Loving Shakespeare

Playwright takes center stage in Ashland

Cassius (Rodney Gardiner, left) and Brutus (Danforth Comins) in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Julius Caesar.

Cassius (Rodney Gardiner, left) and Brutus (Danforth Comins) in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Julius Caesar.

Photo by Jenny Graham

Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Part One and Shakespeare in Love, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore. Now showing through Oct. 29. Visit OSFAshland.org for schedule and tickets.

The 82nd season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland opened with a bang on the last weekend in February. A lot of bangs, actually.

That’s because two of the four plays featured as the 11-play season begins—Julius Caesar and Henry IV, Part One—are Shakespeare plays set during parlous times. War breaks out in both of them, giving the lighting and sound crews many opportunities to amp up the excitement with flashing strobes and powerful explosions of sound.

In his Playbill note, OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch describes Julius Caesar as “Shakespeare’s insanely relevant study of democratic leadership.” He’s referring to the dilemma facing the central figure in the play, Marcus Brutus, who must decide whether to join a conspiracy to assassinate his good friend Caesar, putatively to save Rome’s democracy.

The murder does nothing of the sort, of course, instead plunging the nation-state into warfare as competing militias battle for power. This powerful performance of one of the Bard’s most unsettling plays received a standing ovation on opening night. It runs in the Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 29.

The other Shakespeare plays in performance this year are centered around the inimitable comic character Falstaff. They include, as mentioned, Henry IV, Part One, which plays in the intimate Thomas Theatre through Oct. 28; The Merry Wives of Windsor, opening in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre on June 6; and Henry IV, Part Two, which opens in the Thomas Theatre on July 4.

The war scenes in Henry IV, Part One are as dramatic as those in Julius Caesar, but the sturm und drang is offset by the several hilarious scenes set in a tavern, where the larger-than-life Falstaff—brilliantly portrayed here by G. Valmont Thomas—prevails. This performance also received a standing ovation.

Two other plays opened the season. One is the U.S. premiere of Shakespeare in Love, based on the Oscar-winning screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall.

If you saw the movie, which made off with seven Oscars in 1999, you know what a delightful tale it tells. The young playwright is broke and blocked and needs to find a muse and, just as desperately, a girlfriend. Enter Viola, a noblewoman who so wants to be an actor that she pretends to be a man in order to audition for Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, the play Shakespeare is struggling to write while fending off his creditors.

Of the four plays opening the season, this one is the most fun. And, as the magnificently gowned Queen Elizabeth I tells Shakespeare, there’s nothing wrong with writing fun plays. Chalk up another standing ovation.

I planned to see the fourth opening play, Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, but a severe winter storm warning for Sunday, Feb. 26, suggested that we should start home before the Siskiyou Summit pass closed.

Rauch describes the play as “a searing and timely portrait of immigration.” An adaptation of the ancient Greek play Medea, and set in Southern California, it was written by resident playwright Luis Alfaro and runs in the Bowmer Theatre through July 6.

For descriptions of the remaining plays this year—Hannah and the Dread Gazebo; UniSon; The Merry Wives of Windsor; The Odyssey; Henry IV, Part Two; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; and Off the Rails—go to OSFAshland.org.