We rolled into Cedar City, Utah, simply looking for a spot to overnight while exploring the surrounding desert landscape. What we found was a vibrant college town complete with Texas-topping barbeque and a production of Hamlet besting anything we experienced in twenty years of Manhattan Shakespeare productions. Pretty impressive for a city of just 29,000.
Located in the southwestern corner of Utah, Cedar City is sometimes called the Gateway to the Parks. From here you can reach Zion, Bryce, Great Basin, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Lake Powell and even the Grand Canyon all within a several hour scenic drive. But our purpose for coming was to visit Cedar Breaks National Monument, just 22 miles from the city’s center.
Relatively small by national park standards with just four designated hiking trails and a couple of turnouts on a six-mile scenic drive, Cedar Breaks still packs a powerful punch. From atop a cliff’s ledge 10,000 feet above sea level we gazed across seemingly endless miles of multicolored spires covering the floor of a natural desert amphitheater 2,500 feet deep. We’ve made a note to return in July when abundant wildflowers cover, and enhance, this already stunning scenery.
During our stay we discovered that national parks aren’t the only reason people come to Cedar City. It’s true that the town often serves as a gateway to other places, but it prides itself mostly on what people do within city limits: which is party – so to speak. With at least 16 large gatherings and celebrations in 2012 alone Cedar City has truly earned its reputation as Festival City.
Whether you enjoy traveling on foot or on mountain bikes; fast cars or indie films; bucking broncos or Renaissance fairs, Cedar City has a festival for you. For us, it was their Emmy Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival. From two different venues, one a beautifully modern theater once featured in Architecture Magazine and a second designed similar to London’s Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, the Festival runs several different performances each year from June through October.
We’ve been attending Shakespeare productions for at least the past two decades, mostly at Manhattan’s Shakespeare in the Park, a venue that often draws big-name casts. We’ve seen Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Patrick Stewart, Liev Schreiber, Ian McKellen, and others in various roles over the years. And yet I can’t remember a better production or performance than the one we watched in Cedar City.
That the Utah Shakespeare Festival won me over was no small feat. I admit to starting the night with a bit of a bad attitude. We arrived in town during the production of Hamlet which, despite its critical acclaim and litany of clichéd quotes (“Brevity is the soul of wit,” “To thine own self be true,” “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it,” “Conscience doth make cowards of us all,” “The lady doth protest too much,” “Goodnight sweet prince,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” . . . ), it is not my favorite play.
I prefer my tragic protagonists to be made of sterner stuff than the vacillating Hamlet whose signature soliloquy “to be, or not to be” contemplates the merits of suicide. I simply have trouble empathizing with a lead character who is uncertain whether his own death is preferable to facing down his murderous stepfather. Swap Macbeth for Hamlet and we’d witness the villainous Claudius “unseamed from nape to nave” before the close of the first act; making for a far shorter and, in my opinion, far better play.
But who am I to question The Bard? And so I went.
The first sign of good news was the absence from this production of the period costumes and cod pieces so often associated with Shakespeare. Good riddance. This isn’t the first production to place Shakespearian characters in a more modern setting, but such directorial decisions are almost always an improvement.
More importantly, the director and actor somehow masterfully threaded a difficult needle with the title character. Too often Hamlet is cast as either a whimpering weakling wrestling with the unfairness of his “outrageous fortune” or a basket-case completely unwound by the same forces. Neither character, nor any of the variations in between, are ever ones I’m happy to spend three hours with. Director Marco Barricelli, meanwhile, offered us a Hamlet that is stronger and less brooding, more fed-up than melancholy, a bit unbalanced but not completely unhinged. Unlike any Hamlet I’ve seen, this version was not only powerful but engaging enough to keep the audience interested for the duration of the play. Incredibly well done.
If this one production is any guide to the quality the Utah Shakespeare Festival offers generally, we’d say save New York for big-name stargazing and head to Cedar City for out-out-of-this-world performances. Spend the day, as we did, exploring natures’ wonders in our fabulous national parks, but for a real treat take Hamlet at his word: the play is most definitely the thing.