By SUZI STEFFEN
Theater, from the audience side, often feels like a beautiful dream. You go in, the lights go down, and if all goes well, you’re captivated for somewhere between 90 minutes and at a stretch, four hours. That’s one of the usual experiences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where – in completely undreamlike ways – teams of experts at sound, light, video, costumes, timing, action and words nudge up against one another to bring the world in the play to life.
When the season opens with one of Shakespeare’s gender-bending romantic comedies, that creation of magic is, quite practically, a demand, and this season, Twelfth Night mostly hits its magic mark. But theatrical magic isn’t confined to the Shakespeare play in the four shows that opened this year’s festival, three of which take British literary heritage and spin it into a distinct product of the United States. The final show is also invested in heritage and magic, a poetic dream, or perhaps nightmare, by way of Latin America.
Of the four plays that opened in late February, only one seemed fully ready to go opening weekend. That one is also the one that has the shortest run: The River Bride, by poet Marisela Treviño Orta and directed by Laurie Woolery, which ends on July 7. The others needed more time in the rehearsal oven for various reasons. It’s probable that by the time you, dear reader, buy tickets, the plays will have taken a more final form.
Let’s begin with Twelfth Night (in the Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 30), as opening weekend did. Twelfth Night is a wild, woolly comedy, meant to entertain Queen Elizabeth and her court at Christmas, though there are exactly zero Christmas references in it. You can argue (fairly) that 1999’s Shakespeare in Love* doesn’t merit its Best Picture win at the Oscars, but one thing that movie did well, perhaps more subtly than I thought at the time, was introducing Twelfth Night.
The themes of Twelfth Night are woven throughout Shakespeare in Love, even though it’s nominally about Romeo and Juliet: gender-bending costume or crossdressing, identity reinvention, loss, grief, the status of servants and the nature of love in the middle of a big political mess. Twelfth Night is not just a comedy; it’s all about characters who have lost parents, lost siblings, lost their love, lost their very identities. More pleasantly, it’s about the various genders that humans embody, whether that be shown in this production via Olivia’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous femme costumes or Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s way with a vase of lilies or the bearish Duke Orsino’s attraction to young Cesario.
No matter the version I’ve seen (including, one memorable time, a Eugene Waldorf School eighth grade production), some parts of Twelfth Night encompass moments wherein an audience of hundreds of people becomes perfectly quiet and focused. In OSF’s 2010 version, some of that perfection arrived in the form of Michael Elich’s Feste performing music outdoors under the stars on the stage of the Elizabethan Theatre. After all, Twelfth Night begins with the Duke saying, “If music be the food of love, play on” – and music takes center stage in many productions, as it does in this case with pianist Ron Ochs as musician Fabian providing both incidental and specific music for the full length of the play.
Another constant Shakespeare theme is fools, as in, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” Twelfth Night, from first to last, is fools all the way down. There’s Feste, of course, the actual jester/fool, played in this version by Rodney Gardiner, who was so compelling in last year’s Guys and Dolls. Gardiner’s Feste is fed up, existing in a class space slightly outside the action. He participates in the hijinks of the well-born but doesn’t love anyone involved, really, except perhaps his employer, the lady Olivia (Gina Daniels).
Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, makes himself a fool for love, and Ted Deasy makes his Malvolio a figure so starched, so uptight, so pathologically invested in propriety that his servant-status downfall at the hands of the drunken in-group rich friends feels like the attempted destruction of someone who should rather have empathy and, perhaps, medication.
Those rich friends, fools all, are Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, his friend – and, as a foil to Malvolio, the joyous joker Maria, whom Sir Toby loves. As played by the superb Dan Parker (Nicely Nicely Johnson in last year’s Guys and Dolls), Sir Toby is a W.C. Fields-ish funny guy, always drinking, always inciting others to drink and to do other foolish things in order to amuse himself. Sir Toby’s alcoholism is funny at times, and leads to several charming moments with the 1930s set, but it’s also alarming and sad, something his niece (who has recently lost her father and brother) watches with near-terror. Hasn’t she lost enough?
