In Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival? Let it rain…

Where can you find the Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year?  On the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, of course.  Three of them, including  two of the very best, “As You Like It” and the conclusion of the Prince Hal trilogy, “Henry V,” as well as that bit of silly business, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” here moved to the present day U.S. and retitled, “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa,” by adapter Alison Carey and director Christopher Liam Moore.

That’s really why I was in town, those three shows, the heart of the summer season at OSF. I haven’t seen the other two of this season’s Shakespeares, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Troilus and Cressida,” so I can’t talk them one way or another, though ArtsWatch’s Suzi Steffen wrote about “R&J” (among other shows) this spring. But I did see “Animal Crackers” and “The White Snake,” maybe the two most lovingly reviewed shows this season. I completely understood why.

I’ll do these in the order I saw them, which happens to be the reverse order of how much I liked them.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa”

I don’t think anyone believes that “Merry Wives” is good or even average Shakespeare. It’s the lightest of romantic comedies, with nothing special to recommend it, although a great and comic Falstaff can sometimes raise it a notch or two, and there’s nothing BAD about it, really. That means that like “The Comedy of Errors,” no one is going to go all purist on you if you fool around with it.

Which Alison Carey and Christopher Liam Moore do, re-writing it (though following its plot contours) to situate it in Windsor, Iowa, after Presidential candidate Senator John Falstaff has lost the Iowa caucuses there. The idea of Falstaff as a Senator might be more hilarious if Senate wasn’t presently populated by a number of Bozo the Clowns.  His great appetite for women and money (if not in this case, wine) would just make him one of the boys.

Carey and Moore are actually respectful of the original story, despite their play; they certainly know their Shakespeare.

Pistol (Joe Wegner) and Nym (DeLanna Studi) react to Senator John Falstaff’s (David Kelly) plan to raise money/Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

In this Iowa, gay marriage isn’t just legal; it’s preferred. And the Wives and lovers are just as likely to be lesbians as heteros. And instead of turning those wives against their husbands, Falstaff resolves to make them change sexual teams altogether. Somehow this involves the transfer of money. Here’s the logic train.

  1. Turn lesbians into heterosexuals.
  2. ???
  3. Money!!!

Anyway, this joke is pretty funny, and so is a lot of the show, which I wouldn’t have thought before I went, but there you go. A lot of the credit goes to the actors, who pile it on broadly, because to pull back for a second would sink this fragile vessel. David Kelly’s Falstaff, Kjerstine Rose Anderson as a chainsaw artist, Robin Goodrin Nordli as a professional golfer, Gina Daniels and Terri McMahon as the scheming Wives, all caught my eye, but everyone was bailing away as fast as they could! Now, if you really want farce, “Animal Crackers” is your best bet this season, but this “Merry Wives” tickled me, too.

“As You Like It”

Sometimes I think “Twelfth Night” is Shakespeare’s most perfect Romantic Comedy. As improbable as it all is, all its parts are logical AND hilarious. But then sometimes I go for “As You Like It,” because it puts the accent on the Romantic part of the equation, and its thinking about love is so interesting.

Touchstone (Peter Frechette) entertains Rosalind (Erica Sullivan) and Celia (Christine Albright)/ Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In this version, directed by Jessica Thebus, just about all of its elements are in fine working order, including the great clock-like contraption that presides over the action from the second tier of the Elizabethan Stage. It’s musical and beautifully sung; it’s funny without losing sight of its object, which is the nature of love; and it’s well acted, pretty much top (Erica Sullivan as Rosalind, Wayne T. Carr as Orlando and Christine Albright as Celia) to bottom (the pastoral and comical hayseeds).

I’ve seen BETTER versions of this very popular play, mostly driven by transcendent Rosalinds or Touchstones, mind you. But this one is representative of what the Shakespeare festival does best—tell a great story by a great playwright with close attention to each line by very talented actors  and augmented by stage effects both subtle and grand. What’s not to like?

So yes, if you’re finding you need another encounter with Rosalind, by all means, this is your show.

Two things I’d like to talk about briefly, one concerning the play and the other, this production.

One of my general premises is that we each encounter a play (or any work of art) singularly, personally, seeking something that is useful to us. And because what we find useful changes, we notice new things in something as complex as “As You Like It.”

What I noticed this time was the following exchange:

Touchstone: The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.
Celia: By my troth, thou sayest true, for since the little wit that fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have makes a great show…

And I read it as an argument for freedom of speech and of the press, with the press playing the part of the Fool. The Fool, in Shakespeare at least, speaks truth to power, with a comic twist of course. When the Fool is silenced, the folly of the powerful grows. Uh, yes.

