Shakespeare & Co.
Ashland festival opens season with varied offerings
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, still basking in the praise it received last summer from Time magazine, which named it one of America’s five best regional theaters, opened its 69th season Feb 27-29 with typically diverse fare.
As usual, the eight-month season offers some golden oldies (Shakespeare mostly), some off-the-shelf surprises, and a couple of brand-new, cutting edge works designed to challenge and shake things up—10 plays altogether.
It opened with four eclectic plays. The golden oldie was Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, here given a hugely creative staging. The dusted-off plays were Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s cynical 1956 tale of revenge, The Visit, and George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s classic American comedy from 1927, The Royal Family. All three productions are in the state-of-the-art Angus Bowmer Theater.
Opening in the festival’s intimate New Theater was Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 drama about two African-American brothers caught up by emotional and historical forces beyond their control, with tragic results.
Coming up later this season are a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s barrier-shattering A Raisin in the Sun (April 20-Oct. 31 in the Bowmer) and the world premiere of Oedipus Complex, by Frank Galati, which explores the Oedipus tale by weaving the writings of Sigmund Freud and Sophocles into something altogether new (Bowmer, July 28-Oct. 30).
This summer the outdoor Elizabethan Stage features three Shakespeare productions, King Lear (June 8-Oct. 8), Much Ado about Nothing (June 10-Oct. 10), and an adaptation (by Scott Kaiser) of two rarely staged history plays, Henry VI, Parts Two & Three (June 10-Oct. 10).
In addition to Topdog/Underdog, the New Theater is presenting Henry VI, Part One, also adapted by Kaiser (March 31-Oct.31), and Humble Boy, a 2001 work by the remarkable English playwright Charlotte Jones (July 6-Oct. 31).
Here’s more on the plays now on the boards:
The Comedy of Errors: This masterful farce is given a dazzling staging directed by Bill Rauch. Updated and reset in a Vegas-like casino resort, it’s about two pairs of identical twins separated in infancy and the efforts of one pair to find the other. Hilarious misidentifications and confusions ensue until all is resolved. Ray Porter and Christopher DuVal are brilliant playing both pairs of twins, and the elaborate revolving set (by William Bloodgood) is a marvel. A real crowd-pleaser.
The Visit: Dürrenmatt’s wrenching tragicomedy is about what happens when the world’s richest woman, now 60, visits her childhood village, Güllen, which was once prosperous but has fallen on hard times. The people of Güllen, desperate for help, fawn over her. At first she encourages them, saying she will help, but then she drops a bomb: To get her help, they will need to kill one of their neighbors, someone who betrayed Clair when she was a girl. Will they kill him? How do they decide? How powerful is their greed? These are the questions the rest of the play explores, building to a stunning, if depressing, resolution.
The Royal Family: This classic comedy is more portraits than plot, but what portraits! Based on the Barrymores, it’s a quintessential “theater” play that explores the tug between work and stardom and the desire for marriage, family and children. This family, the Cavendishes, is a wild group, over the top in everything they do and yet utterly dedicated to the theater. It’s a kick to get to know them.
Topdog/Underdog: Two brothers, one named Lincoln, the other Booth, co-exist in a shabby room, their lives reduced to raw dreams and unsatisfied lusts and the persistent hope that luck will someday smile on them. These two black men, played by Kevin Kenerly and G. Valmont Thomas, know each other too well but don’t know themselves at all. The play is edgy and hard to watch sometimes, but you won’t forget it.