Because it is the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—where Smith claimed to see God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees in Palmyra, New York—many adherents to “Mormon” faith traditions are looking back and studying Joseph Smith’s early accounts and history. Whether one is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Community of Christ, or other offshoot groups like the Snufferites, those early accounts of Joseph Smith’s calling and ministry are vital texts for followers of these faith traditions. For Utah novelist and playwright Mahonri Stewart, however, understanding these historical documents and spiritual claims has not been just an anniversary reading, but a lifelong pursuit.
Stewart is chiefly known for his spiritually tinged plays, some of which have won awards and honors through associations like the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, the Association for Mormon Letters, and the Hale Centre Theatre. However, Stewart has also been working steadily over the decades in branching into other mediums for his writing and has a keen interest in becoming a novelist. He has written book length manuscripts since he was in high school and currently teaches English literature, so his appreciation for the artform is backed up by decades of studying fiction and non-fiction. His first published novel A New Age of Miracles is set to be published through his new venture Prospero Arts and Media. The novel, the first of a Mormon history themed series called A Society of Prophets, reflects on his life-long interest in Joseph Smith, his family, and those that surrounded them.
“The first time I fully read Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of the First Vision when I was 12, it was one of the most powerfully impactful spiritual experiences of my life,” Stewart said. “It created a strong urge in me to search out his life and claims ever since.”
Although Stewart’s spiritual search is expressly sincere, one should not go into his work expecting saccharine, propagandistic stories absent of conflict. His previous portrayals of religious history—such as his plays Friends of God and The Fading Flower Flower—have received both praise and criticism for their honesty and transparency in detailing the lives of religious figures whose lives were far from perfect. He has dealt with polygamy, religious authoritarianism, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and many other hot topic issues in his work. Yet, underneath that willingness to engage in the hard questions is the heart of a Christian believer who takes Joseph Smith’s claims seriously.
“Here’s the thing, I’ve upset some people with my plays and stories,” Stewart admitted. “Not purposely, not because I was trying to be firebrand. Quite the opposite, actually, this has all been part of a spiritual journey for me. Yet, I do deal with various aspects of history in my work that some people would prefer to leave buried. I can’t just ignore those stories, or put them on a shelf. I have an intense need to dig those stories up, examine their worth, and find their place in the narrative.”
A New Age of Miracles is no different. It covers the early years of Joseph Smith’s life, as well as that of his parents and family members. It deals with the Smith family’s treasure digging, use of seer stones, and other folk magic paraphernalia. But rather than seeing these as faith destroying stories, as some try and hype them to be, within them Stewart still find the spiritual and the human.
“I try to synthesize these stories of seer stones and treasure digging with the other accounts of the Smith family—that they were industrious, spiritual, powerful individuals seeking a relationship with God. These stories are not contradictions of those accounts, but outgrowths of them. Non-traditional and specific to the era that they are, these were signs of belief and searching for the Smiths. That seeking led to a whole independent religious movement that has since led followers from a number of different branches of Mormonism to point back at these early stories with fascination. These are powerful stories, and I want to tell them, not just bury them in the ground or tuck them away out of view.”
A New Age of Miracles is available to buy on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle formats, for $12 and $7, respectively. Many of Stewart’s plays are similarly available on Amazon through Prospero Arts and Media.
Cyrano, From Nowhere is a meaningful, metaphysical comedy, the classic story of Cyrano is turned on its... nose. With strong sci-fi elements, national award-winning playwright Mahonri Stewart and director Jarom Brown explore the classic story with new insight, humor, and romance, all while keeping the iconic love triangle of Cyrano, Roxanne, and Christian intact. Cyrano, the man with the big nose and the sharp tongue, seeks meaning and love in his life, but he does not go unchallenged or critiqued as a cyborg alien species and a jealous, nearly omnipotent being interrupt his search.
Jakob Smith Tice plays the lead role of Cyrano, the poetic swordsman with the gargantuan nose. Tice revels in both the classic aspects of the character as well as the science fiction spin, “I've never played a character quite like this before, nor do I think such an individual has been contrived for the stage. Cyrano is still a Renaissance Man, but in this version the setting is not exactly 17th Century France. The best way I can describe this version of Cyrano is that he is part Shakespeare, part Elephant Man, and part 'Q' from Star Trek.”
