Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Embracing the smoke

Never mind the fires, the plays are the thing...

I arrived in Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year just in time for the smoke. The Douglas County fires aren’t that close to Ashland, but their smoke can blow into the Rogue Valley anytime the conditions are right. It’s not a gentle smoke, either. It’s dense and acrid, enough to make throats rasp and eyes water.

The first day we were there, we experienced it first hand, but then the second day, right before we were schedule to see “The Heart of Robin Hood” at the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, it cleared up, and stayed mostly clear for the rest of the visit. But the smoke comes and goes: The new ritual is a check of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website at 7 to see if that night’s outdoor performance has been cancelled or not.

As luck would have it, though, I had scheduled only the one outdoor show (missing “Cymbeline” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Indoors, things were popping. I’m going to give you some quick impressions of the shows I saw, in the order that I saw them. Maybe I’ll come back to a couple of them for extended comments later. For me, the must-sees were “The Taming of the Shrew,” “My Fair Lady,” and “The Liquid Plain,” for those on a tight time schedule…

“The Taming of the Shrew”

As we’ve already written, this is Oregon’s Summer of the Shrew, and I’d just seen Portland Shakespeare Project’s version, which I thought was terrific, before I headed down to Ashland and landed in another. Despite its gender politics implications, “Shrew” is actually a comedy, and both productions played it that way, fortunately.

OSF’s “Shrew,” directed by David Ivers (who was a very fine actor here in the 1990s for the late lamented Portland Repertory Theater), is broader and wilder than the Portland Shakes’ version. It’s set on a seaside boardwalk, backed by a rockabilly band, and offers a Petruchio, played with appropriate panache by Ted Deasy, as a ‘50s rockabilly hero, with a perfect pompadour and cowboy stitching on his jacket. Imagine Jerry Lee Lewis taming Kate. OK, maybe we shouldn’t go there…

Nell Geisslinger played the filly trying to keep Petruchio’s lariat (ok, that’s all metaphorical) from around her throat, and I liked her boardwalk punk toughness a lot, the moment of exhaustion when she finally accepted Petruchio, and then the archness of her performance during the Test of the Wives at the end of the play, not TOO much, just right.

I also deeply enjoyed Maureen Porter’s Portland Shakes version, and together they led me to some thoughts about this play I hadn’t before (and which I hope to share later). In the meantime, “Shrew” should be fun, and for me at least, this production was a hoot.

“The Heart of Robin Hood”

I wish I could say the same for “Robin Hood,” which fooled around with the traditional story a bit (Big Peter?), but never really fired. For a while, I tried to interpret it as the victory of the communitarian branch of libertarianism over the extreme individualism branch, but as I attempted to explain it thusly, my companion said, “Just let a bad play be a bad play.” She was referring to the text, long and repetitive, not to the performances, which were just fine, or the wonderful set.

On the other hand, it seemed to hit the spot for the teenagers in the audience (there were lots: one of my favorite things about seeing a show at the festival). So there.

“King Lear”

Artistic director Bill Rauch directed “Lear” in the small (350 seats or so) Thomas Theatre, and since Henry Woronicz directed “Cymbeline” in the old Black Swan back in the early ‘90s, I’ve almost always enjoyed the Shakespeare productions in the more intimate spaces, first the Black Swan and now the Thomas.

Jack Willis, right, as Lear and  Benjamin Pelteson as Edgar in "King Lear"/Jenny Graham

Jack Willis, right, as Lear and Benjamin Pelteson as Edgar in “King Lear”/Jenny Graham

Rauch played Lear in contemporary dress, and Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout thought this detracted from the gravity of “Lear.” I liked the idea he was playing with in his review, but I didn’t see the application to this production, which I thought was representative of the good “Lear” versions I’ve seen over the years.

The more abstract scenic approach (by Christopher Acebo) a “Lear” in the round demands shifts the burden of meaning to the actors, and they were all excellent, from Michael Winters’ Lear (he alternates in the role with Jack Willis) to Daisuke Tsuji’s Fool. And really, you don’t need to do a lot of extra conceptualizing with “Lear”: we in the audience are going to see and hear stuff we haven’t noticed before or find ourselves on a thought train altogether new, as long as the actors are completely involved second by second. Which of course they are.

