Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The full nine yards

“The Pirates of Penzance” has captured the audience’s heart./T. Charles Erickson

By Bob Hicks

So long, tent. It’s been good to know you.After six weeks of scrambling, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival moves out of its hastily named Bowmer in the Park – a 598-seat emergency tent below the festival grounds in Ashland’s Lithia Park – and back into the real Bowmer on Tuesday.

For people at the festival it must feel like D-Day. Sailors will be kissing pretty girls in the middle of the street, or at least on the Elizabethan Stage, where The Pirates of Penzance is firmly anchored as the popular hit of the season. And audiences and festival folk alike are apt to look back on the summer of ’11 the way Brits looked back on the London Blitz. Tryin’ times, wasn’t’ey? – but we made do, yes, we made do. A bit o’ pluck, a bit o’ sacrifice, a bit o’ pullin’ together. We had fun, di’n’t we then? Those were the days.

Still and all. The Shakespeare Festival’s unlikeliest summer took a turn for the weird during an understudy rehearsal for Measure for Measure on June 18 when a resounding crack! sounded through the Angus Bowmer Theatre, one of the finest,  most adaptable and audience-friendly theater spaces in the country. It was a massive beam – one that holds the roof up, for crying out loud — that had surrendered to more than 40 years of pressure, and it meant moving everybody out immediately and canceling all performances in the hall until the beam could be fixed. The festival, more known for its stately turns and pinpoint far-in-advance planning, went into full scramble mode: How would it keep a 12-show rotating repertory schedule rolling and avert financial disaster? The answer, after a couple of very temporary moves to alternate spaces, was the tent in the park.

How did it work? I recently went down to Ashland and caught all nine shows in repertory at the time, including four in the tent. I missed To Kill a Mockingbird and The Language Archive, both of which had already closed. And the interactive Willful, devised by Michael Rohd and Shannon Scrofano of Portland’s Sojourn Theatre, hadn’t opened yet.

So, Bowmer in the Park? I know the Bowmer Theatre, and you’re no Bowmer Theatre. Your air conditioning’s clumsy: Sometimes you’re way too hot, sometimes you’re way too cold. And always you’re noisy. Your seats are hard and tight and butt-aching. Compared to the real Bowmer you’re long and narrow, and you make the stage feel an unlikely distance away. Your acoustics are a joke: All of the performers had to wear body microphones, lending a rin-tin-tinny effect to the shows. And of course, all the shows had to be re-blocked and re-designed.

But. Under the circumstances, it was something of a miracle. The tent held up. Maybe without silk stockings or pot roast or gasoline, but it did the job. The show, or a very reasonable facsimile thereof, did, indeed, go on. And, like war vets, people are going to be talking about the experience ad nauseum, for years to come. Even small-scale disasters draw people together, and that’s what happened here. Can of Spam, anyone?

Now, a rundown on the nine plays I saw:

ELIZABETHAN STAGE

The Pirates of Penzance: Oh, my, but this is fun. Gilbert & Sullivan fundamentalists will grumble – this is definitely not D’Oyly Carte – but artistic director Bill Rauch’s production is bright and brassy and very funny, with the sort of crack timing that’s essential to carry off a G&S musical. The production adds some modern-music embellishments that will infuriate the few and please the many: I found them mostly amusing, if not entirely necessary, and never overdone to the point of intruding on the play’s integrity or flow.

The 1,200-seat outdoor stage is the festival’s main attraction and also, because of its size and openness, the most difficult of the three performance spaces to control technically. Language can get lost; broad gestures, slowed-down pacing and shouting to the crowd are constant dangers as actors labor to be heard and understood. Matching the right play and style of production to the space is essential, and broad comedy works very well here. Rauch proves that a big, full-bodied musical can be an excellent use of the space, too.

Eddie Lopez is a sweet-voiced revelation as Frederic, the reluctant pirates’ apprentice, and Michael Elich is a lusty swashbuckler as the Pirate King. A couple of other vets – Robin Goodrin Nordli as the pirates’ moll Ruth and David Kelly as the modern major general — turn in excellent supporting performances, and Khori Dastoor brings true operetta chops to the role of lovely Mabel. Not all the ensemble singing is first-rate, but it’s good enough. And the obvious use of body mics — no doubt necessary on the big stage — is a modest irritation. But the design, the orchestra and the flow are splendid. Rauch and company seem to get under the skin of Victorian-style theater, and they wear the style very comfortably, with a few contemporary accoutrements.

