MYS Oregon to Iberia

Ashland sinks its teeth into ‘Macbeth’

As the Oregon Shakespeare Festival emerges from pandemic woes, the Scottish play and "Born with Teeth" shine brightly with smart design, pared-down staging and top-flight acting.


Erica Sullivan and Kevin Kenerly in OSF's "Macbeth." Photo: Jenny Graham
Erica Sullivan and Kevin Kenerly in OSF’s “Macbeth.” Photo: Jenny Graham

The energy in Ashland is hopeful as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival launches its first season under its new artistic director, Tim Bond. Like all theaters, OSF had a bumpy ride through the pandemic and is still feeling its way out of a host of attendant challenges. 

Audiences are not yet up to pre-pandemic levels and the impact on budget has required stripping things down in some ways. The ten-show 2024 season will include four solo shows, and the shows in each venue will share sets, so set design requires some stripped-down invention which allows for set change cost savings. 

Nevertheless, the new season doesn’t feel spartan. OSF has capitalized on its strengths, including a deep bank of beloved talent, to bring unmistakable, enthusiasm-sparking quality to its indoor stages.

The four solo works that will play during the season all feature artists with deep connections to OSF, and the development of each show benefited from those connections. The first two to open, featuring the versatile Lisa Wolpe and Rodney Gardner (reviewed here and playing through May 4 and May 12 respectively), share a bare set in the Thomas Theatre, though fine lighting by Valerie Pope and sound design by Joshua Horvath lift up the central performances. Fan favorites Robin Goodrin Nordli and Barzhin Arkhavan will open their solo shows in the same space with similar support, in May and July, respectively.

Meanwhile, two shows — Macbeth and Born With Teeth — will run through the full season in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. That’s a reduction in scale for OSF’s main indoor stage, which formerly housed more shows, each with fully complete sets; the muscular set for both of this year’s Bowmer shows was designed by Michael Locher to share the space. Though less elaborate than typical for the Bowmer, the design serves each production very well. Most importantly, both are strong productions that hum with the energy of extraordinarily fine acting.

Witchcraft and nightmares in the festival's "Macbeth." Photo: Jenny Graham
Witchcraft and nightmares in the festival’s “Macbeth.” Photo: Jenny Graham

The Scottish play will be most familiar to audiences; it’s a favorite of Shakespeare aficionados, and one could not wish for two stronger leads than Kevin Kenerly and Erica Sullivan, two longtime company members and among the best actors ever to appear at OSF. They are a match in every way, feeding off each other’s energy, alternately swept up in and driving a quest for power that seems to make sense inside the logic of their relationship, even while it ultimately destroys them. Watching the exchange of energy between them is among the real pleasures of this production, and carries a charge that drives much of the action. 

Movement is important to the delivery of the story, as directed by Evren Odcikin; battle scenes, both physical and interior, are often conveyed with strong choreography (devised by Jon Rua) and music and sound design by T. Carlis Roberts. The three witches (Kate Hurster, Jennie Greenberry, and Amy Lizardo, all excellent) shoot electricity through the action; theirs are also among the best of Melissa Torchia’s fine costumes.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

The overall impact evoked an enthusiastic response at opening. Whatever challenges OSF is navigating, it knows not to scrimp on presenting Shakespeare infused with energy and intention, with a strong cast and impeccable attention to voice, text, and movement. This production of the Scottish play affords a worthy anchor for the season, which will also offer two more shows for lovers of the Bard: Much Ado About Nothing will be presented outdoors during the summer and a modern-verse production of Coriolanus will move from Portland Center Stage to the Thomas Theatre in July.

Alex Purcell (top) and Bradley James Tejeda in "Born with Teeth." Photo: Jenny Graham
Alex Purcell (top) and Bradley James Tejeda in “Born with Teeth.” Photo: Jenny Graham

The Scottish play shares the Bowmer stage all season with Liz Duffy Adams’ riveting play Born with Teeth, which offers a different kind of delight for Shakespeare lovers. It’s an imagining of an extended collaboration between Will Shakespeare and the celebrated playwright Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, who was the true celebrity playwright during the time period of the play, though his fame has since been eclipsed by Shakespeare’s. Inspired by research-based speculation that the two rivals collaborated on the Henry VI cycle of plays now attributed to Shakespeare, Born With Teeth imagines two men of arguably equal talent but contrasting temperament and energy, creating art together while exploring what each might mean to the other.

There is real heat in this two-actor play. Bradley James Tejeda embodies Will with earnest energy; he has a family to support and is wary of risk that might jeopardize his ability to meet obligations and fulfill his ambitions. He at first appears a bit rattled by Alex Purcell’s brash Kit. The latter is supremely confident in his powers as a playwright and also as the smartest person in any room, capable of navigating the deadly political waters of their day, as men vie for favor with an embattled Queen Elizabeth. In a time of spies and intrigue, Kit thinks he can outplay everyone, not without reason — and he seeks to lure Will into higher-stakes adventures. In time, the ways each man relates to and wields his power, including over the other, provides the play’s intrigue.

Director Rob Melrose, who has journeyed with the play through its world premiere in Houston and on to two other productions, relished the idea of bringing the play to Ashland’s Shakespeare-loving audiences, whose appetite is likely to be high for this skillful and delightfully complex portrayal of the Bard. Some background in Shakespeare certainly aids in grasping some of the nuance here.

But honestly, there is a lot to appreciate here without much background. It’s enough to know that two super talents facing risk and danger might each have met their match, in art and in navigating their time.  Their shifts in power, the way each balances wit and will, what each chooses to hide from the world and from himself, and the sheer chemistry between the two men are riveting to watch. It’s an exciting production very worthy of its full-season run.

There is reason to hope that the two Bowmer shows can generate the sort of excitement OSF needs to continue rebuilding audience numbers. Both reflect smart investments in the essentials for theater of the highest quality — exciting work with strong performances that leave audiences with lots to think about. 

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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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