Shakespeare and Company

Ashland season opens with four strong productions

Newcomer Sterling (Kevin Kenerly, left) is sized up by Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley) at the diner in August Wilson’s <i>Two Trains Running</i>.

Newcomer Sterling (Kevin Kenerly, left) is sized up by Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley) at the diner in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

Photo By Jenny graham

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Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ashland, Ore.

The lives of women figure prominently in the 11 plays scheduled for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2013 season—“women traversing their heroic, liberating and sometimes tragic paths,” as Artistic Director Bill Rauch expresses it in his written introduction to the season.

That was certainly true of central characters in the four plays that opened Ashland’s season over the Feb. 22-24 weekend—Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Cordelia and her sisters in King Lear, and Risa in August Wilson’s powerful Two Trains Running.

The last was my favorite of the four and the one I recommend most highly. Set in a funky Pittsburgh diner in 1969, it’s a slice-of-life portrait of seven African-Americans at a watershed moment in the country’s history. But events outside the diner, including a rally celebrating what would have been the 40th birthday of Malcolm X, have only peripheral impacts on the diner’s habitués, who have pressing personal challenges to confront.

The plot, such as it is, centers around the diner’s owner, Memphis (Terry Bellamy), who has to decide what to do in the face of the city’s looming urban-renewal project that will level his building. Should he wait to learn what the city will pay him or sell now to the wealthy neighborhood mortician, Mr. West (Jerome Preston Bates)?

The other characters are Sterling (Kevin Kenerly), who’s just gotten out of prison; Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley), the local numbers runner; Holloway (Josiah Phillips), the neighborhood philosopher; Hambone (Tyrone Wilson), a nearly speechless man who harbors a great and righteous grievance; and Risa (Bakesta King), the diner’s sole employee.

These are ordinary people doing ordinary things, but Wilson brilliantly reveals them as immensely complex and thoughtful individuals struggling to survive pressures both outside them (capitalism, racism, poverty, “the white man”) and inside. One of the 10 works in his “Century Cycle” of plays set in each of the 20th century’s decades, it’s an integral part of one of the most remarkable bodies of work in American theater. And this production, directed by Lou Bellamy, who has directed every play in the cycle, some of them more than once, is simply outstanding.

Two Trains Running continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 7.

Here are quick looks at the other plays now on the boards at OSF:

The Taming of the Shrew: This is a wonderful play—here given a modernistic boardwalk setting complete with live rock band—but one with a big problem at its core: how to deal with Petruchio’s almost sadistic campaign to break Kate to his will and her final speech accepting his dominance?

The dialogue between the two leading up to that is delightful, and Ted Deasy and Nell Geisslinger are nicely matched. Actually, I had no problem with the final speech, seeing it as her choice to give and, as such, ultimately an expression of her independence. A host of richly realized characters and a gorgeous set added up to a deeply entertaining production. (Bowmer through Nov. 3.)

My Fair Lady: People who like musicals will enjoy this classic period piece—Lerner and Loewe penned the familiar tunes—based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Shaw didn’t see his locution teacher, Henry Higgins, whom he characterized as “a middle-aged bully,” and Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle as lovers, and the romantic twist at the end of this production that brings them together doesn’t quite work. That said, the musical numbers were terrific, and the opening-night audience gave the performance a standing ovation. (Bowmer through Nov. 3.)

King Lear: Director Bill Rauch has chosen to stage this epic play in the Thomas Theatre, the smallest and most intimate of OSF’s three venues. As a result the production is much pared down—no set, shifting props that change with every new scene—and the focus is intensely on the characters as this masterpiece of Shakespearean tragedies unfolds in all its brilliant horror. Highly recommended. (Through Nov. 3.)