The Utah Shakespearean Festival: Of Women Beastly and Swell Played by Leslie Brott

Friday, Jul. 13, 2007

CEDAR CITY — The arts and humanities have a lot to teach us about human nature, and this year’s Utah Shakespearean Festival (USF) is no exception. The six plays offered for the Tony Award-winning Festival’s 46th season present a variety of character studies. The summer season includes William Shakespeare’s "Coriolanus," "King Lear," and "Twelfth Night;" Thornton Wilder’s "The Matchmaker;" George Bernard Shaw’s "Candida;" and an exciting new play, "Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical," with book and lyrics by USF’s Peter Sham and Brad Carroll. The season is very strong. There’s not a bad play in the bunch. For the next three issues the Intermountain Catholic will offer comments on two plays each issue.

For actors working in repertory theater, presenting a number of plays in a given season, the challenge is creating two or more believable characters for plays on a rotating schedule. For actor Leslie Brott, currently in her 13th season with the Festival, Volumnia, the intense and driven mother of the lead character in Shakespeare’s "Coriolanus" is as different as night is from day from her other lead character, Mrs. Dolly Levi in "The Matchmaker." While Volumnia dominates and directs the lives of her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, Dolly Levi arranges things – marriages, dinner dates, and lives. "The Matchmaker" is a delightful piece by that master of American theater, Thornton Wilder, and is the play from which the musical "Hello, Dolly" sprung.

"The Matchmaker" or "Hello, Dolly" are often produced and enjoyed, while "Coriolanus" is Shakespeare’s least produced and almost never studied play. The last tragedy Shakespeare wrote, "Coriolanus" is also the bard’s bloodiest piece. Brott said she is not put off by Volumnia, who has few redeeming social values, few people in this script can be called "likeable" by anyone. Volumnia would have made a great general. In fact, as Brott said, "If she hadn’t been a woman, Volumnia wouldn’t have needed Coriolanus to obtain and use her power."

Levi, on the other hand, is sweet, though mischievous. Horace Vandergelder may think Dolly is looking for the perfect match for him, but in truth Dolly has found the perfect match for herself in Vandergelder. Brott was born to play the role of Dolly, and obviously enjoys it greatly. Her comic timing is exquisite.

In an interview with the Intermountain Catholic, Brott, a teacher of acting and script analysis on the Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees levels at Southern Methodist University in Texas, said she isn’t apt to ever confuse the lines for "The Matchmaker" with those of "Coriolanus."

"When you’re gearing up to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’" she said, "you’re not about to launch into ‘Long, Tall Sally.’"

"Coriolanus" is a compressed but accurate account of a true story, one Shakespeare shamelessly lifted a great deal of from Plutarch and others. With 22 actors portraying 78 different characters, this battle-filled script offers almost everyone in the cast at least one good death scene, except Brott. She’s manipulative and vindictive, and not one to lie down and die for anyone. Dolly, though, "is a happy transition," Brott said, "both of these women are good tests of my acting chops."

Even when working with two or three characters at a time, she said, "you honor whatever script you’re doing. You realize the playwright’s intentions, and you deliver the words with passion and conviction."

Volumnia, she said, presented her with a new acting challenge. "I have been frightened by the playwright’s intention with her. And for the first time, I haven’t known what to do with her during rehearsals. I’ve gotten a lot of assistance from our director, Henry Woronicz, a good friend with whom I’ve worked before, and from Jamie (James Newcomb, who plays Coriolanus). You see, on Shakespeare’s stage, every character has an agenda. Volumnia’s agenda is not humanity; it’s power. I started comparing Volumnia with other leaders who aren’t Elizabethan, like Winston Churchill, George Patton, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

Deep inside Volumnia, Brott said, is a fear of failure to which she can relate personally. "I can tell you the lines Shakespeare wrote for her are the absolute truth."

"Coriolanus" should be studied more and produced more often, she said. "It’s a very timely play. People will see a lot of similarities between ‘Coriolanus’ and what this country is going through now.

"The hero is not particularly likeable, the text is complex, and skilled actors are needed to carry ‘Coriolanus’ off. There are a lot of rhetorical traps, and many of the speeches run 20 and 30 lines long. The play demands a lead actor who has both charisma and stamina, and we have that in Jamie."

Good theater, Brott said, is the right marriage of director and actors that makes the ensemble piece just right. Volumnia, she said, has been her hardest acting test so far, "but she has been hugely satisfying to play."

Brott works with another friend and mentor, Director Roger DeLaurier on "The Matchmaker."

"I’m thrilled to be doing Dolly," she said. "Thornton Wilder’s texts are sacred for Americans, especially the humanity he’s placed all around us in ‘Our Town,’ ‘The Skin Of Our Teeth,’ and ‘The Matchmaker.’"

Dolly Levi, Brott said, urges the audience not to miss the small pleasures in life. "She not only wants to make life worth living for herself, but she wants to make life worth living for everyone around her."

Brott said she can relate to Levi on a deeper level. "As Americans we have so much," she said. "As a teacher, I am in a position to pass on some of what I have to others. Dolly encourages me to bring out happiness and make sure everyone has a little bit of it. She also goes out of her way to keep people from harm. She makes sure people have a meal, music, and laughter in their lives. I would like to be known for that, too."

A native of Paradise Calif., and a graduate with a Master’s of Fine Arts Degree from Pennsylvania State University, Brott said the people who produce and attend the plays at the Utah Shakespearean Festival make her want to come back.

"It’s very close to a family here," she said. "I like to come back any time there is a possibility of good roles for me. I like the complexity of the literature of Shakespeare and other playwrights, like Wilder.

In addition to a large number of Shakespearean characters like Gertrude in "Hamlet," nurse in "Romeo and Juliet," and Katherine in "Taming of the Shrew," Brott has also played Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion in Winter," Ida Bolton in "Morning’s At Seven," Martha in "Arsenic and Old Lace," Lily Miller in "Ah, Wilderness," and Ruth in "Blithe Spirit."

"While Volumnia is not me," Brott said, "we all know people like her who are driven; people like (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice, who is a diplomat, a trained concert pianist, and has been the provost of Stanford, University. She is so driven that she is the master of several things. Volumnia has a good grasp on several levels of what is going on in Rome. She understands military tactics. But she believe that her son’s wounds he’s gotten in battle are what validate him as a man. That is a psychology we often see in cases of nationalism.

Brott said she studied Heroditus and Plutarch in order to gain a better understanding of Volumnia and the world in which she lived.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival offers group ticket sales as well as discounts and package ticket deals. One night at the festival also offers you the Greenshow, morning literary and play seminars on the previous evening’s plays, and backstage tours. Purchase your tickets at their 24-hour live online ticket office, or give give them a call at 800-PLAYTIX. Both of these featured plays are well worth seeing.

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