Exciting Surprises in 2018 Casting
Paul Michael Sandberg
Artistic Director Brian Vaughn has announced the first round of casting for the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 season—including an exciting surprise. Four talented female actors will be playing roles in The Merchant of Venice normally played by men: nationally-recognized actor Lisa Wolpe will be playing Shylock, long-time Festival favorite Leslie Brott will play Antonio, Festival alumnus Tracie Lane will play Tubal, and Southern Utah University student Isabella Abel-Suarez will play Launcelot Gobbo.
The popular play (this is its eighth production at the Festival) is being directed this year by Melinda Pfundstein, who pointed out that this idea is not new: all the female roles in Shakespeare’s day were played by men or boys. Also, many theatres today are casting across gender lines to examine the various ideas embedded within Shakespeare’s plays. She noted that the pronouns will not be changed and the costumes will be those of men. It will simply be women playing the roles of men. This “gender imaginative casting,” as she called it, is an opportunity to unlock the play by allowing a marginalized voice to play a marginalized role.
“Using this as an entry point for our production seems simply to be an extension of original practice,” said Pfundstein. “My experience and feeling is that, moments in, people will forget about gender. My hope is that it will simply unlock the play and imaginations of our audiences to hear, see, and consider with senses afresh.”
“Cross-gender casting . . . can create a unique and imaginative discourse,” said Wolpe. “It demands mastery in walking in the shoes of the ‘other,’ . . . thereby creating an opportunity to highlight and reinforce the things that connect us within our communities—empathy, resilience, kindness, shared humanity, and the healing power of love."
In addition to playing Shylock, Lisa Wolpe will appear as Bedford in Henry VI Part One. New to the Festival, she has appeared at numerous theatres, as well as co-starring on television in L.A. Law and A Year in the Life. Recognized across the country with numerous awards and accolades, she is the founder and was until recently the artistic director (1993–2017) of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.
“I hope you will allow your imagination to accept and believe the characters so you can become emotionally engaged with the story,” said Brott about this imaginative casting. “This season I’ll be playing the role of a wealthy merchant, with international business concerns, who is a good friend to his friend in need. The script uses male pronouns when referring to my character, so that’s what we’ll be using. And I’m going to wear clothes that men traditionally wear. But my real casting is as a friend doing something for his friend. The audience, if they need to apply a gender to the role, is invited to imagine me as a man or a woman or whatever works for them. But what I hope they’ll imagine is me as a friend.”
In addition to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, Leslie Brott will be appearing as Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Duke of Exeter in Henry VI Part One. Festival audiences will fondly remember her work last season as the Nurse in both Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in Love and as General Cartwright in Guys and Dolls. She has also appeared in a number of seasons since 1992 and is currently head of actor training at Utah State University.
“The Merchant of Venice is the centerpiece of our season that centers on the adverse effects of intolerance within our collective humanity,” said Vaughn. “By looking at Merchant through an intersectional lens, we are elevating its very current debate of social injustice and religious persecution, as well as highlighting the very prominent gender imbalance that exists within this play.”
Other cast members at this point include:
Isabella Abel-Suarez will appear as Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice. She is appearing at the Festival courtesy of the Southern Utah University Fellowship Program. At SUU she has performed in Rent, The Laramie Project, Heathers, and Assassins, as well as in Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Neil Simon Festival. She received the best actress award from SUU for her work in The Laramie Project.
In his debut year at the Festival, Kyle Bullock will play Salerio in The Merchant of Venice, Earl of Warwick in Henry VI Part One, and Nym in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He has appeared in Price and Prejudice, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor at The American Players Theatre, as well as understudying at the Goodman Theater.
Wayne Carr, who is new to the Festival, will play Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, the title role in Othello, and Alcippe in The Liar. Off-Broadway, he has appeared in Richard II at Pearl theatre and Funk It Up about Nothin’ at Joe’s Pub. His acting credits include extensive work in regional theatre (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Yale Rep, Guthrie, Folger Theatre, Seattle Rep, Goodman Theatre, American Players Theatre, etc.), as well as in television and film.