Love’s Labor’s Lost: A light, lilting, tongue-in-cheek production of this early comedy, with bright sets by Christopher Acebo and costumes (think rugby matches and senior proms) by Christal Weatherly. Sometimes shows just want to have fun, and that’s where director Shana Cooper takes this deft, pleasantly surface-skimming production. Cooper isn’t aiming for the poignant examination of love that sometimes accompanies Triple-L. She’s after the sheer comic friskiness of the thing. A fine ensemble cast — including Gregory Linington and Stephanie Beatriz as Berowne and Rosaline, who seem like calling-cards for Benedick and Beatrice — keeps things clicking.

Henry IV, Part Two: The least satisfying of the outdoor shows. The OSF production seems like two plays, and in essence it is. But it also seems like two productions, and that’s a drawback. The essence of the play — the story of Falstaff and his seedy companions at the Boar’s Head Tavern — is well-rounded and acted with both passion and intelligence. Michael Winters gives the wastrel and dissembling knight an almost tragic self-awareness, and he gets fine support from Kimberly Scott as Mistress Quickly and Nell Geisslinger as a sad and needy Doll Tearsheet. This part of the production is gripping. As for the rest — the politics, the plotting, the battling — it rushes past in a declamatory shout, apparently impatient to get things finished and move on to the more exciting business of next season’s cycle-concluding Henry V.

ANGUS BOWMER THEATRE (BOWMER IN THE PARK)

Measure for Measure: Rauch’s production is complex and thick with meaning, and it demands close attention: The technical challenges in the tent hurt it, especially in the long first act, and it will clearly benefit greatly from moving back into the Bowmer. The scene’s updated, quite plausibly, to an American Southwest city in the 1970s, a time and place that echoes the social and economic inequities of Shakespeare’s script. And it adds a stirring Latino musical element.

I might be in the minority, but I ended up liking this production quite a lot: The second act is an enormous payoff for the mysteries and occasional heaviness of the first. Renee Millan as the licentious Angelo, Stephanie Beatriz as uptight Isabela (who is asked to trade her virginity for her brother’s life) and Anthony Heald as the disguised Duke bring deep and surprising readings to their roles, always shying away from the obvious. And Heald takes an enthusiastic lead role in emphasizing the very real, if sometimes gobsmacking, comic elements of the play. One way or another, this is a Measure for Measurelikely to stick with you. Just allow it a little patience.The Imaginary Invalid: Tracy Young directed the festival’s audacious and hilarious commedia-inspired production of Goldini’s The Servant of Two Masters in 2009, and tries a similar approach here with Moliere’s acerbic comedy about a skinflint old hypochondriac and the multitude of people who try to take advantage of his foolishness. This one’s got a lot of balls in the air at once, and it, too, might have suffered from conditions in the tent: For whatever reason, it doesn’t match the giddy delight of Two Masters. Hard to say why, because the designs are brightly ridiculous and the performers are good, from David Kelly’s scratchy and supercilious old hypochondriac Argon down to Daisuke Tsuji’s nerdy fop of a suitor to Argon’s daughter’s hand. Here’s hoping it catches fire once it transfers back to the Bowmer.

August: Osage County: This is the second time I’ve seen Tracy Letts’ breakthrough American drama, and although Ashland’s production doesn’t reach the heights of the national touring company production led by the astonishing Estelle Parsons as the pill-popping family matriarch Violet Weston, it’s very good. It also brings home that, as a playwright, Letts is the real deal. (His smaller followup play, Superior Donuts, which got a bang-up production from Portland’s Artists Rep a few months back, confirms the same thing.) Elements of Sam Shepard and Eugene O’Neill and William Inge are banging around in this big, brawling, lusty heartbreaker of a play, which also has a streak of the sheer cussedness in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.

