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Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens its 2009 season
Sarah Agnew as Jean

THE OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

THE 2009 SEASON: SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW AND A BIG BRASS BAND

 

There is something magic about driving up to Ashland, Oregon to enter a world where theater is far more than entertainment.  It is the raison d'être: the very justification for existence to everyone there.  The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been providing top quality drama to the West Coast and beyond for almost 75 years and despite the dire threat of economic collapse for the rest of the nation, it is doing very well indeed.  “We took seven and a half million dollars from the budget,” said Executive Director Paul Nicholson.  “Yet, we tried to preserve the integrity of the productions themselves.”

OSF is one of the few regional theater companies that operate with a profit and that is no accident.  Once you attend an OSF production, you are hooked.  People return year after year and always discover something excitingly new or comfortably old on the OSF stage.  The company attracts well over ten thousand visitors a year.  “It’s very clear that we really matter to a lot of people,” Nicholson continued.  “And strangely enough, price isn’t a huge factor in determining our attendance.  In challenging times, people have a need to come together to attend performances such as we offer here.”

          Great theater is what it is all about in Ashland and everybody who attends the OSF productions treats themselves to professional, high quality productions, innovatively staged and sensitively portrayed.  ”Our goal is to have something for everyone,” said Artistic Director Bill Rauch.  “We try to make theater relevant.  But in the end, I have to trust ultimately in my own taste.” 

The opening weekend productions dealt with various facets of what constitutes a good life and the many ways we deal with death. As the season progresses, each play seems to find its own voice so that to see the opening presentation is only a hint of what each will become by the end of the season.  MACBETH, a beloved favorite of mine was a mixed bag of pleasure and disappointment for me on the Angus Bowmer stage.   “My passion for this play lies in its complex themes and deep underlying study of human behavior in extremis,” said director Gale Edwards.  “What are we all capable of, given the right circumstances, the right temptations and the right psychosis?....If theatre holds a mirror up to life, than this is indeed a play for our times.”

Peter Macon was a conflicted, agonized Macbeth and Robin Goodrin Nordli a macho and aggressive Lady Macbeth.  Both actors had celestial moments: speeches that captured our hearts and stayed with us long after the play had ended.  When Macbeth says, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.” you want to say, “Yes! I’ve been there.  I know! I really know how you feel.”

  When Lady Macbeth descends the staircase weeping and distraught, wringing hands that once were covered with Duncan’s blood crying “Here's the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand," you cry for her, loving her, understanding her agony because what was done cannot be undone. 

Kevin Kenerly rose to distinction when he realizes his wife and children have been slaughtered. In this scene alone, his are not merely words, they are cries of indescribable pain and we all are as wounded as he at the senseless loss he suffers.

Yet, for the most part, the cast was only acting their parts.  The people on stage had memorized a script but they had not become their characters.  It seemed to me that the goal of this production was to shock the audience and jar them into recognizing the significance of each sequence instead of building on the cumulative personal horror these beings feel as their tragedy accelerates.

The three witches were a delightful exception and they are nothing short of amazing in this production.  You want to package them and use them liberally at every Halloween party you attend.   Unlike too many in this cast, they were in every moment; they were frightening seers of a future they dreaded as much as we did. They knew what we did not and we knew that they did. 

That said, the pace of this production was excellent, the characters said their lines, fought with vigor and the message was clear: Ambition can eat you up and warp your moral boundaries.   And yet…. and yet. …when the lights dimmed and last curtain call was taken, I walked out of the theater with a sense that something was missing.  Whenever I see a Shakespeare tragedy I am struck by how relevant it is not just to our present time, but to ME.  This production said the right words, did the proper motions, but it did not grab me.  I suspect that as the season progresses and the actors become more immersed in their roles, I will have a very different reaction.

DEATH AND THE KING’S HORSEMAN is based on a real incident that occurred in Nigeria in 1946 when time-honored tribal customs meet an inflexible British bureaucracy with tragic results.  It opens in a lively Yoruba marketplace filled with poetry, riddles and music.  The staging is glorious and the audience captivated by the color and panache of the scene.  We meet Derrick Lee Weeden, who is masterful as Elesin, the horseman of the king who is honored to take his own life and eager  to follow the destiny of his ruler.  We see him decide to spend his last hours on life, making love to a young girl so that his seed will live on after he is gone.  We are told over and over that Elesin is readying himself to undertake a death that is an honor and a responsibility for his people.  The problem is that we believed him the first time. We didn’t need the message hammered into us.  By the end of Act I, I had the feeling I had swallowed way too much of a very good thing.