But Olivia’s also a fool. She’s spurning Duke Orsino (who’s a fool for expecting a bereaved woman to fall at his feet). Orsino himself (played by Elijah Alexander) hires someone he thinks is a young man – Cesario, who is really Viola (Sara Bruner), recently shipwrecked and mourning the death of her twin brother, Sebastian. Olivia is blinded by Cesario’s seeming innocence and sweetness, his flashy words and his willingness to meet her on her own ground. That’s of course because under the boy’s costume, Viola is also high-born, a lady in her own right, who’s playing a servant for something to occupy her time while she figures out what to do after the shipwreck.
Aguecheek (Danforth Comins) is a lightweight, a silly noble who desires Olivia but is no match for her in intellect or status. Comins plays Hamlet later this season, and this amusing role is a nice foil to the tortured Dane. His running gag martini glass is one of the small details that make this production fun. Kate Mulligan, who plays Maria (Mar-EYE-uh, Americans), can also switch between drama and comedy and is quite good in concert with Parker’s Sir Toby, though sometimes she’s left speaking to the rear of the stage, where her words get swallowed in the cavernous space.
Despite the fools, the play is about so much more. Director Christopher Liam Moore, who played Malvolio in the 2010 Twelfth Night, wanted to emphasize that many of the characters’ choices were based on the fallout of their losses. Sara Bruner, who played Sue in last year’s Fingersmith and Charles Wallace in 2014’s A Wrinkle in Time, plays not only Viola/Cesario but also Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian. One of the fascinations of the play is watching Bruner make different physical choices when she’s playing a woman dressed as and pretending to be a man compared to when she’s playing a character who is male. Her body language is different. Viola protects her chest and draws away from Olivia. Sebastian is a man-spreader, his legs wide when he lolls, but he’s alert and up for any fight or, um, other physical exertion beginning with the letter f.
We learned during opening weekend that the actors of Twelfth Night have a fight call before every production; that is, once the stagehands have moved off whatever other set was up and locked the set into place (and swept, mopped, touched up, fixed any problems, etc.), Bruner and Comins and the other actors run through a fight scene between two very reluctant swordspeople – Cesario and Aguecheek. This fight between Cesario and Aguecheek is the best fight scene perhaps ever on stage at OSF. It’s a master class in how to juggle various elements of stagecraft. Chris DuVal, the fight choreographer, takes Bruner and Comins and puts them through a near-circus act, piling more and more ridiculous props into the hapless fighters’ hands as Maria, Sir Toby, and Feste comment and throw helpful items from the sidelines.
But the play swings back to serious in the end. In the final scenes, a technological fix that might be familiar to fans of Orphan Black (yes, there were body doubles involved) partly deals with the issue of Bruner playing both Viola and Sebastian. Shout-out to Bruner but also the stage manager calling this part of the play; the tight timeline is truly a marvel to behold. That said, the effect itself doesn’t work well emotionally in a vital scene. What works better is the last moment with Orsino, Viola/Sebastian, and Olivia. That’s a scene – through Viola’s line about her clothing, and what happens to Bruner’s costume – which, in this production, emphasizes some ways that gender and sexuality can be flexible. Then, if they weren’t already, the audience thinks about how Olivia’s outfits are as much a prop as Cesario’s, how Orsino’s hairy masculinity is as much a construction as Aguecheek’s sleek Gatsby look.
Gina Daniels performs a finely etched Olivia, whose hauteur doesn’t mask her grief or her desire. For costume fans, everything she wears will delight. But there’s genius to one extended, stunning dress-fitting scene that reveals Olivia’s waves of emotion contained neatly in a hyperfeminine form of gender-conforming drag. Costume designer Susan Tsu clearly had a free hand for Daniels, and the brilliant costume shop produced award-worthy pieces.