I’ve heard some rumblings that  having a deaf actor, Howie Seago (in his fourth season at OSF), play Duke Senior, was a distraction to some reviewers and audience members. He speaks in sign language, which must be interpreted for the audience, after all, and he must be signed to as well. That means when he’s onstage, a lot of gesturing fills the space. I understand this point; the rhythm of things does change.

But there’s a compensation: The sense of the language is underscored, deepened, given color and emphasis, by the signing, in the same way that an especially gestural actor can add to the meaning of her lines. This is an older way of acting, 19th century, Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, surviving in our century somewhat via classical ballet.  After a moment of hesitance, I grew to like it, even depend on it a little.

And it fit into the very physical production that Thebus staged. This “As You Like It” is full of gestures (of the hands, arms and face), physical acting and comedy, as it seeks to clarify those antique lines about love and set up the comic sucker punches and one-liners. Somehow, the signing just seemed to fit in to the general flow.

Maybe, if I had to, I would make the argument for the inclusion of Seago from an ideological preference for more diversity on stage. But for myself at least, I didn’t have to. The choice can be defended pragmatically and dramatically. The same goes for his role in “Henry V.”

John Tufts as Henry V/ Photo by Jenny Graham

“Henry V”

The evening of “Henry V”  a storm cell blew over Ashland, and for about an hour pelted us with heavy rain, until about a half-hour before the performance. The audience for a Saturday night was noticeably spotty, including most of my row. But most of us knew the drill and had come prepared for water, so when the rain re-materialized a couple of times during the performance, we settled in and tried to make sure we were guttering the rain away from our persons. The only real problem was audibility: That much rain hitting that many plastic ponchos raises quite a clatter.

So we sat, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” huddled together, ready to repulse the decadent and boastful French as they sought to overwhelm our shaky claim to the throne of France by force of arms. We might be soggy, but we were stalwart.

Fortunately, we had a good King Harry to lead us into battle, John Tufts (who played Prince Hal in the recent OSF versions of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2), he of forceful voice and powerful frame (only partially covered by a tank top which must have been dripping when he went offstage).  And director Joseph Haj, with a traditional Henry V in place, takes the play down the traditional course, with smart trims to the text and a clear, unsentimental reading of the battle scenes (first the siege of Harfleur and then the triumph of Agincourt).

Shakespeare being Shakespeare, though, the account of King Harry’s triumph constantly subverts itself, and Haj doesn’t flinch, giving Harry’s harrowing speech at Harfleur space and time to undermine any pretense of Harry’s moral superiority in a fantasy of rape and child-killing (“Your naked infants spitted upon pikes”), “While the mad mothers with their howls confused/Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry/At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.” And he has Harry execute his old drinking partner Bardolph with his own hands. Think of it as the “Game of Thrones” version of “Henry V”?

It’s a great play, honestly, and if you disagree, maybe this production will turn you around, because it’s so well-acted and conceived. I enjoyed Richard Howard’s argument (as the Archbishop of Canterbury) for war and Henry’s claim to the throne of France, so like a pedant. Brooke Parks as Katherine, Princess of France, and Judith-Marie Bergan as her maid, made sharp work of the comic English-learning scene, conducted in a bathtub filled with bubbles (and more water by the second!). Katherine’s wooing scene with Henry was also delightful: Tufts is a great straight man for her reactions.

I could go on, but just a couple more. U. Jonathan Toppo’s Pistol picked up the pace and intensity of things whenever he set foot on stage and gave shape to the parallel story of the little band of Eastcheap brothers who’ve enlisted for the war after the death of their mentor, John Falstaff.  And finally, all of the action is accompanied by a live percussion performance by Kelvin Underwood, an excellent effect, or rather series of effects, because he coaxes eerie squeaks as well as martial drumming from the instruments at his disposal.

****

So that’s it for the summer shows, a good group. Because I didn’t make the trip to Ashland last year, I was a bit startled by the evolution of the company. It has lots of young, new “stars,”  and I found myself enjoying this generational shift, even as I enjoyed the turns by the company veterans. And yes, I even liked the rain…

NOTES

Critic Marty Hughley favored “As You Like It”  over the other three plays in his review as did Bob Keefer of the Eugene Register-Guard. Of course, they didn’t see the wet T-shirt version that I saw.

 

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