Monday, August 18, 2008

Oregon Shakespeare Report, 2008

"Stay 2 days, see 4 plays..."

Each year for the past 4 years I have bid farewell to summer vacation with a pilgrimage to the town the Bard built - Ashland, Oregon, host to the justifiably world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Just 15 miles north of the California border, and blessed with being roughly equidistant between San Francisco and Portland, Ashland is the perfect getaway for Elizabethan buffs, minus the jet-lag. Quaint without being too cute, and just enough removed from Medford to avoid being a suburb, Ashland has become synonymous with Shakespeare by annually presenting four of his plays on three different stages. And that's not to mention the slew of other dramas and comedies performed each year, from Sophocles to Moliere, from Ibsen to Chekhov, from Wilson to Wilde.

It's an understatement to say that one has not seen the whole of North American theatre until coming to OSF.

Since the July 4th weekend of 2005, when I was dumbstruck by James Newcomb's total embodiment of Richard III on the eve of the festival's 70th anniversary, I have annually braved the 6 1/2 hour drive up I-5 from the SF Bay Area to the land where-thou-mayst-not-pump-thine-own-gas. Though southern Oregon offers numerous things to do (Crater Lake National Park, Rogue River rafting, wineries galore, etc.), I find myself longing to just hang out in Bard-land.

In so doing, I have developed some miniature Ashland traditions.

1. I ALWAYS sleep (but NEVER stay) in Medford (aka "Dreadford"), if only because it's cheaper... would that the Ashland Hostel would reopen its much-needed doors.

2. I ALWAYS order the *Much Ado About Cheese* panini from Pangea's in downtown Ashland... at least once.

3. I ALWAYS get Cascade Mountain Berry ice cream at Zoey's Cafe after an Elizabethan Stage performance (they're open until late for that reason).

4. I ALWAYS hang out in Lithia Park, which must surely rank amongst the 3 best city parks in the country.

5. I ALWAYS look out for OSF-regular Catherine E. Coulson (THE LOG LADY!), even if she's not in a play I'm seeing. (Mission accomplished on Saturday - spotted her crossing the street).

6. I NEVER pay for parking (even if it's only a few bucks for all day).

I have yet to regret a trip or the theatrical experience(s), though some moments have completely outshone others.

Therein lies the point of this blog - to review the 4 Shakespearean plays performed at OSF in 2008.

CORIOLANUS (New Theatre), 1:30pm, Friday August 15, 2008

Shakespeare meets... Rambo? That's not as much of a stretch as you might imagine, considering Laird Williamson's modern interpretation of Shakespeare's underperformed masterpiece (which has been necessarily truncated for length, though much preserved in language). Ancient Rome meets the modern war field as Caius Martius - aka Coriolanus (Danforth Comins, FINALLY in his first of what is sure to be many star roles) - refuses to flatter his countrymen after saving their hides... and seeks revenge through assisting his adversary Tullus Aufidius (who better but Michael Elich?). Watch as one warrior of a mama's boy (mama Volumnia being played by the formidable Robynn Rodriguez) gets what's coming to him... AK-47s and Bowie-knife fights abound, taking full advantage of the intimate New Theatre in a production you're not soon to forget.

MY VERDICT - Watch your Shakespeare-hating friends change their minds after getting a load of this.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Elizabethan Stage), 8pm, Friday August 15, 2008

Error, indeed - ironically, this *adaptation* of Shakespeare's comedy about mistaken identity could easily be mistaken for a non-OSF play. Easily the simplest play in the canon, in terms of language, plot, and substance (though not in laughs, which abound), The Comedy of Errors has been performed ten times previously by OSF, and presumably without abridgement or *adaptation.*

Penny Metropulos has changed the setting from Ephesus to gun-slinging Texas ("West of the Pecos!") - hardly a crime in itself. What IS inexcusable is sifting haphazardly from country-western dialects to Shakespearean verse, when the latter would serve the plays' needs just fine.

If it ain't broke, Penny, don't fix it.

