Ashland theater

Ashland’s season to shake it up

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival meets the times with a hybrid season of new and old: plays on video now, maybe live onstage later

Seasons change, as one of nature’s great truisms holds. In a sense, seasons also are about change, shaped by, yet also initiating, cycles of piecemeal progression and eternal return. 

So it all is, so to speak, for the recently announced 2021 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Attempting a nimble and multifaceted response to the ongoing crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on the public gatherings that help define theater, OSF will roll out a slate of productions – both on stage and on digital video – that marks big changes from Ashland traditions and also is very much subject to change.

“Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!” cries Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour) over the slain Julius Caesar (Armando Durán). The 2017 Ashland production returns via video in 2021. Photo: Jenny Graham

The new season, OSF’s first to combine its expanding digital platform, called O!, with live performances on the Ashland campus, begins March 1 with, well, a re-run. A video capture of the powerful 2017 production of Julius Caesar – directed by Shana Cooper and starring Armando Duran, Danforth Comins and Rodney Gardiner — does keep with the tradition of starting each season with the festival’s namesake playwright. Two other recent hits, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta, which contrasts Native American lives across centuries, and Snow in Midsummer, a modern ghost story based on a classical Chinese drama, complete the spring offerings. The streaming schedule, however, essentially serves up one show per month from March through May; you won’t be able to binge watch them all in an attempt to replicate an Ashland opening weekend.

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‘Romeo and Juliet,’ fresh again

Jaded from too many R&Js? Dámaso Rodriguez's production for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival makes the tale seem vital and new.

ASHLAND — Romeo and Juliet must be a theater director’s greatest challenge. How does one make what is arguably the best-known play in the English language fresh and new for audiences who have probably seen or read a version or several of this play already?

Ask Dámaso Rodriguez, who directs the production running through October 12 on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Allen Elizabethan Stage. He manages in a number of ways to make Romeo and Juliet something new, without gimmicks and while sticking closely to the original play.

Nurse (Robin Goodrin Nordli) tells Juliet (Emily Ota) that her cousin Tybalt has been killed and her husband Romeo has been banished from Verona. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

First, instead of casting the role of “Chorus,” he has the entire cast — shrouded in white or black cloaks — serve as the chorus. Romeo and Juliet, in fact, recite the opening setup, in which the narrator/Chorus tells us what is about to transpire. Having the star-crossed lovers themselves tell us their own fates has a profound impact here, because you find yourself wondering why, if they know what’s about to happen, can’t they stop it? Which is, as Rodriguez explains in the playbill, the real tragedy: “The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet isn’t their untimely death but the myriad ways it could have been avoided.” He heightens that sense of “WHY CAN’T THEY MAKE IT STOP?!” over and over, starting with them reading us their own fates.

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Saving Shakespeare, word by word

Ashland's daring and delightful "The Book of Will" tells the tale of the Bard's company rescuing his plays (and themselves) after his death

ASHLAND — It’s no secret that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival loves Shakespeare’s plays. The company was created 83 years ago to perform his works, and has been doing so ever since. In the past decade, though, it’s also demonstrated a passion for stories about the most famous playwright who’s ever lived. In 2009 the festival staged the world premiere of Bill Cain’s Equivocation; then the movie-turned-play Shakespeare in Love last season; and now popular playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will — as much a tribute to the players who loved the Bard as a tribute to the Bard himself.

This production — one of three that opened in June on the stage of the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre, the largest of the festival’s three performance spaces — is perhaps the perfect play for OSF audiences, who geek out on their own love of the Bard and can wholly relate to characters like John Heminges (Jeffrey King), whose wife, Rebecca (Kate Mulligan) tells him, “Most people go to church. You went to the Globe.” And the cast is filled with OSF veterans (plus a couple of newer faces) who have a love of Shakespeare in common with their audiences.

Henry Condell (David Kelly) and John Heminges (Jeffrey King) are pleased by the reaction of Anne Hathaway (Kate Mulligan) to the newly completed folio of her late husband’s plays. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

King, David Kelly, and Kevin Kenerly — with 66 years at OSF among them — bring the last of The King’s Men (the acting company of which Will was a part) to life as The Book of Will opens. It will be King’s Heminges and Kelly’s Henry Condell who do the bulk of the work here. These are the two friends who ensured Will’s words would live on. But Kenerly gets to shine brightest in the opening scene: He portrays Richard Burbage, after all, the head of the King’s Men and the star of Shakespeare’s plays. Burbage is angry about how folks are performing Shakespeare since Will’s death, and he shows off to one young actor in a tavern, giving Kenerly opportunity to perform bits from some of the great plays of the canon. It’s glorious to see Kenerly — who’s played Romeo, Hotspur, Macduff, Orlando, Oberon, and many others — show off his own craft, and Burbage’s.

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Ashland: ‘Oklahoma!’ for today

Bill Rauch's gender-fluid revival of the classic musical at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival breaks into fresh new territory for a new age

ASHLAND — Oklahoma! broke new ground when it debuted in 1943: It was the first time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II paired up to create a musical, for starters. If you’re skeptical that it could still break new ground in 2018, you are not alone. It’s hard to imagine a musical about finding love in the Oklahoma Territory as very relevant, let alone earth-shattering, in today’s world.

But before you write it off, take a peek at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version, which opened last month and continues through October 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. This new production is directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the visionary who has led the festival since 2007 and will depart in August 2019 to lead the Perelman Center in New York’s World Trade Center. Rauch has pushed OSF further into embracing inclusion, diversity, and equity —and that is nowhere clearer than in his Oklahoma!

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This is inclusive rethinking and casting at its most innovative. Rauch’s production reimagines Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) as a woman and Ado Annie becomes Ado Andy, a flirtatious boy torn between his affections for Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler (Barzin Akhavan makes this character more than the stereotype you might recall from previous versions), and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour), the not-that-bright-but-in-love cowboy. Jonathan Luke Stevens is pitch-perfect as this reimagined Ado Andy. When he explains to Laurey that no “fellers” gave him the time of day until he “rounded up a little,” he shoves his rear end out for emphasis. This is a (hilarious) breath of fresh air for women, who have suffered our whole lives at the stereotype of men desiring nothing more than a buxom bombshell. Stevens’ entire performance is made funnier because he is a man at the “butt” of these far-overdone female stereotypes (for example, when Will calls him the “sweetest sugar in the territory” or says he is going to “make an honest woman out of him”).

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