PROVO — The Jester, a new play by “Eugene Shackspeare” and produced by Corral de la Cruz Theatre, is billed as a tragicomedy in the vein of “Noises Off! meets A Doll’s House.” Invoking the names of one of the greatest farces of the twentieth century and a masterpiece of nineteenth century realism raises some high expectations. Unfortunately, this attempt to meld such divergent styles falls short of the mark.
Corral de la Cruz has chosen to stage its new work in open air Canyon Glen Park amphitheater, perhaps as a nod to the outside courtyard performance spaces from which the troupe draws its name. The venue is very much like a tiny version of the famed Sundance Summer Theatre, but lower down the mountain and easier to reach. It is an excellent fit for the small size of the production, though there is a drawback. The amphitheater is part of a larger public park, which means the show has to compete with the nearby ambient noise. On the night my husband and I attended, not only were there many families loudly enjoying a pleasant evening picnic, but there was also some sort of event featuring drumming and chanting that almost drowned the actors out during the periods of more realistic acting. It did not help that director Alex Glover placed a lot of the action too far upstage.
The plot of The Jester revolves around the problems of a young married couple, the Jester himself (played by Bryson Smellie) and Petunia (played by Claire Eyestone). The Jester is a cheerfully down-on-his-luck performer who longs to grow beyond his comedic limitations and stage the great dramatic story in “realistic” style he has been working on. Petunia is tired of working at The Luckie Pint pub to support the two of them. She has a dream of running her own restaurant and would like more attention from her husband. Both of them have to work around drunken friend Levanther (played by Meg Flinders with a braid glued to her chin for a beard). All three of them must placate pub owner Helga (played by Sydney Southwick), who for some reason wants to fire hard-working Petunia. The acting in these more serious scenes was usually believable.
Inexplicably, The Jester sets these present day problems in an indefinite medieval time. All the action takes place in the pub. The set was well furnished with tables and a bar and accouterments suggesting an old inn (created by set designer Elisabeth Goulding), the costumes are fairly plain Renaissance faire lower class garb (no costumer listed), realistic enough to evoke the era. The language, though, was all modern, which usually works as a stage convention – one just suspends disbelief and pretends the actors are using period verbage. But words such as “OK” and “restaurant” and anachronistic gestures such as zipping a mouth shut kept the dialogue firmly in the present. I couldn’t tell if this crossing of time periods was a statement on the universality of human troubles or just an oversight. And why does Helga deliver her lines in a “Russian” accent?
In contrast to the drama of real life stresses, the Jester’s attempts to stage his epic at the pub to raise money go badly when Petunia refuses to participate, and Levanther can’t remember the plot—let alone his lines. This situation is presumably the farcical element of The Jester, but few of the gags were actually humorous. The script wasn’t the biggest problem; with Flinders being somewhat of an exception, the actors did not seem to have any sense of comic timing. The result was that the play seemed heavy and slow. And then . . . it ended. Abruptly. After about a mere 45 minutes. The whole experience left me feeling like I was witnessing a college theater workshop, not a professional production.
Corral de la Cruz Theatre is a young, tiny troupe with ambitions. Its Facebook page says their goal is to stage new works and bring theatre into a new “Golden Age.” Hopefully they will keep working towards that aim, but they have a long way to go.
Note: Canyon Glen Park is located a few miles into Provo Canyon on the north side of the highway. The amphitheater is east of the parking lot a little ways along a paved trail. There are no official park signs. We knew which direction to go because we had looked up an aerial view online but it was reassuring to see a small arrow sign part way up the path. The amphitheater was an obstacle to us, as the old concrete steps into the seating area are steep, decayed and difficult to negotiate. Thankfully the benches are in better shape, as the troupe itself has put a lot of effort into refurbishing and painting them.