Shakespeare & Co.

Ashland festival offers diverse fare in new season

The imprisoned Caliban (Wayne T. Carr) guards against the tyrannical sorcerer Prospero (Denis Arndt) in OSF’s production of <i>The Tempest</i>.

The imprisoned Caliban (Wayne T. Carr) guards against the tyrannical sorcerer Prospero (Denis Arndt) in OSF’s production of The Tempest.

Photo by jenny graham

Oregon Shakespeare Festival (800) 219-8161

This year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is celebrating the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth by mounting four of his plays. Two of them, The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors, will run for the entire season. They will be joined this summer by productions of Richard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (the latter featuring an all-female cast) in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theater.

The OSF is also presenting seven other plays, ranging from a hilarious version of the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts to the world premiere of the second play in Robert Schenkkan’s prize-winning historical trilogy about the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, The Great Society.

Here are brief reviews of the four plays I saw on opening weekend in late February.

The Tempest (showing through Nov. 2): Shakespeare’s last play has long been one of his most popular, and for good reason. It’s a revenge tale in which nobody dies, a delightful love story, and a phantasmagorical drama of colonialism and redemption in which core relationships are compelled to change.

The most striking aspect of this production is the set. Designed by Daniel Ostling, it’s a marvel of abstraction that uses ramps and lifted floors to suggest, without actually depicting, the play’s many settings. Combined with Alexander V. Nichols’ stunning lighting design, it encourages the audience to join in imaginatively creating Prospero’s island.

Against this backdrop, the play’s two most vivid characters, the sprite Ariel and the aboriginal Caliban, stand out. Ariel, here conceived as female, is played brilliantly by Kate Hurster, and Wayne T. Carr brings a powerful physicality to the role of Caliban.

The Cocoanuts ( through Nov. 2): OSF’s 2012 production of Animal Crackers was such a hit that it’s brought back the team for another round. Heading up the cast is the amazing Mark Bedard, who not only channels Groucho here, but also cobbled together the script.

Set in a seaside Florida hotel during the land rush of the 1920s, it has a plot of sorts involving a thwarted romance, brazen hucksterism, a theft attempt—you name it. As with all Marx Brothers comedies, the story is just a peg to hang the brothers’ antics on.

What we have here are actors playing actors playing characters. When Bedard plays Groucho’s Mr. Hammer, the proprietor of the Cocoanut Hotel, he does so as Groucho Marx, and the audience is in on the joke.

Add in music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by George S. Kaufman, three different sets, rapid-fire direction from David Ivers, and you have a can’t miss production.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (through July 3): This is the last play written by Lorraine Hansberry, the author of that iconic study of urban African-American life, A Raisin in the Sun. She died from pancreatic cancer just weeks after it opened on Broadway on Oct. 15, 1964. She was 34.

Set in the Greenwich Village apartment of Sidney Brustein and his wife, Iris, the play is about a diverse group of intellectuals, activists and artists who are struggling to find direction in life. A core plot element—the “reform” political campaign of an associate—forces them to make important decisions.

Hansberry tackles big issues here—homosexuality, racial prejudice, political dishonesty—and her characters are sharply drawn. It’s a fascinating study marred only by a mechanical ending.

The Comedy of Errors (through Nov. 2): In presenting many plays by and about black Americans, OSF has greatly diversified its acting roster. That’s enabled it to mount productions such as this one, which is set during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and features a nearly all-black cast.

Director Kent Gash, himself African-American, has merged Shakespeare’s comic tale of mistaken identities and family reunification with the Great Migration of the 1920s and ’30s. It’s a spirited and colorful in-the-round production that puts the audience in the middle of some lively action.