Also inexcusable is Miriam Laube - MUST she slow down and mar every play I've seen her in with her stilted, gasping, husky delivery? She seems to revel in her own over-acting, and furthermore is not in tune with her compatriots. Is it my vindictive imagination, or are they overly eager to pick up the pace when she turns it over to their lines?

Maybe it's just me... but I'm NOT a fan.

Sorry for the diatribe. In fairness to Laube, she does have a number of good reviews to her credit (for Broadway / Off-Broadway performances).

A final note - the *innovation* of narrator Jose Luiz (played by the amusing Rene Millan) is... interesting. This could have been made without the expense of the Shakespearean totality.

MY VERDICT - Good (and funny) as slapstick, terrible as Shakespeare. Do NOT make this your first OSF experience.

OTHELLO (Elizabethan Stage), 8pm, Saturday August 16, 2008

Finally - a return to the Big Four. Along with Hamlet (last performed in 2000), King Lear (2004), and Macbeth (2002), Othello towers above the rest of the tragedies, if not the whole of Shakespeare's canon.

And why shouldn't it? Iago is, as one critic put it, a "moral pyromaniac," setting fire to his African superior's views of his wife and her sexual fidelity, mostly just to delight in the wake of ensuing destruction. Director Lisa Peterson has crafted the most orthodox Shakespearean production of the year, with a faithful period presentation in Elizabethan costume. In of itself, this would not be worthy of praise (see below for an example of a gloriously unorthodox interpretation of the Bard) - what is worthy is how Peterson and her stupendous cast bring the audience straight to Cyprus, and straight into the heart of hellish jealousy and rage. Peter Macon's Othello appears modest enough at first- a worthy general, faithfully in love with Desdemona (the perfectly cast Sarah Rutan), trusting of his ensign Iago... Through Iago (masterfully played by Dan Donohue)'s suggestive lies about his superior's wife, Othello - or rather Peter Macon - is completely transformed into an explosive beast of a man betrayed, though not by the one he suspects. Set designer Rachel Hauck's minimalist scheme of black shadows and white light couldn't be more indicative of the play's racial and moral overtones. Rounding out the cast are Danforth Comins as a worthy Cassio, Christopher DuVal as a delightfully dopey Rodrigo, and Vilma Silva as Iago's misused wife, Emilia.

On a side note - as if to confirm the electricity of the performance, Mother Nature provided her own lightning, to fill up the Ashland sky overhead at 10 second intervals. God must be a fan as well.

MY VERDICT - This year's overall winner (and arguably the best play at OSF since Libby Appel and Rachel Hauck's Richard III in 2005).... even without the lightning.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Angus Bowmer Theatre), 1:30pm, Sunday August 17, 2008

By far the biggest crowd-pleaser at OSF (whose crowds are quite discerning, mind you), festival newcomer Mark Ruckner's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes the play you know and love - and makes you love it even more. Show-stealing as always, freshly-coiffed Michael Elich and his Bronx accent and innuendos set the tone for the rest of the play. "I wooed thee with my sword" he tells his wife - and that's not his rapier we're talking about, folks.

The unorthodox sets and costumes find their mark with the play's two subsets of characters - the amateur actors and the fairies. The extremely funny U. Jonathan Toppo and Ray Porter lead the former (and even drive a psychedelic sort of Mystery Machine onstage!), while John Tufts, as Puck, and Kevin Kenerly, as Oberon, command the troop of fairies. And by *fairies,* well... let's just say Ruckner's imagination brought forth the best out of a certain connotation of the word... if you follow my meaning...

(HINT - Castro District).

Did I mention this was an unorthodox interpretation? There's even a dance party - but don't let that stop you.

Christopher Michael Rivera (Demetrius), Tasso Feldman (Lysander), Emily Sophia Knapp (Hermia) and Kjerstine Anderson (Helena) round out the cast as a motley crew of confused, and magically abused, lovers.... who run around in their underwear half of the time.

MY VERDICT - This is laugh-out loud funny, and drew by far the biggest applause of the 4 plays, if that is indicative of its strength. Small caveat - pretty risque for the wee-ones.



All's Well That Ends Well

Much Ado About Nothing

Henry VIII

1 comment:

Melissa said...

It sounds like fun! Glad you had a good trip!