of the reasons we built our theater the way we did, where it’s very intimate, because (the children) can see the actor and they know the actor can see them. That dynamic just totally changes the way a child interacts with the story. Instead of being fed, they’re having to play an active part in watching.”
If you go …
What: Utah Children's Theatre's Shakespeare Festival for Kids and Adults With Short Attention Spans
When: Saturdays, Aug. 18-Sept. 29
Where: 3605 S. State, South Salt Lake
How much: $15 for "Twelfth Night"; $10 for the waffle party; $5 for the puppet show