From pirates to pickpockets

Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens 80th season with four fine productions

The shipwrecked Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) is adrift at sea.

The shipwrecked Pericles (Wayne T. Carr) is adrift at sea.

Photo by Jenny Graham

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2015 opening weekend, Feb. 27-March 1, Ashland, Ore. Visit for season info.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., couldn’t have opened its 80th season any better than it did on the weekend of Feb. 27-March 1. Brilliant productions of two of the Bard’s plays, a rollicking performance of the Broadway classic Guys and Dolls, and the world premiere of Fingersmith, a historical thriller with more twists than a rope, added up to a fitting celebration of eight decades of world-class theater.

And to think that, before the season ends on Nov. 1, the company will mount seven additional plays, including another world premiere.

Here are brief looks at the four now running:

Much Ado About Nothing (Angus Bowmer Theatre through Nov. 1): This is a lively and accessible production of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. Using a minimalist but effective set, director Lileana Blain-Cruz and her crew deftly explore the “merry war” of the sexes as manifested in the witty love-hate badinage between Beatrice (Christiana Clark) and Benedick (Danforth Comins).

At the same time the play flirts with tragedy when the naïve Claudio (Carlo Albán) foolishly allows unfounded jealousy to wreck his wedding to the compliant Hero (Leah Anderson). Throw in some very funny comedic scenes, and you’ve got a delightful production.

Pericles (Thomas Theatre through Nov. 1): The Thomas is OSF’s new “black box” theater, and it’s a technological marvel—something that’s immediately evident in this dazzling production directed by Joseph Haj.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Wayne T. Carr) journeys to Antioch to win a beautiful princess as his bride. First, though, he must solve a riddle posed by her father, King Antiochus (Scott Ripley)—that, or die. He solves the riddle, only to have it reveal that the king is sleeping with his daughter. Pericles flees but cannot return to Tyre, so must wander among the Greek isles for many years, pursued by Antiochus’ assassin.

He saves the city of Tarsus from famine, wins Princess Thaisa (Brooke Parks) in a jousting tournament, marries her, and becomes the father of a baby girl but then apparently loses his wife in childbirth during a terrible storm at sea.

That’s just the first half. Many adventures follow. Pirates play a role leading to an ending that had a number of people in the audience tearful. If you’ve never seen Shakespeare’s Pericles, don’t miss this one.

Guys and Dolls (Bowmer through Nov. 1): In the eternal war between sin and redemption, who’s the winner? That’s the question this classic Broadway musical asks, as it pits the gamblers and hustlers of Times Square against the righteous soldiers of the Save-a-Soul Mission.

Based on the stories and characters of Damon Runyon, the play (directed by Mary Zimmerman) is about the effort of a small-time racketeer named Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) to raise a thousand bucks to rent a site for “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” He bets his fellow gambler Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) a thousand dollars that he can’t convince Save-a-Soul’s Sgt. Sarah Brown (Kate Hurster) to accompany him to Havana.

This sets in motion a cascading series of events that, in turn, seamlessly become the settings for more than 20 song-and-dance numbers that are so elaborate and beautifully done that the audience roared with approval. Some of the songs—“A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Luck Be a Lady”—are familiar classics, but all are terrific. Highly recommended.

Fingersmith (Bowmer through July 9): Written by Alexa Junge based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel and directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, this mystery tale is set in two distinct worlds of the mid-19th century, the squalid London apartment of a family of fingersmiths, or pickpockets, and the country mansion of a rich industrialist. At its heart are two young women, Sue Trinder (Sara Bruner) and Maud Lilly (Erica Sullivan), who resemble each other and whose paths cross in the most remarkable—and sometimes shocking—ways.

This is a story with many twists and turns, but as it progresses, it illuminates the worlds of ladies and gentlemen, servants and thieves in ways that suggest they’re more alike than different, and that love is the only force that can cross the class divide.