In one of those inexplicable zombie moments that strike the social-media world with déjà vu-ish regularity, a column from 2008 by Brendan Kiley in Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger came back to life a couple of weeks ago with a, well, vengeance. Theater peeps were posting it all over Facebook, sometimes cheering, sometimes jeering. Ten Things Theaters Need To Do Right Now To Save Themselves, the headline blared, and at the top of the list, nailed Martin Luther-style to the virtual church door, was this demand to the papists of the holy stage: Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.
In Portland, where we have dueling Lears onstage right now and an ingrained cultural certainty that bardliness is next to godliness, it’s not bloody likely. Actors like to act Shakespeare. Audiences like to see it. Around here, people know the difference between Richard II and Richard III. They speak knowingly of The Two Noble Kinsmen, and they can unknot a Problem Play like nobody’s Gordian business. They don’t blink an eye at the thought of goofy-but-fun Original Practice Shakespeare in a city park, or The Tempest with a woman Prospero (the excellent Linda Alper, this summer at Portland Shakespeare Project), or in-your-face Shakespeare at the 36-seat Shoebox Theatre or grand-scale Shakespeare in the big main space at Portland Center Stage. Oxfordians and Stratfordians duke it out companionably over copious craft beers. And at places like Post5, which is getting ready to take a stab at that great Dane of a drama, Hamlet, the audiences are far from blue-haired and doddery: some of these kids hooting and hollering over the Elizabethan action are barely out of swaddling clothes. Maybe counterintuitively, all of this is taking place at the same time the city’s awash in new plays, many from the keyboards of a resident covey of playwrights more numerous than the population of some of the state’s towns.
So, no: Oregon’s pretty firmly Shakespeare Territory, from stem to stern, at least partly because of the presence of the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where the state’s eager tykes drink deeply from the mothers-milk and grow up to be strapping classicists – if, often, classicists with a free-and-rowdy contemporary twist.
So what’s up with the 2015 season the Shakespeare festival’s just announced?
Out of the standard eleven slots on the schedule, only three shows are Shakespearean. There’s still a chance the company’s 80th anniversary season will include the four Shakespeares that have been customary the past several seasons: one spot remains TBA, with a title to be filled in late this spring. But in the 1,200-seat, open-air Elizabethan Stagehouse, where the festival runs three shows in rep during the warm months, only one play is by Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, hardly one of the Bard’s greatest hits.
So did artistic director Bill Rauch read Kiley’s column and cut back on the Bard to save the festival from itself? That’s not bloody likely, either. Shakespeare remains the core of everything Ashland does. At the same time the company announced its new season, Rauch announced a commitment to produce the entire canon over the next ten years: that means just under four Shakespeares a year, with no repeats. The festival’s completed the canon three times in its history, but it’s taken a minimum of nineteen years to score blackout bingo each of those times. The pace is accelerating.
Still, the story on the outdoor stage is intriguing, because historically, that’s where the big Shakespeare action’s happened. From 1960 through 1965, five non-canon plays were produced: Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Volpone, Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and an hour-long music-and-dance pastiche on Elizabethan themes, A Thieves Ballad, that was staged after performances of The Comedy of Errors. Except for that six-season stretch, for decades all three outdoor slots were reserved almost religiously for the Bard. Longtime artistic director Jerry Turner was nervous when he scheduled The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a light-hearted comedy by Thomas Dekker, yet another Shakespeare contemporary, for the outdoor stage in 1987. It turned out to be a hit. And it cracked the door for other ways of thinking about the outdoor space. The outdoor stage didn’t go non-Shakespearean again until 1996, with Webster’s The White Devil, and in 1999 it finally dared to break out of the Elizabethan straitjacket with an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckler The Three Musketeers. That was followed by John O’Keefe’s Restoration comedy Wild Oats in 2003, Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 2005, and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in 2006.