 It is the second act that saves the play. We see the arrogance and hubris the British had for their subjects, the complete lack of respect and sensitivity to the value of the culture they ruled.  “Death and the King’s Horseman though written nearly forty years ago, resonates with.. …a presumption on the part of a dominant culture about what is right and good for another,” says director Chuck Smith.  “I urge all who experience this play regardless of cultural heritage, to resist the temptation to view the responsibility for this tragedy as caused by one side or the other.”

But we do.  We see the inevitable tragedy building and we know that the British made it happen.  Still, horrifying as it is,  that tragedy could have had a great deal more impact if it had happened with less verbiage and a better pace.  It took two hours and a half to tell a story that would have resonated with us forever in an hour and a half…even less.  The message is such an important one; the actors gave themselves completely to their task; but the script defeated them.  All the local color, beating drums and music could not save this production from being a dirge instead of a hard hitting drama of the inevitable consequence when one culture is determined to orchestrate the values of another.

DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE is one of those delightfully wry, comic commentaries only OSF can pull off.  Sarah Ruhl’s play while interesting and provocative, is not nearly as marvelous and charming as the production itself.  “Dead Man’s Cell Phone takes us all on a journey down the rabbit hole to explore the meaning of connection in this still new century,“ says director Christopher Liam Moore.  “How can we be in contact, in touch, be seen and really see each other in this world of constant communication?”

A cell phone rings.  Jean (Sarah Agnew) sees it sitting on a table in a coffee shop in front of a man who seems to be ignoring it.  She approaches him and asks him to answer the phone.  He does not move. She insists.   She nudges him and he topples over.

The phone rings again.  This time she answers it.

It takes an immense talent to pull this off.  The whole premise is so ridiculous that no one in their right mind is going to swallow it ….at least they won’t until they see Sarah Agnew tussle with her conscience, fight it, resist it ….and finally give in.  That phone is ringing and she has to respond. 

From there the plot unfolds and it is a romp through a reality that could actually happen, a discussion of what death does to the people it touches including the dead man himself played in perfect key by Jeffrey King.  Each character in the play is choice.  I do not think I have ever seen Catherine Coulson (in her fifteenth season at OSF) do a more amazing piece of acting.  She is Mrs. Gottleib, a controlling bitch of a mother with every hang-up exaggerated and yet all too true.  You laugh at her, you love her and you remember your own mother’s outrageous demands.  You cannot doubt the veracity of this caricature that Coulson has created.  Hermia (Terri McMahon) is the dead man’s wife.  Her lines are wonderful in themselves but McMahon takes the words and makes them into a tangible, biting masterpiece.  She is superb and must be seen to appreciate fully.  She is the wife who never really loved the guy she was stuck with…and now free, drunk and on the loose, runs into her future with open arms.  There isn’t a weak link in the action of this production; the direction is gifted; the effects almost magic.  Only the script itself is lacking.  It doesn’t really tell you anything.  It laughs at a mythical situation Ruhl concocted and then relies on the characters to make it real.  It is the talent that put the play on a stage that makes this production a masterpiece.

The acting throughout is solid gold. The production combined delight, laughter, sarcasm and a true definition of our inner psyches…the ones we try to suppress and often cannot. In the hands of director Christopher Liam Moore and his gifted cast,  DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE  is transformed into a fast moving, refreshing confection you will relish for years and years to come. 

 And this brings me to my favorite production of the weekend, the one I adored from start to finish:  THE MUSIC MAN. Everyone knows the story of the shyster who bilks an entire town into buying band instruments and uniforms for a children’s band. To everyone’s surprise, including his, he meets with unexpected success, but not the way he intended.  His energy, charisma and faith in the magic of mankind transforms an entire community from one who copes with tiresome reality to a group of loving individuals ready and willing to take the risks necessary to follow their dreams.  River City, Iowa becomes a place where miracles can and do happen because its population is wiling to allow them to come true.  Bill Rauch directed this production and his is a masterful interpretation of a true American masterpiece.  “With this production, we’ve set out to ask these questions:  How is River City transformed by Harold Hill? How is Harold Hill transformed by the community?” said Rauch.

And I ask:  “How can every single member of this immense cast so perfectly convey the message of hope, tolerance and the power of community through synchronized song and dance.