Rachael Warren as Eliza Doolittle in OSF's "My Fair Lady"/Jenny Graham

Rachael Warren as Eliza Doolittle in OSF’s “My Fair Lady”/Jenny Graham

“My Fair Lady”

At intermission of the Lerner and Loewe classic, I turned to young woman on my right and asked her if she was enjoying “My Fair Lady” more than she thought she would. Because I was! She thought half-a-second, and said, “No. The other two shows I saw here were really good, so I thought this one would be, too.”

Well, OK then. By playing with the staging, making it more informal and less “naturalistic,” director Amanda Dehnert made the experience of “My Fair Lady” seem totally new to me, even made me forget the great film version (with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, her instructor). It moves along swiftly, gives the songs their full due and then lets them transition back into the story in a relaxed way, keeps the stage alive with movement, either from the principals or the chorus, which is fabulous.

Rachael Warren’s Eliza is smartly acted and beautifully sung, Anthony Heald imbues Eliza’s father with great comic wisdom, and Jonathan Haugen manages the difficult turns Henry Higgins must make adeptly. In a way, “My Fair Lady” shares some problems with “Shrew,” if you’re not careful.

In short, this “My Fair Lady” is exactly was exactly what I was looking for in a re-imagining of a Golden Era musical without my knowing it. Sweet!

“The Liquid Plain”

Naomi Wallace’s new play was commissioned for OSF’s American Revolutions new play project, which is in its fifth year, and it’s almost proof by itself of the project’s importance. Turning Wallace (a MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner) loose on an American history subject is a brilliant idea, and “The Liquid Plain” is an engrossing, surprising, unsettling play.

It’s set mostly on a dock in Bristol, Rhode Island, where a couple of runaway slaves, Adjua (June Carryl) and Dembi (Kimberly Scott) are saving money to get passage back to Africa. They pull a white man out of the water, and their plan starts to accelerate out of control, especially when he falls for Adjua.

Pretty soon, we are caught in 18th century dilemmas over race and gender, which maybe aren’t as remote as we’d like them to be. Wallace based the play on some true events and characters—yes, a Rhode Island senator made his fortune in the slave trade—but it’s also a work of deep imagination.

“The Unfortunates”

And speaking of imagination: “The Unfortunates,” like “The Liquid Plain,” is a world premiere that rattles our general ideas of what a musical can do and be. The story is allegorical and non-linear, the music starts with the old blues song “St. James Infirmary Blues” and makes a beeline for hip-hop spoken word and balladry, and all the while a Mardi Gras parade threatens to break out on stage. Well, more than threatens. And the narrative situation itself couldn’t be darker.

Kjerstine Rose Anderson in "The Unfortunates"/Jenny Graham

Kjerstine Rose Anderson in “The Unfortunates”/Jenny Graham

My own party disliked it intensely, and when I looked around the theater after the show, a chunk of the audience was sitting on its hands, but a majority stood and roared their approval. Crazy.

Four actors in the show (plus a collaborator) wrote the “The Unfortunates,” three of whom started business as an a cappella hip-hop group in New York in 2005, per the program notes. (You’re going to want to read those program notes before the play starts, by the way.) They sing and rap well, by which I mean with a raw energy and commitment as well as vocal ability, and the rest of the cast jumps aboard, led by Kjerstine Rose Anderson as Rae (it would take me several paragraphs to explain “Rae”).

I was alternately perplexed, amused, astonished and moved by “The Unfortunates.” Is this a hint of the future of the American musical? Maybe so. And are you going to be standing and applauding or rolling your eyes at the end? I have no idea, but that’s part of the fun.

Back to the smoke

We were undeterred by the news of the smoke, and things worked out just fine for us. The winds are variable, of course, but even if it’s smoky, the festival does a good job of helping you make alternate arrangements, from ticket exchanges to a “concert reading” of the outdoor plays. And it’s mostly business as usual at the indoor theaters and at the local restaurants: Even when you could smell the smoke, the patio dining tables seemed to be full. One restaurant even made smoked turkey legs its special. So yeah, accommodations were being made.

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