When considering the OSF seasonal offerings one must finally answer the question: Are they worth the schlep to southern Oregon, nearly California? Is there a reward to be found at the end of that long commuting rainbow? The 80 year old Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s opening weekend ensured all that there is indeed gold in them Ashland hills. I was able to catch three of the four plays now showing. Each offered a solid and rewarding theatrical experience. OSF continues to provide top of the line productions, featuring outstanding staging and stellar jobs of acting. Here are the great shows I caught on premiere weekend.
Much Ado About Nothing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre
This is a big, beautiful take on one of Shakespeare’s most charming comedies. Hundreds and hundreds of pink roses festoon the stage, streaming above and around glistening chandeliers. The flooring is a lush green grass. Danforth Comins and Christiana Clark are the sardonic Benedick and Beatrice, far too wise to ever be entrapped by foolish love. They both have some show stopping moments of hilarity when their peers manipulate them to indeed, fall for each other. On opening night they may be still missing some of the nuances of their relationship, but I imagine their roles will continue to blossom during their spring and summer run.
Jack Willis, fresh from his success playing LBJ here in Seattle, does a fine job as Leonato, the patriarch of the scene. He is simply a treasure to Northwest stages.
Rex Young is Dogberry, the bumbling leader of the watch. His team is one of the odder crews you could ever imagine on stage. Young hilariously transports himself on a spiffy black Segway.
The play is given a modern setting; the soldiers seem to be returning from our own Afghanistan conflict. One notable directorial choice is having the disgruntled Don John played by a woman (Regan Linton) who is now confined to a wheelchair. Composer and sound designer Yi Zhao contributed some startling modern musical effects for the production.
Pericles in the Thomas Theatre
The show has a unique history. When it first appeared for Elizabethan audiences, it was an often-performed hit. After some time it fell into disfavor and now is rarely seen. Some of the problems for the play may be laid to how difficult it is to categorize. The plot is a wacky melding of elements as disparate as Sinbad the Sailor and King Lear.
There is some disagreement about how much Shakespeare contributed to the writing, but we can easily hear his voice toward the latter half of the play.
The work follows the valiant Prince Pericles, a demanding role handled nicely by a talented Wayne T. Carr. Pericles journeys through a variety of settings and conflicts. Somehow, against overwhelming odds, he is even able to maintain a wife and a daughter.
It is easy to understand why the play was initially such a success. The episodic adventures fly by at a breakneck speed and include songs and dances, mysterious puzzles, magic death-defying potions, pirates, sinister brothels, temples of virgins and enough storms and shipwrecks for two or three plot lines. Closing scenes with the aged and withered Pericles are particularly moving.
The production requires a huge cast and most parts are doubled or tripled up. Jennie Greenberry and Brooke Parks turn in thoughtfully nuanced performances as Pericles’ daughter and wife.
The show is enhanced by off the charts production qualities. One of the sea storms in act one garnered its own round of applause. Francesca Talenti is responsible for the accompanying original folk style music and lyrics.
Guys and Dolls in the Angus Bowmer Theatre
Opening night found the audience so hyped, they even cheered the announcement delivered in a Damon Runyon dialect to turn off our cell phones. The full house was rewarded with a solid, old-fashioned knockout of a Broadway musical. The show is now 65 years old and can still hit a homerun.
Director Mary Zimmerman wisely lets the play do its own work and lays out a straight forward, tremendously satisfying evening of entertainment. Jeremy Peter Johnson plays Sky Masterson with more animation than I’ve seen in other productions for the cool leader of the gamblers. Rodney Gardiner is a wonderfully likeable Nathan Detroit. One can easily understand why poor Miss Adelaide continues to wait out their 14-year engagement period, ever hoping to catch this particular guy. Kate Hurster is the prim Sarah Brown and ably handles the soprano role.
The show is flat out stolen by OSF’s star Robin Goodrin Nordli, such a delight as the long-suffering Adelaide. She is able to find surprising depth in a role that is often reduced to one-note jokes.
Daniel T. Parker plays Nicely-Nicely Johnson, the gambler forced to belt out “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” at the downtown midnight prayer meeting. I sure wish that song was longer! The show is packed with highlights; none more breathtaking than the exuberant “Luck be a Lady” featuring dance moves that nearly blew the roof off the house.
All three of these shows will run through November 1, 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Fingersmith, a mystery written by the British novelist Susan Waters and adapted for the stage by Alexa Junge exclusively for OSF also opened this weekend. Waters was on hand to see its world première. In June, these plays will be joined by outdoor productions of Antony and Cleopatra, Head Over Heels and The Count of Monte Cristo. Long Day’s Journey into Night, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, The Happiest Song Plays Last and Sweat will also join the repertory as the year progresses. For more ticket information go to https://www.osfashland.org/experience-osf/box-office.