Then there’s the finale. I don’t mean the final scene of the spoken play, but a tap-dancing, umbrella-twirling, all-out glittery song and dance routine that is perfectly excessive, and perfectly within the tradition of Twelfth Night, not to mention this production’s 1930s Hollywood setting. I’m not sure how the actors, especially Bruner, can possibly have anything left for this piece, but they do – and it’s wonderful. Even an uneven Twelfth Night produces moments of beauty and a lifetime of thought about gender, drag, costumes, class, love and more, and this one is both uneven and glorious.
The Yeomen of the Guard
The next play was one whose invitation made me shiver – not because it was spooky or because it was long, but because everyone was asked to say whether we wanted seats onstage for “promenade seating” or offstage in the regular Thomas Theatre seats. I picked watching rather than participating. About half of the people I knew in the audience were with me up in the seats, but several adventurous sorts decided to sit in the thick of the action of this heavily adapted and reworked The Yeomen of the Guard (Gilbert & Sullivan).
This production – perhaps because of director Sean Graney’s attitude; he mentioned several times that he wasn’t into “perfectionism” – was the least finished of all the opening shows. But it was also the most interesting in terms of engaging a willing audience in a form of theater that doesn’t demand its audience members be robots. Yeomen also closes October 30, at the Thomas (formerly New) Theatre.
Graney’s reinterpreted Western U.S.-set Yeomen, in its 85 (or so) minute length, has to do a lot of work. One of the things its director most wants it to do, he said, is to acknowledge that the audience members are also humans sitting in a room watching humans. That means a very un-OSF-like flexibility. Audience members can lengthen the time they’re with the actors, the set and the musicians by arriving half an hour before curtain time and grabbing a drink (alcoholic or not) from the onstage bar, singing Johnny Cash songs with the strolling actors, playing pool onstage – also with the actors and other audience members – or riding the rocking horses. (Should you purchase a drink, be sure to generously tip the concessions folks, who, unlike the actors onstage, are not earning Equity wages.)
If you need more drinks during the no-intermission show, no problem: The bar is open the entire show. And if you need to nip out to use the restroom, not a problem; the stage ops folks will help you pop back in at the appropriate time. You can clap along to the country & western-rearranged songs, and if you have one of the promenade tickets, you can flow from floor to set piece to floor again as the actors move around you and, often, move you. That’s exactly what people did during opening. Assistant stage manager Molly Norris and two stage ops workers heroically perform the onstage management of audience members, listening to info on their headsets and keeping everyone safe.
In this complex setting, where they’re responsible for not killing audience members on stage or themselves by tripping over the 75 people lining the set, the actors have a multitude of responsibilities. They must perform with half-blithe ignorance of the audience beneath their feet or with a wink and a nudge, often a literal nudge, all while staying in character as slightly ridiculous members of a prison town or traveling bard entertainers.
The actors learned 20 different instruments, and they’re ably supported by two onstage musicians, Michael Caruso and Jesse Baldwin. Kate Hurster, the charming Sarah in last year’s Guys and Dolls, is Elsie, one member of that traveling bard group, and her musical partner is Leah Anderson (last year’s Hero in Much Ado About Nothing) as Jan Point. Both of these women, and the excellent Britney Simpson in two roles, propel this tottering froth of a Gilbert & Sullivan plot along while bringing deeper emotion to the brightly colored confection. Kudos also to the guys – Jeremy Peter Johnson, who was also paired with Hurster in Guys and Dolls, as Fairfax; Michael Sharon, as Shadbolt; and the clarinet-playing Joseph Anthony Foranda as Major Meryl – who perform their ridiculous characters with aplomb.
What’s stuck with me – other than the persistent earworm of “I have a song to sing-o,” which I’ve listened to, in its Peter, Paul & Mary cover version, approximately a hundred thousand times since the performance – is the melancholy end of the play. Only a few people get what they truly want; the others settle for whatever they can get, stuck in a town where the main employment is being a prison guard. Benjamin’s Jan Point seems to have the saddest fate, but in her future, there’s hope outside of the story contained in the slice of time we see.