Michael Elich is Harold Hill and he is everything the character embodies:  slick as greased lightning, clever as a provincial Einstein and loveable as Bugs Bunny.  Each character was a character in his own right but I cannot review this beautiful piece of musical theater without a word for Richard Elmore, that true master of comedy in all its forms.  In his 25 years with the company, I have never seen him fail and here he shines like the true beacon he is… a perfect exaggeration of a blustery, self centered, narrow minded buffoon of a mayor of a tiny town he is determined to control.  Linda Alper plays his wife and she is perfectly perfect (you will know such a thing is possible when you see her lead the Ladies Club in their interpretive dance.)

Whenever I see children on stage,  I adore them just for being adorable  In this production, I saw two youngsters who were so brilliant in their roles that I would have loved them had they each been unreformed convicts.  Chloe Brown was Amaryllis Squires and she danced, played the piano and sang like the angel I am sure she is.  And then there was Sergio Thompson’s Winthrop, too perfect to be true.  When he stood in the front of the stage, all 3’+ of him and sang “Gary, Indiana” we saw no one else on that stage.

 Every person in this cast is a star worthy of national recognition, but I must say word about a favorite of mine for many years at OSF:  John Pribyl.  He played Charlie Cowell, the Anvil salesman determined to stop Harold Hill from giving his profession a bad name.  To see him lift his briefcase of anvils and slam it down on the stage was worth the entire production…and that is really saying something because every moment of this musical is choice.  I also want to point out Howie Seago, who signed instead of spoke his part. (Marcellus Washburn).  His acting was marvelous indeed but the signing that he and the others made integral to this production, in particular the conversations between him and Michael Elich, added a richness to the text and a special beauty to this heartwarming, idealistic plot.  THE MUSIC MAN reminds us that thinking can indeed make it so and encourages every one in the audience to get out there and sing his song for nothing else but the joy it gives to the psyche.  

 These four plays are only the beginning of what promises to be a rich, diverse season that will make us think about who we are and how we conduct ourselves on our paths through life. EQUIVOCATION a world premier directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch makes us think about truth-telling in dangerous times.  Set in London, 1605, this is the story of King James and the Gunpowder Plot and Tower dungeons and Shakespeare trying to write a play to please the king.  “I think what EQUIVOCATION is about is the part that’s thrown away,” says the playwright, Bill Cain.  “The part of ourselves or the part of the country that we demonize or cut off from ourselves.  I think what Shakespeare learns to do in his writing is to say, ‘No, all of it’s mine.  It all belongs to me.’”

Clifford Odets PARADISE LOST opens July 22 and is directed by retired artistic director Libby Appel.  The play is a long neglected tour de force, an ode to holding fast to idealism and morality in a climate of fear.  It was first produced in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression when hopes were constantly dashed and dreams abandoned.  In this play, his favorite, Odets asks if it is possible to combine idealism and practical action, to wake the dreamers from their dreaming and make the world anew.

New Theatre offerings includes THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS an irreverent, exuberant farce by Carlo Goldoni.  The action unfolds at Truffaldino is torn between serving his master as best he can and satisfying his own urgent appetites.  “It is based on eternal ideas about the conflict between parents, on love prevailing over all, on lovers who are always kept apart, on the egos of powerful men,” said director Tracy Young. 

That defines commedia dell’arte and that is THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS.   

Shakespeare’s wonderful comedy about trying to get what you want, ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL is the final offering in the New Theatre.  In this provocative play, it all ends well but not without a measure of hurt, lies and mistakes to get there.  Amanda Dehnert directs this fairy tale made real of flawed but beautiful people finding their way. 

The Elizabethan stage opens its doors June 2 and features those old favorites HENRY VIII and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and an adaptation of the Cervantes play I have always found timeless, DON QUIXOTE by Octavio Solis.  I have always loved this chivalrous hero, a loveable buffoon who has nothing to show for his life, has made no impact on the world and chases dreams he cannot possibly attain.  He is misunderstood and beloved for his ineptitude; a madman with the courage to joust with windmills.  You have to love him for the beauty of his dreams and the whimsy of his failures.  In this production, Solis explores the collision between illusion and reality liberally peppered with bumptious humor.

It is going to be an interesting season for OSF and anyone who loves theater owes it to himself to drive up route 5 and see what is happening on their three stages. 

CHECK IT OUT:

www.osfashland.org

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