Stewart, whose plays have been performing on Utah stages for over 15 years, as well as performances through the United States and other countries, is particularly excited for the premiere of this play, “I wrote Cyrano, From Nowhere nearly a decade ago when I was getting my MFA in Arizona. The class assignment was to write some sort of adaptation, and my mind went to Cyrano, a character I have loved since I was young. But to adapt a play into another play meant that I had to bring a new spin to it, and it occurred to me that the historical Cyrano—who Edmund Rostand’s original play was based on—was an early science fiction writer. I wanted to combine my love for classical theatre and my geeky interests in science fiction, while still playing with the tension between Cyrano’s noble (some would say foolhardy and arrogant) sense of individualism that clashes with his ignored need for love and community.”
In considering a director, Stewart got his first pick for this project, Jarom Brown. “I’ve worked with Jarom on another project where I was the producer on another playwright’s script, and I was deeply impressed with his grasp of working with poetic works that played with classical themes and inclinations. With his sort of classical training, while still having a geek chic side that not only gets, but relishes my references to Star Trek and Doctor Who, Jarom is a perfect storm to lead this play.”
Cyrano, From Nowhere is produced by Prospero Arts and Media, and performs March 13, 14, 16, 20, and 21 at Third Space Studios, 247 West Center Street, Provo, UT at 7 pm. $15 general admission, $12 for students, teachers, military, and seniors. Further information will be on Prospero Arts and Media’s website: https://prosperoarts.weebly.com/
The play stars. Jakob Tice, Angela Cava Savage, Zachary Ballard, Cody Eckman, Rylee Rampton, Cierra Pugmire, and Garr Van Orden. Stage Managed by Gregory Rampton and Costume Designs by Mandy Lyons.
In 1593 the famous playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, a peer of Shakespeare’s, was reportedly murdered in a pub fight over payment of the bill—at least that’s what witnesses attested to in the British courts afterwards. Utah playwright Frances Smeath believes the evidence points to a much more complicated and dangerous scenario than the mere reckoning of a who was paying for the meal. In her play Shaking the Earth, which begins Friday, June 14, at Third Space Studios in Provo, UT, Smeath’s considerable research, intelligence, and writing skill is on full display as she explores the theory that one of England’s most accomplished playwrights was also a spy caught in a dangerous underworld that ultimately led to his death.
The theory, nor the play, is new. Shaking the Earth is a script that has been in Smeath’s repertoire for decades: "Shaking the Earth became the creative offspring of my graduate work in theater in the 1960s and 70s. While a close study of surviving documents reveals that Marlowe's death in 1593 is NOT yet a proven fact, I chose to treat his passing that year as factual because it allowed me to investigate a key theme in Elizabethan studies: that in the midst of a fiercely cruel, combative, dysfunctional and mostly uneducated society, Marlowe, Shakespeare and their associates blessed the world with poetry and drama as high, deep, broad and joyous in its creativity as any artistic effort yet made. It is this paradox that drives Kit to take his stand against those who only use genius for selfish ends, but have no vision of it themselves."
Thus, though the theory is one that has been in circulation for decades, Smeath’s take on it is unique, eloquent, and thematically rich. The play’s director, Jarom Brown, was impressed with the script when he was approached to direct the play. “Shaking the Earth is quite an accessible and intriguing script to work with,” Brown said. “The script’s addressing of politics, speech, conspiracy, and love in a time so long ago allows those who partake an opportunity to not only relate to these iconic figures, but glimpse some of today’s issues in a fresh light. I love it. This is a show for more than just fans of Marlowe’s work.”
Adam Argyle was cast as the play’s lead, and has relished the chance to take on such a meaty and important historical character. “Playing Marlowe has been a unique challenge,” Argyle said. “There is so much packed into this wonderful script as he goes from an ambitious, yet naive, student to world weary poet. I really like Jarom’s vision of minimalistic set and costumes to really showcase the depth of these characters, the talent of the actors and the beauty of the language. I am excited to have share in this great show.”
The play is being produced by the newly minted Prospero Arts and Media, a multimedia company that will delve into many facets of the arts—performance, publishing, film, etc. The company is headed by Mahonri Stewart, a producer, director, and playwright in his own right, but who wanted to showcase the work of other talented writers and theater artists. “I have been trying to produce Shaking the Earth for half a decade, but things kept getting in the way. For example, the space we were scheduled to perform in a couple of years ago literally had its roof cave in. But we had an obligation to do this script, we had a desire to do this script, and we weren’t going to stop until the play was accomplished. Fran’s powerful work needs wider exposure. This is an exciting, tense, powerful, Elizabethan thriller with a brain that has a talented director and cast attached to it.”
The play will perform at Third Space Studios, 247 Center Street, Provo, UT 84606 on June 14, 15, 17, 21, and 22 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students, military, and seniors. More information about ticketing, etc. can soon be found on www.prosperoarts.weebly.com.