All Classical Radio James Depreist

Ashland on the big stage: light yet bright

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor-theater "Jane Eyre" and "Much Ado About Nothing" don't plumb all the depths, but both succeed as sparkling entertainment.

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From left: Caroline Schaffer, Thilini Dissanyake, Jennie Greenberry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Jane Eyre." Photo: Jenny Graham
From left: Caroline Schaffer, Thilini Dissanyake, Jennie Greenberry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Jane Eyre.” Photo: Jenny Graham

The two outdoor shows playing in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland are packed with intention and invention, and are primed to please crowds this summer. Both are helmed by female directors loved by OSF audiences, and both reflect some effort to grapple with thematic challenges in beloved classic material. Though not wholly satisfying on that score, both productions will delight audiences and perhaps spark further grappling. 

The novel Jane Eyre is a soul favorite of mine, beloved since I first read it when I was 10.  It’s been adapted many times (I’m partial to the 2011 film with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender) but it’s a story notoriously difficult to capture in its fullness. I would not say that the adaptation used for this summer’s production at OSF, by Elizabeth Williamson, manages that feat — I don’t think Williamson has managed to capture the contemporary relevance of the story’s central dilemma and the importance of Jane and Mr. Rochester as heroes. But as directed by Dawn Monique Williams, and featuring two charismatic leads, OSF’s Jane Eyre is a swoony romance with a captivating heroine. It capitalizes on the most accessible beats of the story.

For those not familiar with the novel, Jane Eyre is a young Victorian woman who navigates challenging social circumstances with fierceness and an uncommon capacity to see beyond convention to the truth of what is happening. Being an orphan with no willing benefactor and being a woman still carry challenges today, but the challenges were notably steeper in Victorian England. Jennie Greenberry embodies Jane’s remarkable clarity and natural ability to question what was thought unquestionable during her time, though the play doesn’t capture how much that capacity likely increased her life’s challenges.

 Jennie Greenberry as Jane and Armando McClain as Mr. Rochester. Photo: Jenny Graham
 Jennie Greenberry as Jane and Armando McClain as Mr. Rochester. Photo: Jenny Graham

At first the proprietor of the house where she takes a job as a governess, Mr. Rochester, seems like one of those challenges — but there are also glimmers even from their first encounter that there is more to him than meets the eye. Though he can be abrupt and harsh, as might be expected for a man in his position, he responds to aspects of Jane’s character that have not been received well or even noticed elsewhere. What he sees in Jane comes through more clearly in the novel itself, deepening the data that helps us see why the two form such an unlikely bond.

I love and identify with Jane for complicated reasons, but have always felt that Mr. Rochester is just as much a key to this story, and less well understood. Armando McClain is a wonderful Rochester — powerful, imposing, and also kind. He and Greenberry capture the connection between the two, even while the adaptation feels lighter than the source material.

What I found myself wishing for was a deeper engagement with what drives Rochester, which involves the problematic aspects of the story. Without spoiling the plot for those who will encounter it for the first time, Rochester is just as trapped as Jane is, but it is harder to see because he has wealth and power.  Even while Jane is often confused by Rochester, her purity of heart conveys a respect (for him as well as for herself) that goes beyond convention, and that awakens hope in him. The story contains some wisdom about the barriers that keep people from living into connections that are real and healing for them.

In this rendering, audiences may well assume the barriers faced by Jane and Rochester to be a relic of the past, about how people viewed marriage in the Victorian age. But such barriers still exist, and the way around them generally benefits from the full consent, courage, and resourcefulness of both parties.  The difficulties these two encounter in finding that way could be captured better than in this adaptation.

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Fortunately, I doubt anyone will have trouble entering the story and rooting for Jane and Rochester, who are supported by a very fine ensemble. Director Williams has injected some moments of lightness and joy that may communicate indirectly that barriers that feel insurmountable are not necessarily so — and I hope some audience members will reflect on what this story might have to say about the barriers that feel just as unsolvable today.

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Amy Kim Waschke and John Tufts as the sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Much Aso About Nothing," with Al Espinosa, Mark Murphey, Uma Paranjpe, and Cedric Lamar. Photo: Jenny Graham
Amy Kim Waschke and John Tufts as the sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Al Espinosa, Mark Murphey, Uma Paranjpe, and Cedric Lamar. Photo: Jenny Graham

Miriam Laube directs a vibrant production of Much Ado About Nothing this season. Her 17 seasons at OSF have mostly been as an actor, where she has demonstrated a facility with everything from Shakespeare to musicals (she was a memorable Hermione in The Winter’s Tale a few years back, and played Witch in OSF’s wonderful production of Into the Woods). That range and experience is on display in this production, which employs movement and music to carry this complicated comedy with lightness while making space for the troubling aspects of the story.

The most appealing part of Much Ado for most people (myself included) is the sparring between Benedick and Beatrice, who match each other in wit and also in their instinct that marriage is beneath them. One couldn’t wish for stronger leads than John Tufts and Amy Kim Waschke, who deftly balance physical comedy and the complicated emotions that Benedick and Beatrice so hilariously mismanage. The rest of the solid ensemble absolutely sell the enjoyment of provoking these two to a recognition of what is obvious to everyone else: that they are meant for each other. 

There is some enmity and misogyny embedded in this story that is harder to manage. An aggrieved character, Don John (Christian Denzel Bufford), resorts to diabolical means to undo an impending romance between two characters who seem to be relative innocents, Hero (Ava Mingo) and Claudio (Bradley James Tejeda); it’s an aspect of the story that I always find troubling and unsatisfying. But in this production, Bufford as Don John delivers a song early on that will absolutely break your heart (the production’s music is composed by Andre J. Pluess and Amanda Dehnert). Though it doesn’t resolve all questions, it’s a moment that affords humanity to the play’s identified but perhaps misunderstood villain.  In the end, the harm he causes says at least as much about everyone else as it says about him.

The chaos that Don John sets in motion ends up exposing misogyny in several characters, chiefly the previously likable Claudio. I doubt many people find the way the play resolves this entirely satisfying — but Laube here makes space for that dissatisfaction. Though everyone is celebrating at the end, there is some darkness in Hero’s bearing that holds the gravity of what has transpired. Mingo conveys the complexity of Hero’s experience well, and Tejeda, too, manages to hold space for our doubts about him. 

The fine work of all involved makes it all sing — notably, choreography by the always wonderful Jaclyn Miller, costumes by Helen Q. Huang, and music by Daniel Sherrill, Michal Palzewicz, and Reed Bentley.  The production deftly manages to bring you along with all the fun without erasing doubts that should linger.

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2024

  • Nine plays performed in three theaters on the festival campus in downtown Ashland.
  • Jane Eyre plays in repertory in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 11.
  • Much Ado About Nothing plays in repertory in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 12.
  • Full season schedule information here.
  • Darleen Ortega reviews Smote This and Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Danger here.
  • Darleen Ortega reviews Macbeth and Born With Teeth here.
  • Darleen Ortega reviews Lizard Boy and Virgins to Villains here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Darleen Ortega has been a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals since 2003 and is the first woman of color and the only Latina to serve in that capacity.  She has been writing about theater and films as an “opinionated judge” for many years out of pure love for both.

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