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A scene from The Tavern.

By Kelli Allred, Ph.D.

A scene from The Tavern.

I first attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1973, as an undergraduate in theatre education. Since then I have enjoyed every trip to Southern Utah and found every season of Shakespeare in Cedar City to be full of wonderful productions. The first decades of the Festival—the ’60s through the ’80s—were filled with thrilling productions of Shakespeare’s plays. By the ’90s when the Festival leaders decided to produce plays by other masterful playwrights, the Festival welcomed a new kind of audience that would know no borders or age limits. This summer my grandchildren will attend the plays with me for the first time. I can hardly wait! The Tavern will delight families, so I’m bringing the kids along for this one. Although it was not written with children in mind, it is family-friendly and promises to entertain audiences of all ages, from all places.

Nearly one hundred years ago, The Tavern opened in Atlantic City, with George M. Cohan playing the main character, which he would continue to play for the next twenty years. George M. Cohan was an American icon who may be best remembered for his patriotic compositions “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for which he was presented a Congressional Gold Medal in 1936. But Cohan wrote more than fifty plays, including The Tavern—an adaptation of Cora Dick Gantt’s first play The Choice of a Super-Man.

The Tavern was Cohan’s favorite play, and he revived it many times, often portraying the Vagabond himself.  “I can write better plays than any living dancer and dance better than any living playwright,” said Cohan. He was adept at taking old-fashioned melodramas, burlesquing them, and transforming them into hilarious comedies, as he did with The Tavern. In 1940 he wrote a sequel, The Return of the Vagabond, extending the theatrical popularity of the Vagabond character and Cohan himself.

The play is set in a tavern, which is merely a farmhouse with rudimentary quarters for paying guests and a barn that shelters livestock and indigents. On a stormy night, a mysterious wanderer insinuates himself into a small group of tavern guests. Over the course of the evening, violence ensues and each of the characters takes a turn at being suspected by the others. The play takes place at night, when The Tavern is dimly lit and the main character, known only as the Vagabond, casts ominous shadows with the help of a lone fireplace, a single lantern, and a persistent lightning storm. The absence of light in the opening scene may represent the ignorance and uncertainty of the townspeople.

The cast of characters includes four roles for women (which allowed Cohan to cast his wife, his sister, and eventually his daughter and take them on the road for extended runs of the play!) and a dozen men.

Other important “characters” are represented by The Elements: thunder, lightning, wind, and rain. Their ubiquitous disturbances (a.k.a. “the storm”) serve to editorialize and underscore the dialogue, not unlike a Greek chorus. The Elements also serve to remind viewers that life in the untamed West was perilous and no respecter of persons.

Adaptor and director Joseph Hanreddy’s stage directions push the story forward, demanding that the behind-the-scenes stage crew be on point every second: “A sudden sharp lightning flash and split of thunder, followed by a rumble that reverberates for a while. The Elements rage a bit. . . . The Cat heard from earlier is blown into the window. It SCREECHES and CLAWS at the window before being blown off into oblivion…The Women scream, and the Vagabond enters onto the upper landing. . . . The intensity of the fire is reflected off Violet, making her gestures look like shadow puppets.”

While this play might be a hybrid of television’s Bonanza and The Wild, Wild West, the Vagabond himself is a mixture of the charmingly handsome “Little Joe” Cartwright and the suave, debonair James West. The Vagabond brings adventure, romance, and artistic perspective to act 1. The innkeeper calls him “a man ’a mystery” and a “smooth talkin’ brandy-beggar.” Others refer to him as “a cheat, a con artist, a fake.” He is certainly a practiced flatterer and a hopeless romantic who loves to sing. The Vagabond breaks the fourth wall to confide in the audience that he has always wanted to be the hero in a play. He begins that quest by schmoozing Sally, the hired help. “You’re a good judge of character, Sally. Beneath this shabby exterior can you see a trace of something unmistakably refined and genteel?” to which the unrefined Sally replies, “I don’t give a skunk’s fart how genteel ya are!”

In act 2, the mysterious Vagabond becomes a sort of surrogate director/playwright/theatre critic. “I occupy a most unique position—that of not having been cast for a part in the great world drama of life.” He also refers to himself as “a lonely, solitary spectator, sitting back, looking on and laughing.” The Vagabond is a character who brings to the play a delightful and subtle burlesque romanticism. As act 2 draws to its close, the play reaches its climax. Poor Wile Ed Coats implores the others to stop screaming, stop shooting, and stop making so much noise. “Please God, make it quiet ag’in.” Some sound-sensitive audience members may be praying silently for the same! But the audience’s laughter will fill the few, albeit intentional, silences during the production.

Joseph Hanreddy adapted this production of The Tavern from the highly successful play by George M. Cohan (1920). Hanreddy is known for his adaptations of time-tested plays, including Pride and Prejudice. He served as artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater (1993–2010), spearheading over fifty new American plays, translations, and adaptations. He has worked closely with the major Shakespeare festivals in Oregon, Idaho, Great Lakes, and Utah. There will be no shortage of highs and lows, stops and starts, or surprises from this production —Hanreddy has made sure of that! His adaptation includes setting the story in southern Utah, referencing Fort Harmony and Panguitch on the geographic trail to Salt Lake City.

“I first adapted and directed The Tavern, at the Milwaukee Rep, and the production was as much pure fun as I’ve had in the theatre,” said Hanreddy. “We [originally] set the adaptation of George M. Cohan’s melodrama/farce in rural Wisconsin and Cohan’s characters and dialogue were adjusted to fit the sound . . . that our audience embraced and identified with. I’ve set the new script in the early days of the Utah Territory and found some new inspirations” for the Festival 2017 production: an Old West pulp fiction novel; the physical antics of a Buster Keaton or Keystone Cops film; and a hefty peppering of Shakespeare’s language, spoken by the main character.  Hanreddy’s chief goal in adapting The Tavern was “to create a joyous comic romp that audiences will find inventive, visually exciting, and uproariously funny!”

So, purchase tickets early and bring the entire family to see this classic of Americana that is guaranteed to please audiences!

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