Director Christopher Liam Moore keeps this sprawling wonder clicking along magnificently, and gets very good performances across the board, with standouts including Catherine E. Coulson’s brassy aunt Mattie Fae, Robynn Rodriguez’ shivery-tough daughter Barbara, and Tony DeBruno’s sane and generous uncle Charlie. When three and a half hours passes like an hour and a half, you know you’re in on something good.The African Company Presents Richard III: I saw the final preview performance of Carlyle Brown’s fascinating historical drama, and liked it quite a bit. The play is set in New York City in 1821, and tells the tale of two productions of Richard III. The first was a big-deal mainstream production starring the famous English actor Junius Brutus Booth. The second was a seat-of-the-pants show performed by free black men and women in the city — and for a variety of reasons they end up scheduled next door to each other on the same night. What ensues is two-pronged: a clinical evisceration of racial and cultural attitudes of the day, and a celebration of the considerable achievements of this pioneering company of African American performers.

Director Seret Scott and her design team re-create a plausible sense of the theatrical styles of the early 19th century, and the seven-actor cast is top-flight, with special nods to Peter Macon as the African company’s empresario, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as its reluctant leading lady, and Charles Robinson as Papa Shakespeare, the griot, the ensemble’s link between Africa and America. You could hope for a little more physical movement — the script is largely literary and declamatory, without a lot of action, although Kevin Kenerly as the African company’s leading man provides some dash — but all in all this is well worth seeing.

"Julius Caesar" was the revelation of the OSF season./OSF: Jenny Graham

NEW THEATRE

Julius Caesar: For me at least, this Julius Caesar is the highlight of the season – an enthralling, stripped-down, revivifying production of a great play that’s just been waiting for someone to blow away the dust of tradition and approach it like a brand new thing. Amanda Dehnert is the director who pulls this off, reducing the cast to just 11 performers and using the 300-seat space as a dramatic wrestling ring in the round. The show is tensely and tersely underscored by sound designer Fabian Obispo, and the action is quick and urgent. The excellent Vilma Silva plausibly and easily crosses genders to play a commanding but not imperious Caesar, and the big three — Jonathan Haugen as a moody and deliberative Brutus, Gregory Linington as a white-hot and envious Cassius, Danforth Comins as a crafty and almost giddily vengeful Mark Antony — dig into their roles as eternal scrappers in some mighty tournament of the gods.

Shakespeare believed in social stability and was mightily disturbed about the things that political discord and revolution can unleash. There’s a lot here about mob thinking, political cynicism and opportunism, and the perils of unexpected consequences. Mostly there is excellent theater, a worthy partner to last season’s smashmouth reinterpretation of Hamlet. Bravo.Ghost Light: This world premiere, written by Tony Taccone, conceived and developed by Taccone and Jonathan Moscone, and directed by Moscone, is a fascinating and expectation-defying dramatic examination of a searing moment in American public life — the assassination in 1978 of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, along with city supervisor Harvey Milk, by the recently deposed supervisor Dan White. What gives the play its heft is that Jonathan Moscone, now a leading American theater director, is George Moscone’s son, and was 14 when his father died. Theater doesn’t come much closer to the bone than this.

Ghost Light isn’t really about George Moscone or the assassination. It’s about Jonathan Moscone and the lasting effects of living with such notorious ghosts — the repression of memories, the frozen emotions, the cynicism, the guilt, the rejection of politics, even his ambivalent feelings, as a gay adult man, about Milk, who was openly gay but whose assassination stole a lot of the thunder from Moscone’s own father’s death. George Moscone was a pioneering advocate of gay rights in America, his son observes, and his accomplishments have largely been overlooked amid the historical lionization of Milk.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ghost Light plays very much like a comedy — a neurotic comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. Christopher Liam Moore’s performance as the adult Jonathan is spot-on funny and compassionate, especially in his several scenes with the excellent Robynn Rodriguez as Jonathan’s no-nonsense best friend Louise. The play might be a little leaner — you get the sense that Moscone and Taccone are sometimes a little too close to things to entirely see their shape — but the occasional excess or confusion is a small price to pay for what is a fascinating and deeply felt American story. History happens. And sometimes it’s personal.

NOTE

For deeper discussions on several of the shows, see my commentary at Art Scatter:

One Response.

  1. Cynthia Fuhrman says:

    This made me very happy…reading Bob Hicks’ writing about theater is always satisfying.

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