Shakespeare al fresco

This year’s productions in OSF’s outdoor theater are varied but uniformly excellent

SCRUBBED OUT <br>Ajax (James E. Peck) beats the snot out of Thersites (James Newcomb) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s <i>Troilus and Cressida.</i>

Ajax (James E. Peck) beats the snot out of Thersites (James Newcomb) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Troilus and Cressida.

Photo by David Cooper

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is featuring The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida and The Merry Wives of Windsor for its summer season in its outdoor Elizabethan theater. These are always popular productions and attract many Chicoans, so here’s a rundown of this year’s plays:

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, but in a post-Holocaust world it’s freighted with controversy because of supposed anti-Semitism in its characterization of the merchant Shylock and not often performed. Director Michael Donald Edwards, undeterred, has taken on the challenges of this play and produced what some might call a masterpiece.

While considered to be a comedy, it contains a dark, underlying story of money and revenge. Edwards has chosen the financial district of late-19th-century New York Century to represent Venice and opens the play in the New York Stock Exchange of that era. We then shift to Antonio’s office and into the lives of Shakespeare’s characters, and here the essence of The Merchant of Venice can be found. Like Shakespeare’s greatest creations, these are complex, three-dimensional human beings. None, including and perhaps especially Shylock, are all good or all evil. As Edwards says, “We search in vain for simplistic moral theses and are confronted with the unsettling, disruptive, ugly, gorgeous, moving, thrilling collision of human minds and hearts.”

Tony DeBruno turns in a masterful performance as Shylock, one that begs each of us to see and question our own prejudices. Yes, the audience is treated to some good laughs, but more than that we leave with a better understanding of people and deeper insight into the good and bad in each of us. This is the most moving production of Merchant that I have ever seen, and I highly recommend it. It runs through Oct. 5.

In contrast, Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays. A tragedy with war as its theme, this is a retelling of the siege of Troy by the Greeks. In this production, director Ken Albers has Thersites (James Newcomb) give the prologue and act as chorus, which—along with the costuming (Trojans in white, Greeks in black)—helps the audience avoid confusion. This is a bloody story with many well-choreographed battles that keep the story moving so quickly that it is hard to believe that it is three hours long.

But it is not all fighting and blood. There is the story of the title characters (Kevin Kennerly and Tyler Layton), young lovers separated just as they have declared their love for one another. There is also much political intrigue within each camp, as Trojans quarrel with Trojans and Greeks with Greeks. Thersites accurately sums it all up when he says, “All is lechery; war and lechery.” If you can possibly get up to Ashland this summer, see this play. You may not get another chance for 15 or 20 years. Troilus and Cressida runs through Oct. 6.

The third play in the outdoor theater is The Merry Wives of Windsor. This play is simply fun and games. The challenge here is to make such a frequently done play fresh and interesting, and director Lillian Groag has done just that. It is bright and colorful, fast moving and hilarious. The characters are developed to the extreme, as is perfect for this type of physical comedy.

What could be funnier to an audience than a duel between a French doctor, Doctor Caius (Mark Murphy), and a Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans (William Leach), where neither has the skill to even lift a sword? Perhaps a fat, old knight, Sir John Falstaff (Ray Porter), who views himself as a dashing playboy? Or an unjustly jealous husband—in a ridiculous costume—plotting to catch his wife with her non-existent lover? Groag has also added a couple of new twists to already uproarious comedy that are better left as surprises. All in all this is a really enjoyable evening of light entertainment. The Merry Wives of Windsor runs through Oct. 7.

There are five other plays still playing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s two indoor theaters. In the Angus Bowmer Theater: Shakespeare’s The Tempest runs through Oct. 28; Enter the Guardsman, book by Scott Wentworth, music by Craig Bohmler and lyrics by Marion Adler, runs through Oct. 27; Oo Bla Dee, by Regina Taylor, runs through Oct. 28. In the Black Swan Theater: Fuddy Meers, by David Lindsay-Abaire, plays through Oct. 28, and Two Sisters and a Piano through Oct. 28.

It’s only a three-hour drive north on I-5 to Ashland, in Oregon’s beautiful Rogue River Valley. There you can see as many as eight different world-class theatrical productions, dine in delightful restaurants and take leisurely strolls through beautiful Lithia Park. My personal restaurant picks—for breakfast: Brothers’ Restaurant & Delicatessen; lunch: The Black Sheep; and dinner: Omar’s Restaurant & Bar.