Since Rauch’s arrival as artistic director in 2007, audiences have become accustomed to seeing one outdoor slot go to a non-Shakespearean show. Rauch, a big fan of musicals, scored a hit three seasons ago with Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (he’s directing it again this spring for Portland Opera); others non-canon plays have included Our Town (2008), Don Quixote (2009), Alison Carey’s free adaptation The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa (2012), and last season’s The Heart of Robin Hood. This summer, the Sondheim/Lapine musical Into the Woods will play outdoors in rep with Richard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
So, there’s history. Still: only one outdoor Shakespeare out of three? In 2015, Antony and Cleopatra will be in rep with a brand-new musical, Head Over Heels, and a fresh stage adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The cries of sacrilege, and a few huzzahs of approval, will be starting immediately. And both are likely to be overreactions.
The choice of next season’s two outdoor non-Shakespeares arrives with some neat syncronicity. Head Over Heels will have a book by Oregon native Jeff Whitty, who also wrote the book for the terrific Avenue Q, and with whom Rauch has a good track record: In his first season in Ashland, he directed a sparkling production of Whitty’s The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. Head Over Heels will have an Elizabethan setting (music will be from the songbook of that noted 1980s Elizabethan folk ensemble, the Go-Gos), potentially making HOH something like a contemporary version of The Shoemaker’s Holiday in terms of how it fits with the Shakespearean canon. And Monte Cristo dovetails with next season’s production in the small Thomas Theatre of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. It was Monte Cristo in which O’Neill’s father, the stage matinee idol James O’Neill, starred for many years. The elder O’Neill felt his financial success was an artistic failure – his famous role trapped him, maybe in the way Sean Connery felt trapped by James Bond – and his moroseness over his fate contributed to the family dynamic that resulted in Long Day. So, if nothing else (and of course, it might be much more else), Monte Cristo offers the allure of witnessing a historical-dramatic train wreck.
The balance of Shakespeare to non-Shakespeare, and of “traditional” to contemporary staging, will always be a matter of conflict in Ashland, because the interested parties, from directors and actors to the audiences who keep the place alive, have such differing likes and dislikes and opinions about what’s important and what is ultimately fleeting and trivial. But one thing holds true: the festival is a theater of language, and if you’re in an English-speaking country (sometimes, even if you’re not) the theater of language begins with Shakespeare. There are many wonderful forms of visual theater; some of it’s called dance. But if language is your game, you begin with Shakespeare. And you check back often.
As OSF has pushed beyond its roots, diving deeply into Hispanic and black theater as well as musicals and new plays, it’s kept language front and center. Marty Hughley’s reviews for ArtsWatch of the current season’s first four shows underline the festival’s continuing commitment to the power of words.
The 2015 season lineup doesn’t look like an exception. Sweat, a premiere, continues the festival’s relationship with the fine African American writer Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Intimate Apparel, Crumbs from the Table of Joy). Shakespeare’s Pericles and Much Ado About Nothing will play indoors, as will the great American musical Guys and Dolls, which with its high-comedy and low-comedy characters is structured like a Shakespeare play. The other two slots go to Fingersmith, Alexa Junge’s premiere adaptation of a Victorian-style mystery novel by Sarah Waters; and the Chinese hit Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, which will be directed by its author, Stan Lai.
Arguing over programming in Ashland is something of a sport among West Coast theater followers. And with eleven slots each year, the festival has to think about balancing not just one season, but a succession of seasons, setting its own artistic course while also paying attention to competing demands from its audiences. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a bit more of that 1960s fascination with the other Elizabethans: Webster, Jonson, Marlowe, Beaumont, and the like – at least a sprinkling, to put Shakespeare into his historical context. It might be cool to see a production of the maybe-it-is, maybe-it-ain’t Shakespeare play Double Falsehood. (Most say it ain’t, but so what?) As long as the festival’s keen on musicals, I’d love to see The Boys from Syracuse, the rarely produced adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, with its terrific Rodgers & Hart score. If we’re going for non-language theater, how about a short run by Oregon Ballet Theatre or Eugene Ballet of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s astonishing music? Mostly, I want the festival to prod me with projects I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.
And the audiences continue to vote.
In a little over a week I’m heading to Ashland to catch this year’s early-season plays. Except I won’t be seeing the Harlem Renaissance-set Comedy of Errors: weeks ahead of time, when I sat down to order tickets, it was already sold out. Which means I’ll have to see it during the summer, when my family and I make another trip to take in what we can’t see this month. Quick, somebody. Save this theater from itself.