Shakespearean surprise

Gender-bending Tempest opens Ashland season

A female Prospero? That’s a surprise.

Of course, after 10 or more trips to Ashland to see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I’ve come to expect to be surprised. This year, the OSF’s 66th, was no exception.

Casting a woman as the lead in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s magical island tale of wizardry, revenge and reconciliation, is a clever touch, one that refreshes a workhorse of the repertory. But for me the biggest surprise of opening weekend Feb. 23-26, when I saw four productions, was to discover that my favorite was a musical comedy, Enter the Guardsman, that I’d never heard of before.

For those readers who are planning to visit Ashland this season, here are quick reviews of the plays now being staged, as well as a preview of the seven plays that will open later this year. Ashland is fully recovered from the disastrous Lithia Creek floods of a few years back and is as picturesque and pleasant as ever, and there’s no more enjoyable and easily accessible getaway than spending two or three days there taking in some of the best theater in the world.

The Tempest (Bowmer Theater through Oct. 28)—Apart from its gender-bender aspects, this is a restrained rendition of Shakespeare’s final play, one that relies on pure beauty—in sets and music as well as language—more than spectacle and flash. William Bloodgood’s set is a marvel, a series of cantilevered wooden platforms backed by colorful, dramatic scrims and curtains that, shifting, convey the changing colors of sky and mountains. The music, by Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless, amply gives voice to Shakespeare’s description of the isle as full of “Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” OSF veteran Demetra Pittman plays Prospero sturdily, perhaps too much so, but the play benefits from the novel mother-daughter relationship established between her and Miranda (Linda K. Morris).

In another surprise, Director Penny Metropolous has cast a man, Cristofer Jean, as Ariel, though Jean, garbed in a yellow monk’s sari, plays the sprite as an androgynous figure. And Antonio, Prospero’s betraying brother, is here a sister, Antonia (Linda Alper), giving the relationship configuration yet another refreshing twist. But what really matters is the respectfulness for Shakespeare’s text—this is one of the clearest and most moving readings I’ve witnessed. A splendid production for OSF’s state-of-the-art 600-seat Bowmer.

Life Is a Dream (Bowmer Theater through July 8)—Two tales of wrongful behavior by fathers against their children drive this, the most famous play by the “Shakespeare of Spain,” Calderên de la Barca. One of the children is Rosaura (Vilma Silva), a “lady of Muskovy,” whose father abandoned her mother after fathering Rosaura. Rosaura has come to Polonia seeking to avenge her mother’s honor. In a desolate border area, she comes across Sigismundo (Kevin Kenerly), a young man cruelly imprisoned, held there by his tutor and guard, Clotaldo (Jeffrey King), who turns out to be Rosaura’s father. What Sigismundo finds out only later is that he’s the son and heir of the king, Basilio (Richard Howard), banished since birth because his father, swayed by soothsayers, feared Sigismundo would destroy the kingdom.

The righting of these wrongs involves, in both cases, coming to grips with poetically rendered ideas of fate and existence that are almost Buddhistic in their sense of ephemerality and the need for compassion. The first half of this production is absolutely brilliant, riveting and provocative, filled with intrigue leavened by humor provided by Rosaura’s servant, Bocazas (Robert Vincent Frank); the second half, following intermission, loses focus somewhat, but overall this is a marvelous opportunity to see a rarely performed classic of the theater, as adapted by Director Laird Williamson.

Enter the Guardsman (Bowmer Theater)—Based on Frederick Molnár’s play The Guardsman, which in 1924 was a Broadway hit starring the great husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, this 1994 adaptation by Scott Wentworth (book), Craig Bohmler (music) and Marian Adler (lyrics) is that rarity—an utterly delightful musical romance in which story, song and setting work together perfectly. Set in the ‘20s backstage at a theater company, it’s about a young married couple who star together in a hit play that’s run six months. Suddenly the Actor (the characters are identified only by their roles) begins worrying that his wife, the Actress, might be tiring of him as much as both of them are of the play. As the Dresser (played by former Chicoan Christine Williams) tells the Actress, “Marriage is a very long run. And we both know what those are like.” When the Actor devises a scheme to test his wife’s faithfulness (by pretending to be an exotic foreign officer, the Guardsman, and trying to seduce her), all kinds of craziness breaks loose.

As the couple, Michael Elich and Suzanne Irving are simply terrific, funny and clever and good singers to boot. The rest of the cast is just as good, the 15 songs are delightful, the shifting set (by Daniel Ostling) is efficient and interesting, and guest Director Peter Amster keeps it all moving with great fluidity. Indeed, the entire production was delightful and fully deserved the standing ovation it received opening night.

The Trip to Bountiful (Black Swan Theater)—Those who saw the 1985 movie based on this Horton Foote play know that it’s about elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts’ effort to escape the constrictive world of her son and daughter-in-law’s three-room Houston apartment, where she’s lived for 20 years, to return, perhaps for the last time, to her small-town childhood home. She wants to see the flowers blooming, smell the earth and feel the Gulf breezes blowing over her at least once more. Life in Houston is hard on her; she and her daughter-in-law Jessie Mae don’t get along, and her son Ludie is caught in the middle and ineffectual. The story is a simple one, about her escape, the train trip and a kind of bittersweet understanding reached at the end, but it’s very touching.

Dee Maaske is wonderful as Mrs. Watts, and Michael J. Hume makes a convincing Ludie. The most difficult role is that of Jessie Mae, who approaches caricature in her ditziness and self-absorption, qualities Robin Goodrin Nordli played up more than was comfortable, I thought—though no doubt at the urging of Director Libby Appel. Still, this is a fine little play, one perfectly suited to the intimacy of the Black Swan. (This is the last season for this theater; next year it will be replaced by a similarly intimate but larger—260 to 350 seats—and more efficient facility.)

The remainder of the season will see two more plays open in the Bowmer, Regina Taylor’s Oo-Bla-Dee (April 180-Oct. 28), about a young black jazz singer trying to find her unique voice as a musician, and Chekhov’s classic Three Sisters (July 25-Oct. 27). The Black Swan will feature David Lindsay-Abaire’s funhouse mirror of a play, Fuddy Meers (Mar. 28-Oct. 28) and Nilo Cruz’s Two Sisters and a Piano, a lyrical drama set in Cuba about artistic freedom and official repression (July 3-Oct. 28). This summer, the large, outdoor Elizabethan Theater will present three Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida and The Merry Wives of Windsor. They run from June 5 to Oct. 7.