We must also hope for a continued, perhaps better, story for the characters of the third British/U.S. mashup, Great Expectations (in the Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 30).
This play – adaptation by Linda Alper and Penny Metropulos, who have written and adapted several pieces for the festival – is the story of Pip’s self, how he develops into the person he is at the end of the book/play. That’s hard but not impossible to convey onstage, where only the first few rows of audience members can see every movement of a character’s face. Instead, characters who aren’t Pip narrate the action and Pip’s feelings for much of the play, until he matures and begins to take responsibility for himself and his actions midway through Act II.
Confession: I had never read Great Expectations before seeing it on stage this year. My impression of the book had been that it was about a boy named Pip, and that there was Miss Havisham, an old woman still in her decades-old wedding dress with her decades-old wedding feast and house crumbling around her. Indeed, when I asked my friends on social media if they’d read it and what they remembered, everyone who had read it mentioned Pip’s name, and 95 percent talked about Miss Havisham and the decaying house.
The rest remembered the creepy escaped convict who finds young Pip on the marshes. Magwitch, played in Ashland by Derrick Lee Weeden, is a powerful but broken man, looking for some kind of justice and scaring young Pip (sixth grader Bodhi Johnson, who plays a younger boy convincingly) half to death. Indeed, Alper and Metropulos have Pip himself note later in the play, this experience shapes Pip’s life to an extent that the desperate Magwitch could hardly have expected.
Many cast members – Weeden included – serve as narrators, who stand to the side and, dressed in glorious fitted Victorian long green coats trimmed with beautiful fake fur collars and cuffs, speak as one or in turn. This gives the audience some distance from the action onstage and helps contextualize Pip’s tale. As in any good Victorian novel, action there is aplenty, along with the expected (and delivered) indelible Dickens characters.
Despite this, the play is deliberately paced. Though in certain aspects it’s similar to last year’s smash hit Fingersmith (a late 20th century novel written as a Victorian thriller), it spools out too slowly to sustain the audience’s attention. That’s no knock on the skilled, strong cast, including Al Espinosa as Joe Gargery, the blacksmith who is also Pip’s guardian and friend; Judith-Marie Bergan as a tremendous, sympathetic, traumatized and traumatizing Miss Havisham; Michael Elich as the exacting, secretive Mr. Jaggers; and Richard Howard as the kind, clearly divided Wemmick.
Benjamin Bonenfant shows Pip’s various transformations, from a blacksmith’s apprentice who loves a young lady to a fine, wealthy young gentleman who loves the same young lady, and eventually to a chastened adult who survives harsh adventures in water and fire and who eventually finds his way to some sort of contentment, while still loving the no-longer-so-young lady. That young lady whom he loves is Estella, played with finely tuned emotional lines by Flora Chavez as child Estella and Nemuna Ceesay. Ceesay is wonderful at conveying Estella’s coldness with her underlying need. Dickens was good at orphans and the dreadful costs they bore from the people who, to quote Mrs. Joe, brought them up “by hand.”
Despite the strong actors and memorable characters, the play drags at times, especially in Act I. On opening night, that was not helped by a lighting design that muddied everyone, with spotlights that somehow missed the actors. I am willing to believe a few more weeks have changed at least the latter for the better. Spots are especially important because the basic look of this production is dim and dank, to acknowledge and recreate the marshy, misty, foggy settings of the novel. The set, designed by Collette Pollard, sports a massive backdrop, angled and woven, like the grasses in the marsh in which Pip finds Magwitch, or like the walls of the prison ships from whence Magwitch has emerged. The book is filled with mists off the rivers and marshes, darkness inside and out, fear and the feeling of young adult Pip brightly, foolishly skating on top of a world filled with darkness, the water below the ice constantly threatening to suck him down.
