We drove up to Cedar City, Utah over last weekend to catch a few plays at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Specifically, we saw The Merchant of Venice by some dead English guy; Big River, based upon That Book, Huckleberry Finn, music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman; and The Foreigner by Larry Shue. In that order. As I do occasionally, I’m offering my thoughts on the program.
First, the Shakespeare. Merchant is well written, and funny in parts, but I must have been very young when I read it because I forgot just how intense the anti-Semitic bigotry is in that play. Holy cats, Will, what’s up with that? I’d never seen it. Doubt if I’ll see it again.
The festival is doing the entire Shakespeare Canon, so they had to include it. I think, though, that they maybe felt a bit bad about that, because they also included a musical version of That Book, Huckleberry Finn, my favorite story. The musical sticks to the original plot amazingly faithfully. Huck was played by a tenor, Jim by a baritone, and the two actors worked well together, in song, and in action. Excellent choices. And, of course, That Book is one of the most vehemently anti-bigot works ever created. Bless you, Sam Clemons, for producing it in the first place.
But wait, that’s not all! The Foreigner is, first, hilarious. Both in dialogue and in action, including some top notch silent work between some of the actors. The man who plays Huck is in this play as well, in a prominent, but not title role. A major plot point (even comedies need one) involves defeating a contingent of the “invisible empire,” the Klu Klux Klan. Another swipe at bigotry here.
The other Shakespeare work playing last weekend was Othello. As I said, perhaps the festival was feeling a bit nervous about presenting The Merchant of Venice.
The writing in all of the plays is, of course, superb. I like watching well-written plays, because I think that the more top-notch material I absorb, the more nearly top-notch my own material will be. Hey, you can’t read ’em all; sometimes it’s good just to soak it up, you know?
And, if you haven’t guessed, these plays, particularly Big River, have reinforced my notion that some books are good, some are great (talking to you, Thomas Pynchon) and then there’s Huckleberry Finn. Hemmingway said that American literature began with that book, and that there has been nothing as good since. And who am I to argue with Ernest Hemmingway?