War and pacing

A hilarious Noises Off offsets the violence at OSF’s opening weekend

Belinda Blair (Catherine Lynn Davis) has a few words with Frederick Fellowes (Richard Howard) as Brooke Ashton (Tyler Layton) looks on in dismay in Michael Frayn’s riotous <i>Noises Off.</i>

Belinda Blair (Catherine Lynn Davis) has a few words with Frederick Fellowes (Richard Howard) as Brooke Ashton (Tyler Layton) looks on in dismay in Michael Frayn’s riotous Noises Off.

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There was blood on the walls—and on the floor, costumes and everywhere else—opening weekend March 1-3 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Three of the four works featured were about war and violence, and two were positively soaked in blood.

Those were Macbeth and Julius Caesar, both tragedies by that master of mayhem, William Shakespeare. Then there was Idiot’s Delight, Robert Sherwood’s Casablanca-like portrait of a group of people at an Alpine ski resort at the outbreak of World War II. By the time it was over, one person had been executed, Paris had been bombed, and more bombs were dropping outside the resort, threatening to kill everyone inside.

If I didn’t know that the OSF plans its schedules at least a year ahead, I’d think 9-11 had a role in play selection. And recent events certainly have confirmed the appropriateness of the selections. As OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel notes about Macbeth, which she directed, “Today, after having known the barbaric violence of the 20th century, and recently experienced the devastation on our own shores, I have found myself deeply interested in the mind of the murderer. What is it that allows a person to desire power so passionately that he would be willing to commit murder for it?”

Fortunately for balance, Idiot’s Delight has many light moments, and Noises Off is one of the funniest plays ever. Here’s a rundown:

MacbethThis play inaugurates the OSF’s brand-new $11.8 million New Theatre. This is a flexible arena facility that replaces the 150-seat Black Swan, doubling its capacity while maintaining its intimacy.

Appel stages the familiar play in a most unfamiliar fashion. She uses only six actors to play all the roles, cuts the text down to an hour and 50 minutes, and has no intermissions. Oh, and there’s no set, only a round raised area in the center of the theater. In the middle of this “stage” is a large cauldron of a red liquid. All of the costumes are white, and by play’s end all are covered in this “blood.”

It was too minimalist for my taste and required more suspension of disbelief than I could muster. The actors cross gender and racial lines in switching roles—a female Duncan? Sorry, no can do—so much that it calls attention to itself, and all that stage blood became silly. Some things don’t bear closeness well, and stage blood is one of them.

But the production also made for a powerful reading of the play, and G. Valmont Thomas and BW Gonzales were superb as Macbeth and his scheming wife, as was Jeffrey King as Banquo. If you’ve never seen Macbeth, this is well worth attending. (Through Nov. 3.)

Idiot’s DelightRobert Sherwood wrote this comedy-drama in 1935, four years before the outbreak of World War II, so its prescience is astonishing.

At a ski resort lodge in the Italian Alps, a picture window stage rear looks out on the mountains. They look peaceful, but war could break out at any moment, and most of the people in the lodge are waiting for the Swiss border to open to escape from Italy.

Among them is an American song-and-dance man named Harry Van (Michael Elich, in full Humphrey Bogart mode), who’s shepherding a small troupe of cabaret dancers ("Les Blondes") trying to make it back to the States. Also on hand are a young British couple on honeymoon, a German cancer researcher seeking intellectual freedom, an infamous arms manufacturer and his beautiful blonde mistress, a French radical socialist, the Italian captain from the nearby air base and various police officers and hotel personnel—a wide range of people whose interactions (romances, conflicts, acts of generosity and treachery) are entertaining and revealing.

The play is funny at times, and there’s even a brief interlude when Van and his chorines put on a charming musical show for the guests. But the looming war and its portents of destruction, as well as the immediate conflicts between some of the parties (in particular, the socialist radical and the fascist captain), ground the play in seriousness. It was a thrill to discover such a brilliant play so elegantly produced. (Bowmer Theatre through July 14.)

Julius CaesarThis is the play that asks the question, do the ends justify the means? When the populist dictator Caesar decides he wants to become king, members of the Senate worry that their authority will be undermined. They hatch an assassination plot and recruit the noble Brutus, Caesar’s good friend, to join in. But their treachery, which is successful, ultimately leads to civil war in which Octavius, Caesar’s heir, is victorious and, as history tells us, eventually becomes Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor.

Director Laird Williamson sets the play in an inexplicit but effective postmodern context that seems to be of the 20th century and ancient Rome at the same time. A huge photo of Caesar hangs from the rear of the stage, casting an aura of authoritarianism over the scene.

Shakespeare’s play has terrific momentum. It’s not one of his poetic masterpieces, but it’s a dramatic tour de force with several potent roles. (Bowmer through Nov. 3.)

Noises OffThis is definitely the “must-see” play of the season. I promise you will laugh so hard that, by the third act, you’ll be worn out. It’s that funny.

Playwright Michael Frayn’s story is a play within a play, a sex farce that satirizes sex farces. In it, a group of English provincial troupers are putting on a touring bedroom comedy called Nothing On. We see in Act I an early rehearsal of the production, in Act II an early performance but from backstage (the set rotates), and in Act III what is probably the final performance two months later.

So the OSF actors are each playing two roles, the characters in Nothing On and the actors playing them, who have their own hilarious goings-on—feuds, romances, jealousies, missed cues, botched lines, you name it. Nothing On is set in a two-story country cottage (with the requisite multiple doorways) when several people show up at the same time: a housekeeper who just wants to spend an afternoon watching telly; the long-absent owners; a real estate agent hoping to have a quickie with a young secretary; a burglar; and an Arabian sheik interested in buying the place. Joining these actors/characters are a stage manager and his assistant, with whom he’s having an affair.

Complications ensue, as they say, and the sight gags and jokes start piling up—and keep doing so for nearly three hours. The comic timing is split-second, the pacing is furious, the doors keep slamming, and the laughs keep coming. (Bowmer through Nov. 2.)