Weirdly, this is the second Equity theater adaptation of Great Expectations to show in Oregon this calendar year; Portland Center Stage mounted one (with a more steampunk set) in late January and February, and I happened to see it as well. One of the productions chose to use the first ending Dickens wrote; one uses the second (“happy”) ending. I believe the ending Alper and Metropulos chose is more faithful to the spirit of the original book. Pip does briefly flail below the water both physically and metaphorically, but he awakens to a world that’s more complex and more mellow, perhaps more reasonable in its expectations, than that he knew as a child. Without underscoring it, this production makes clear that this is a journey we must all undertake, some earlier than others.
The River Bride
Adaptations like Yeomen and Great Expectations are important for theater in general, and for OSF, but so are new plays – even those that take folk tales and heat them in the crucible of the playwright’s imagination to forge something new. In the opening plays, that spot is filled by Marisela Treviño Orta’s The River Bride (in the Bowmer through July 7). River Bride was the winner of the 2013 National Latino Playwriting Award and is now a world premiere for OSF. It’s directed by Laurie Woolery, formerly a member of the company and now the associate director for public works at New York’s Public Theater.
The River Bride garners gasps and applause even during the play for its striking, saturated, gorgeous projections by Mark Holthusen on Mariana Sanchez’ lovely minimalist set, with skilled lighting by David Weiner that suggests water for a play whose designers were specifically told they could not cue actual water.
This dreamy look balances what playwright Orta calls a “grim fairy tale,” a story of shapeshifting river dolphins, love, sibling rivalry and choices good and bad. River Bride is both dense and light, piercingly realistic in the relationship between the two sisters who are the focus of the play yet full of fable in the tale of Moises (Armando McClain). Moises is a rich man who appears in the water, drenched but dressed impeccably, a few days before Belmira (Jamie Ann Romero) is set to marry her sister’s longtime love Duarte (Carlo Albán).
That sister is Helena, played by the luminous Nancy Rodriguez. The women of this play – Rodriguez, Romero and the superlative Vilma Silva as their mother – shine as their characters mix work and myth, practical considerations and the fulfillment of desire. The play, in addition to showing potentially terrible results of a lack of communication between siblings, clearly demonstrates one thing that can happen to kids whose parents are deeply in love: The children of that kind of union want perfection, and make bad choices when their idea of perfect love is frustrated.
Silva and Rodriguez are marvels on the stage, and Romero splendidly plays the beautiful, arrogant girl who wants to escape her small village – damn the consequences, which end up being steep.
Triney Sandoval plays a good-humored, loving father to the girls, a man content with his world as a surprisingly successful fisherman, a man with a secret he doesn’t even know he has. Albán (Claudio in last season’s Much Ado About Nothing) is serviceable as Duarte, a mortal man outclassed by the fairy tales around him, who (like the other young characters) makes choices that lead to something more hollow than he wishes. McClain sells Moises’ mystery and mastery of the world beyond the village but also shows us the awful lie at the core of his being.
Some reviews have damned The River Bride as too thin for a mainstage play despite its production values and acting, but those reviewers miss the depth of the story between the words, the way that myth interweaves with family secrets and loves and lies to become loss and regret, tinged with a nearly dead ember of hope.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival can’t be everything to everyone, but it tries damn hard, with its eleven plays on three stages every rotating repertory season, to get most things right. Stories filtered through myth and song, through light and shadow, through different cultures and times make up the opening set. Today, March 30, the festival opens Qui Nguyen’s raunchy comedy Vietgone, which had a highly praised and successful run at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, California, last year. Three weeks later, on April 20, it premieres Lisa Loomer’s Roe, this year’s piece from the festival’s ambitious American Revolutions History Cycle. (The season rounds out with Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, and the musical The Wiz on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage beginning in June; plus Shakespeare’s Richard II in the Thomas and Timon of Athens in the Bowmer, both starting in July.) If humans are lucky, and the planet – and theater – is still around in 400 years, perhaps one of these plays will be confounding audiences with its comedy, its politics or its character development, and its magic.
* The festival announced its 2017 season after I wrote this. The season includes a stage adaptation of the movie Shakespeare in Love for the full season in the Bowmer Theatre. This has raised eyebrows, though not nearly as much as the inclusion of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. Hey, it’s … theatrical.