CEDAR CITY — I love the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I’ve become a big fan over the last few years, beginning when I was a young stay-at-home mom with little kids at home and only one car who carefully scrimped and saved in order to splurge on a single day of wonderful theatre per year. But amidst all the love for Shakespeare and the Festival, I never gave a thought to the Southern Utah University College of Performing and Visual Arts. For that, I was very remiss.

Amber James as Hermia, Trevor Messenger as Lysander, Nik Mikklesen as Demetrius, and Halie Merril as Helena. Show closed October 10, 2014.

Amber James as Hermia, Trevor Messenger as Lysander, Nik Mikklesen as Demetrius, and Halie Merril as Helena. Show closed October 10, 2014.

I had the opportunity to attend their fall production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this past weekend, and I found it completely delightful. The familiar story, weaving three plotlines together and nimbly leading two sets of young lovers, a band of would-be actors, and a fairy king and queen in the midst of a marital spat, hasn’t changed in the 400-plus years since the Bard first penned the oft-quoted lines. Director Nathan Smith puts a fresh spin on it, however, by setting the story in the Northern Arizona desert frontier in the mid-1850’s. This interpretation works surprisingly well, and I felt it translated easily to the pioneer-era mentality and sensibility.

The set design by Brian Jude Beacom evoked the red cliffs and frontier fort of a desert wilderness. Costumes by Erica Anderson easily identified each class of characters, from the rude mechanicals (cowhands on a break from a cattle drive), to young lovers (Halie Merrill’s interpretation of Helena as a spinsterish schoolmarm was particularly inspired), and Theseus and Hippolyta as the local gentry and his Hispanic fiancée. Although Merrill’s devotion to Lysander (Trevor Messenger) was well-played, his sleek mustache evoked a mental image of the character porn-stache from Orange is the New Black, which made it a little difficult to sympathize with him at times. If that was the intention of the make-up designer, it was a brilliant stroke.

The characters of the fairy realm borrowed heavily from Native American culture. Puck (Sceri Ivers) was exquisite as the mischievous coyote. Oberon (Luke Johnson) looked a little like Johnny Depp’s Tonto from The Lone Ranger, but the furs and fringe and face paint worked established his comanding persona well. Titania (Selena Price) and her fairy court were bedecked with feathers and furs and face paints, representing, as far as I could tell, the various flora and fauna of the southwest. Unfortunately, they looked a little like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan at first.

The music composed by Christine Frezza served, like the costumes, to differentiate the characters. The choice to set two of Shakespeare’s songs to the familiar melodies of “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was also very funny, while the subtle drum beats of the fairy music kept me subconsciously aware that the Fairies operated in a different realm than the mortals. The choreography by Beth Snarr was hit-or-miss. Some dances worked very well (the song at bedtime), while others felt out of place and distracting (Oberon and Titania’s dance when they reconcile), but I appreciated the idea behind it.

With all the effort expended to create beautiful stage pictures, it might be understandable if other elements of the production might be found lacking, but that was not the case. In fact, the most prominent elements of this production was the phenomenal physicality in blocking almost every scene, and the strongly and the clearly developed relationships between all the characters onstage. Smith did a masterful job navigating his characters through three interweaving plots, yet keeping everyone clearly defined for the audience, and so very charming and hysterically funny to boot! Every scene with the rude mechanicals was hilarious. Poor Alec Greig as the beleaguered Peter Quince was so familiarly exasperated trying to control and motivate his amateur actors—lead by the intrepid Nick Bottom (Alec TerBerg) who was determined to play every role himself. Yet, Bottom was so charming that I almost wanted to let him do it just to see what he’d come up with. And a special shout-out goes to Justin Stockett as Snug the Joiner, who took a fairly small side character and made him so endearing and guileless that I found myself watching him closely whenever he was onstage.

The two sets of lovers played their scenes with polish and panache. The blocking was creative and the story arcs marvelously drawn. Kudos again to their director and the actors for working together so well to create excellent theatre. All their scenes were well done, but the fight scene between Helena and Hermia and the two men who are determined to outwit one another was especially delicious and so fun to watch.

If there was one thing that perhaps didn’t quite measure up to the rest of the production, it might be Oberon and Titania. Oberon was occasionally hard to hear, his lines felt rushed at times, and he came off as a bit pouty and whiney. Titania was least convincing when she was “enamored of an ass,” and in general I didn’t believe there was much love lost between her and Oberon to begin with. But I feel slightly petty even mentioning this point. The entire production was truly so well done that it was not out of place at all among the professional offerings performing across the street.

If this production was any indication of the quality of their theatre program, Southern Utah University is well suited as the host of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. In the future, I will make an effort to go see more of their offerings, rather than brushing them aside solely in favor of the Festival’s productions.

The Southern Utah University production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream closed on October 10, 2014. For more information about productions in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, visit http://suu.edu/pva/ta/current-season.html.