Whenever I think of OSF’s location in tiny Ashland, at the very bottom of Oregon, I shake my head in bewilderment. No way can a venue, miles and miles from any significant cosmopolitan locale, garner the quality and magic that this organization continually generates. Yet they do; they most certainly do. This spring, my colleague Sarah Woolf reviewed OSF’s earlier openings for our site. I recently came down to take in their three outdoor productions in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre as well as a unique world premiere being staged in the indoor Angus Bowmer theatre. The four shows were very different but manifested all that is special and celebratory about live theater in the twenty-first century.
The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Elizabethan Theatre
The setting, an eye-popping collection of brightly colored, oversized flowers, suggests Alice in Wonderland on steroids. The tunes (Whitney Houston, Poison, Heart, Blondie and more) are from the late 80’s. The costumes are a giddy mix of Jane Fonda workout togs and early Elizabethan wear. The fun is right now!
The English Renaissance crowds loved the ribald character, Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and wanted him to return in another work. Wise Will knew how to give the theater world what it needed rather than what it wanted, for this play’s Falstaff is much less lovable and far craftier than his earlier persona in the history plays. The comeuppance he receives in Merry Wives might be all the more satisfying.
In a masterstroke of casting, K.T. Vogt assumes a ridiculous beard, an outlandish codpiece and the role of Falstaff. Picture Melissa McCarthy doing Shakespeare and you won’t be far off. Vogt’s unabandoned approach to her role is breathtaking. She will leave no stone unturned in mining the biggest laughs out of the predicaments in which Falstaff finds himself. Vogt has a couple of show-stopping moments of physical comedy that allow her to make the large outdoor venue her very own.
Vilma Silva and Amy Newman as the merry wives Mistresses Ford and Page exhibit all the joy of an Elizabethan Lucy and Ethyl as they successfully pull off one prank after another on old Falstaff and their less than astute, but adoring husbands. Jamie Ann Romero and William Demeritt merrily play the young lovers who are the perfect antidote to all the selfish and pernicious machinations in which so many of the characters are immersed.
The time setting of the late1980’s with its laser focus on the acquisition of money, fits nicely under the thematic concepts of the play. As Master Ford points out at the play’s conclusion, wealth may purchase land, but far more important and mysterious qualities make up the world of love.
The Odyssey at the Elizabethan Theatre
Can this classroom classic come to life in 2017? OSF is quite aware of the challenge. In the very opening scene, director Mary Zimmerman has Christiana Clark play the role of a put-upon student struggling to get through the first lines of her assigned reading, The Odyssey. What in the world is Homer talking about, asking for help from a “muse” to tell a story? Suddenly Amy Newman, as the muse accosts Clark, putting her into some kind of mythic trance; soon Clark transforms into the goddess Athena and off we go into one epic production! Zimmerman who also adapted the work, covers nearly all the major adventures of the long suffering Odysseus. The work clocks in at a very fast moving 3 hours. Christopher Donahue takes on the lead role; a big actor taking on a big part.
The bare stage serves as a useful platform for the many tales that ensue. It is a delight to watch the troupe use a bagful of theatrical tricks, utilizing any object and nearly any body part to help relate their adventures. Actors transform into wild beasts, fierce storms and a myriad of other natural forces to help the narrative come alive. The hilarious concept used here for the Sirens, the famous women that tempt all men and nearly throw Odysseus off course, resulted in a scene worth the price of admission.
The work has particular fun with the enigmatic role of the gods in this story. Hermes and Poseidon are often hapless and ineffectual; Athena amazingly crafty and loyal to her man Odysseus. As for the almighty Zeus….well he hovers well above all the action, appearing to be some kind of powerful Greek shipping mogul. The production presents the intertwining roles of fate, human will and the Olympian gods’ power that make up the background canvas upon which Homer lays out his episodic tale.
Most notable were the play’s very quiet moments near the end of the production where Odysseus, his wife Penelope (a brilliant Kate Hurster) and his son Telemachus (Benjamin Bonenfant) gamely reestablish their family and learn to appreciate the “sweetness of home.” After all the monsters and battles and magic spells, the classic finally focuses on the small pleasures that make our lives worth living on this difficult planet.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Elizabethan Theatre
OSF decided not to try to compete with the Broadway glitz of the original production. Despite the large venue, this is a remarkably human scaled rendition of the fairytale. Incoming crowds hear actors warming up backstage, stagehands set up stage props in full view of the crowd before the show’s opening. An actress takes center stage to recite the do’s and don’ts for the audience before assuming the role of Babette (OSF regular, the talented Robin Goodrin Nordli). The approach helps bring the larger concerns of the story into focus. With this production, the importance of a good and true heart, the acceptance of our differences and the significance of righting our wrongs all come into sharp relief amid the songs and action of the famous tale.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have two wonderfully talented actors assume the lead roles. Jennie Greenberry brings a knockout voice and a focused intensity to the role of Belle. Jordan Barbour’s classic singing and acting chops are on full display as he portrays the Beast. OSF veteran David Kelly seems to be having a ball as the giddy Lumiere.
Eschewing some of the larger theatrical flourishes, the cast is able to emphasize the importance of the camaraderie the cursed servants established in the long-suffering castle. Parenting alert: the production also devises a very different ending to the tale; it is quite effective but made some of the younger audience around me a little uneasy for a while.
Unison at the Angus Bowmer Theatre
This riveting one-act is inspired by the mostly unpublished poetry of the African-American playwright August Wilson. The play imagines a dying poet (a brilliant Steven Sapp) bequeathing a large chest to his apprentice (Asia Mark) with instructions that both the chest and its contents must be destroyed. But like Pandora, the apprentice is overcome with curiosity; she opens the trunk accidentally pulling the Poet from the afterlife and unleashing the Poet’s seven “Terrors.”
While the themes of these terrors reflect ideas and works that consumed Wilson’s work, the production is not a straight recitation of the playwright’s poems. Instead problems like race identity, women’s rights and marital faithfulness are explored in music, speech, video and dance. The work was composed by a collective writing group calling themselves Universes, consisting of Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, all of who appear in the play.
While I wished for more variety in the tone of the work, which leaned toward a very dramatic darkness, I was impressed by the high quality of the acting, singing and dancing throughout. The play certainly piqued my interest in further exploring the life of Wilson to find out how many of the events depicted link to the playwright’s life.
Interestingly, the Poet, much like Odysseus, really only desires to return to a safe and peaceful home. The play leaves us with a vibrant picture of a conflicted, somewhat tortured life, finally ending in celebratory art. Driving back to Seattle after watching all these shows, celebratory art was much on my mind. The magic of expertly performed theater can provide so much life, love and joyous celebration. It is so wonderful that the enchantment is waiting for us all right there down Highway 5!