Written with Susan Finque
We’ve been visiting Ashland and its Oregon Shakespeare Festival for over twenty-five years now and are consistently impressed with both its quality and desire to continually improve its product. The workmanship, focus and sheer pizzazz of its current productions are remarkable. Yes, it is a long drive from the Puget Sound, but if you enjoy live theatre and have the time and resources, we urge you to head south for this year’s offerings from OSF. Here are a few of the shows we were able to catch on our visit.
Danforth Comins’ take on the role of Hamlet may be the most successful we have ever seen. He is intent on making every line accessible to the audience, no easy task when tackling Shakespeare’s biggest part. Director Lisa Peterson has rethought many aspects of this play and has enough fresh ideas for a dozen shows. Local musician Scot Kelly supplies the electric guitar accompaniment for the production and allows Hamlet to be the ultimate angry heavy metal/Goth rock star. The concept works wonderfully, helping the audience focus on the wild shifts in sentiment written into his character. On rare moments, the music could have dropped out to allow key lines of a particular soliloquy to succeed with the Bard’s words alone, but more often the unique musical touches were very effective.
Derrick Lee Weeden takes Polonius from a one-note character to a surprisingly moving portrayal of a conflicted but warm-hearted father. Peterson has him appear as a ghost at his daughter’s funeral. Speaking of ghosts, at times you may feel as if you had stumbled into an Elizabethan version of The Sixth Sense; a bevy of spirits are flying around Edinburgh’s castle for much of the play and it all works marvelously.
From the program notes, director Christopher Liam Moore points out that “Hollywood of the 1930’s was the epicenter of the invention of self” and the 1930’s Hollywood movie musical where characters will go to absurd lengths to find love is “the perfect world to set our Twelfth Night in 2016.” The concept makes for a joyful romp of a show. Gina Daniels is the film star Olivia, the moody love interest of Orsino, the head of Illyria Studios (Elijah Alexander). He employs the shipwrecked Viola disguised as a young man (a delightfully energetic Sara Bruner) to help him court Olivia who simply wants to be left alone, until she falls for Viola. Bruner will also assume the role of her twin brother Sebastian. This makes for some jaw dropping stage magic for later scenes of the play require both the brother and sister to be on stage simultaneously. Ted Deasy as Olivia’s prudish steward Malvolio nearly steals the show in his hilariously ineffectual pursuit of Olivia’s love. Rodney Gardiner sings and dances into your heart as Feste, a commentator on the plot’s wild machinations.
The Winter’s Tale
The show is OSF’s first Shakespearean play staged through an Asian-American lens. Set in the lovely outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater, it offers a gorgeous visual spectacle. The script is a bit schizophrenic; the first acts more of a Winter’s Tale than the much lighter second half. Director Desdemona Chiang has the early scenes utilize settings reflecting the formal Han dynasty while the later acts’ backgrounds represent Asian-American life inspired by Chinese experiences in the New World. Leontes, king of Sicilia, inherits many of Othello’s jealousy genes and falsely accuses his innocent wife Hermione of infidelity. Death and destruction come to his kingdom. Yet, unlike the tragic Othello, Leontes will have a chance at redemption when his abandoned daughter is able to right all chaos and bring life and order back to her homeland. The staging seems to echo Leontes’ line “Your actions are my dream,” for the entire production maintains a mystical dreamlike tone. Shakespeare’s strangest stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” is masterfully brought to life on the stage by the troop.
This rollicking musical from the 1970’s is also performed in Ashland’s outdoor venue. As always, OSF’s production qualities are top notch and when darkness falls, the Emerald City materializes in majestic hues of green. Director Robert O’Hara keeps the pace brisk, with each scene following immediately on the heels of its predecessor. The cast is filled with Broadway-quality vocalists. Young Ashley D. Kelley (she will be replaced by Britney Simpson August 18) is a delight as Dorothy, the young Kansas traveler. Yvette Monique Clark as Auntie Em, brings the house down with her opening number “The Feeling We Once Had.” J. Cameron Barnett, Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark all nail their featured songs as the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion. While the script could do more with its urban take on L. Frank Baum’s classic, the evening is able to “Ease on Down the Road” most pleasurably.
Lisa Loomer’s work covering the groundbreaking Roe vs. Wade decision is the sleeper hit of OSF’s season. Part of the American Revolutions series that includes L.B.J.’s story “All the Way,” director Bill Rauch ensures this historical piece comes wonderfully alive. The play focuses on the human qualities of the key figures of the tale: the young lawyer Sarah Weddington played by Sarah Jane Agnew and the real Jane Roe, Norma McCorvey, portrayed by Sara Bruner, in a complete 180 from her work as Viola in Twelfth Night. The show begins with the two women telling conflicting stories about the landmark case. Nine judges sit stoically upstage. Suddenly the narrative comes alive as the judges change costumes and become characters in the case. Catherine Castellanos as McCorvey’s sometime partner and Jeffrey King as a pro-life zealot from the Rescue Mission both present breath taking moments as the complex tale unfolds. Most notably, the play never preaches to the audience about abortion; Loomer instead highlights the remarkably complex humanity of Weddington and McCorvey, two fascinating women whose destinies were fated to cross on one of the largest stages imaginable.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland runs until October 30, 2016. For ticket information call 800-219-8161 or go to osfashland.org.