A ‘season of adventure’

Shakespeare festival opens with diverse offerings

Jan Point (Leah Anderson) attempts to cheer up Shadbolt the Jailor (Michael Sharon) in The Yeoman of the Guard.

Jan Point (Leah Anderson) attempts to cheer up Shadbolt the Jailor (Michael Sharon) in The Yeoman of the Guard.

Photo by Jenny Graham, OSF

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, Ore.

From an Amazonian village to a cowtown in the American West, from 1930s Hollywood to 19th-century London, the four plays that open the 81st season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland are exercises in time travel and geographical diversity.

As OSF’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, writes in the season’s playbill, these four plays, along with the seven others opening later, comprise “a mosaic-like season of adventure.”

Here’s a rundown:

Twelfth Night (Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 30): Shakespeare’s tale of identical twins (Viola and Sebastian) separated first by shipwreck and then by mistaken identities is here notable for director Christopher Liam Moore’s decision to have both roles played by the same actor, Sara Bruner. She’s terrific, but because the two characters wear the same costume, I sometimes wondered which I was seeing. Also, the play’s resolution scene calls for both characters to be on stage at the same time, a quandary Moore solves with a gimmick that didn’t work for me. (In fairness, the audience seemed unfazed, and even impressed, by it.)

Otherwise, this production set in Hollywood in the 1930s is a romp, especially when the comic characters are on stage. As the bibulous Toby Belch, Daniel T. Parker suggests a bawdy W.C. Fields, and Danforth Comins is hilarious as Toby’s friend Andrew Aguecheek. The multitalented Rodney Gardiner, who plays the fool Feste, is brilliant throughout but outdoes himself in the final, spectacular Busby Berkeley-like song-and-dance number.

The Yeomen of the Guard (Thomas Theatre through Oct. 30): Forget about the fourth wall: This production of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical has no walls. Literally. As many as 75 members of the audience, many of them kids, are “on stage” with the actors—seated on wooden boxes, a hay bale, even a pool table—on the floor of the black-box theater. The actors, all of whom play instruments and sing, move among the audience members, who must stay alert and scurry out of the way at times.

The story involves a war hero named Fairfax (Jeremy Peter Johnson) who, wrongly convicted of having congress with the devil, is to be executed in the morning.

There are bad guys and good gals, and there are plot twists and funny jokes and a whole lot of G&S songs that mostly lend themselves well to a country-music rendering. It’s like a big party, but with a story attached.

Great Expectations (Bowmer through Oct. 30): It’s not easy to adapt a 500-page novel for the stage, but OSF veterans Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper have succeeded, and without losing Dickens’ depth. They’ve tied together a series of scenes from Pip’s coming-of-age tale by using a chorus of narrators who appear on stage as needed to fill in the plot lines. The first half was a little slow for me, but the play hit its stride following intermission, and the characters of Magwitch (Derrick Lee Weeden), Miss Havisham (Judith-Marie Bergan), Estella (Nemuna Ceesay) and Pip (Benjamin Bonenfant) were vividly and memorably developed.

The River Bride (Bowmer through July 7): This delightful fairy tale by Marisela Treviño Orta would be worth seeing just for its magical riverbank setting, but the story—based on an Amazonian myth—is just as wonderful. It’s a tale about two sisters, one of whom is about to marry when a handsome stranger is pulled from the river, upsetting the romantic balance between them. It’s about love and the fear of plunging into love and the consequences of being overly cautious, and visually it’s amazing.