A flair for the dramatic
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival continues its longstanding tradition
Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently passed its 70th year of operation and is still renowned as one of the world’s best producers of dramatic performance. The fact that the festival takes place just a few hours north of Chico should make it almost mandatory as a place to visit.
To the uninitiated, any trip to the festival demands a visit to the outdoor Elizabethan Stage. Plays usually begin at dusk, and wine and beer are available for purchase as the performers and plot unfold and flourish beneath the starry, chilly air of an Oregon summer eve.
Two of CN&R’s most familiar names recently revisited the Ashland extravaganza, and here share their impressions.
There’s plenty of time left to take in some world-class theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Six plays, including Bus Stop, run until late October, and the three productions on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, including The Merry Wives of Windsor, last through the first week of October (take a jacket or blanket or both to the Elizabethan, because the nights are cool).
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a delightful production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. Director Andrew Tsao has chosen to use a commedia dell’arte style emphasizing bright costumes and extravagant physical comedy, and it really works in the hands of the OSF’s brilliant actors. I’ve never seen a production with such consistently dexterous physicality—these players can turn the most ordinary dialogue into a visual feast of gestures, tics, mannerisms and pratfalls.
G. Valmont Thomas makes a hugely entertaining Falstaff, all bluster and braggadocio, but the real star of the show is Judith-Marie Bergan as Mistress Quickly, who shows just what a talented performer can make of a Shakespeare character.
And the costumes! And the stage design! Both were visually stunning, colorful and complex. Highly recommended.
OSF’s excellent production of Bus Stop suggests William Inge’s classic tale about a group of misfits stuck in a Midwest café during a snow storm hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves. The play is cut like a diamond, one that shows a new facet with every line, every scene. Any neophyte playwright needing a lesson in how to reveal a backstory without using exposition could learn a lot studying this play.
The characters—a nightclub singer who’s been kidnapped by a lonely cowboy, the cowboy’s taciturn friend, an English professor with a shadowy past, the young waitress he courts, a tough-minded sheriff, the café's no-nonsense owner and the bus driver she sneaks off with for a quickie—are ordinary people with extraordinary stories, and Inge tells them with wit, wisdom and almost poetic economy.
The acting is uniformly excellent, and because this production is set in the intimate New Theatre, our connection to the characters is close and moving.
The Elizabethan Stage lends itself to the romantic and proves the perfect setting for Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.
First performed in 1897, the play endures for good reason. The language and characterization prove as lively and perhaps more engaging than contemporary works. It is hard to imagine an audience not moved by the tale of Cyrano, whose grotesquely large nose proves the physical antithesis to his noble gestures and soul’s poetic content, as he yearns for his cousin Roxanne’s love, which is centered on the empty-headed but handsome baron Christian.
Laird Williamson’s direction of the play tended to emphasize the comic, a dramatic counter to the pathos that ensues as the sad storylines unwind to reveal frustrated fates. The strength of the play fell squarely on the talented shoulders of its lead, Marco Barricelli. His energetic, kinetic Cyrano is a force of nature, with his unmatched mastery of the clever word and bloodied sword.
Cyrano is a must-see, but it does run three and a half hours. The performance was always compelling, but I was rooting for Cyrano to die quicker when a protracted death scene and monologue shadowed the midnight hour.
Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel is a beautiful meditation on identity, race and gender set in 1905 Manhattan, with its exceedingly high population of immigrants. Repression— because of class, gender and race—runs rampant. Apparel‘s protagonist is an African-American seamstress of women’s undergarments named Esther Mills who asks and struggles with the question, “Do you think there is something wrong with a woman alone?”
Gwendolyn Mulamba gives the character of Esther an earthy humanity in hesitating to follow her heart’s yearning, which ultimately leads to a contrived and failed romance with George Armstrong (Erik LaRay Harvey), a deceptive sugar-tongued man recently arrived from helping build the Panama Canal. Esther finds the marriage to be one of convenience for George while exploring a burgeoning personal interest in Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric dealer she does business with.
Esther finds the answer to her question while discovering the demise of her marriage, the importance of friendship and the unpredictable power of attraction and love. Intimate Apparel worked on every level that makes theater thrilling, succeeding with its emotion and drama interspersed with comic moments that impress as real-life experience.
Two of the plays I attended were exceptional, which makes my attending the festival an unqualified success. Live theater is always exciting in that
no member of the audience can ever know what to expect from the cast, and/or the audience.
During Intimate Apparel in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, a painful, excruciatingly high-pitched frequency coursed through the theater, causing attendees to look behind and side to side in search of the offending sound. A few of the uptight fled. It was impossible to ignore the humor of the situation; just when one thought the sound could not possibly become more annoying, it would soar to even greater throbbing and agonizing tones. During the play’s intermission an usher speculated that it was perhaps a hearing aid gone awry.
Now on the boards at OSF
Angus Bowmer Theatre:
The Winter’s Tale (through Oct. 29)
The Importance of Being Earnest (through Oct. 29)
Intimate Apparel (through Oct. 28)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (through Oct. 28)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (through Oct. 6)
Cyrano de Bergerac (through Oct. 7)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (through Oct. 8)
Bus Stop (through Oct. 29)
King John (through Oct. 29)