Michael Elich, who enjoyed his first year at the Festival in 2017 playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island, Jaques in As You Like It, and Burbage in Shakespeare in Love, will appear this year as Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice, Dr. Cauis in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Richard Plantagenet in Henry VI Part One. He has peformed extensively off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally.
Ty Fanning, who is new to the Festival this year, will appear as Solanio in The Merchant of Venice, Charles in Henry VI Part One, and Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He has appeared at American Players Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, Door Shakespeare Company, and several others.
Tarah Flanagan, also new to the Festival this year, will play Portia in The Merchant of Venice, as well as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Duke of Alanson and Edmund Mortimer in Henry VI Part One. She has performed across the country, including at The Mint and The Pearl off-Broadway. She is currently a company member and artistic associate at Great River Shakespeare Festival.
Josh Innerst will take on the roles of Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice, Pistol in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Earl of Suffolk and Earl of Salisbury in Henry VI Part One. Previously at the Festival he has appeared as Bardolph in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Martius in Titus Andronicus, Kent in Mary Stuart, and Tybalt and Friar Lawrence in the educational touring production of Romeo and Juliet.
Debuting at the Festival this year, Josh Jeffers will play Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice and Rev. David Marshall Lee in The Foreigner. He has performed in such diverse theatres as Public Theatre in New York City, the New York Classical Theatre, Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, Warehouse Theatre, Theatre South Carolina, and many others.
Geoffrey Kent has been both a fight director and actor at the Festival, and will be fulfilling those dual roles again this year. He will be appearing onstage as Prince of Arragon in The Merchant of Venice, Master Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Lord Talbot in Henry VI Part One. Last season he appeared as Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love, Billy Bones in Treasure Island, and Oliver in As You Like It.
Tracie Lane returns to the Festival to play Tubal and the Duke of Venice in The Merchant of Venice, as well as Joan de Pucelle in Henry VI Part One. She appeared at the Festival in 2014 under the name of Tracie Thomason as Gabriella in Boeing, Boeing and Mariana in Measure for Measure. She has also played in regional theatre across the country, including American Shakespeare Center, Houston Shakespeare Festival, and American Stage Theatre Company.
Betsy Mugavero is returning to the Festival this year to play Nerisa in The Merchant of Venice, as well as Desdemona in Othello and Clarice in The Liar. She received wide acclaim last year for her roles as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Viola in Shakespeare in Love and has played numerous other roles in past years. She is currently producing artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa, Arizona.
Paul Michael Sandberg will play various roles in The Merchant of Venice and Brabantio in Othello. Previously at the Festival he performed in the title role in Julius Caesar, Captain Smollet in Treasure Island, and Biff in Death of a Salesman, among others. He has acted at Huntington Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, and in many television series, including Chicago Hope, Seventh Heaven, Seinfeld, and NCIS.
Jamil Zraikat debuts at the Festival as Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice and Montano in Othello. He has also appeared at the Guild Hall of East Hampton, Westport Country Playhouse, and The Lost Colony. He has a B.A. in economics and political science from Bates College.
“This is an exciting group of actors in a controversially exciting play that promises to leave a lasting impression,” said Vaughn. “I can’t wait for our audiences to see these remarkable actors in action.”
In announcing these roles, Vaughn also noted that the season casting is nearly complete and other announcements will be coming quickly, “so watch our website for the latest news,” as well as in-depth bios and photos of all our acting company members.
Tickets are now on sale for the Festival’s fifty-seventh season, which will run from June 28 to October 13. In addition to The Merchant of Venice, the season will include The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Big River, The Foreigner, The Liar, and An Iliad*.* For more information and tickets visit www.bard.org or call 1-800-PLAYTIX.