Theater Review: Five Plays at Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2012

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In early Spring, when the world seems equal parts rain and sunshine, our thoughts predictably turn inside out. As the natural world turns green and lush around us, we suddenly feel the urge to trade those inward, reflective, heat-seeking pursuits of winter for anything that gets us up and out, moving and planting and creating. Right on schedule, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, has—as of mid-February—officially rekindled and recommenced, with six shows currently running in a nine-month-long season that will eventually total 11 shows on three stages.

Some are old favorites. Others are brand new.

This year, many are a combination of both of those.

Romeo & Juliet—directed by Laird Williamson in the spacious Angus Bowmer Theater—takes Shakespeare’s timeless tale of ill-fated teenagers in love, and sets it in California of the 1840’s, where two wealthy Mexican families feud as the American military moves in to occupy its new geographic acquisition. Think Zorro, and you’ll have an idea of the vibe Williamson is going for.

The best thing about the play is the freshness of its look, with stunningly detailed costumes (Susan Tsu), and an adobe-and-wood set by scenic designer Michael Ganio. Also a plus are the delightfully youthful performances of Daniel Jose Molina and Alejandra Escalente as Romeo and Juliet, and some nicely choreographed stage fighting, which seems like the kind of fighting teenagers would do if they were permitted to carry swords to school.

Unfortunately, though our star-crossed lovers do successfully act the ages of the teenage R&J—pouting and flirting, raging and brawling, skipping and frolicking—the pair never demonstrate much actual romantic chemistry. Lacking any real passion and fire, the tone of the production becomes a bit flat and non-involving.

A similar lack of engagement takes place in Troilus & Cressida, Shakespeare’s seldom-staged sociopolitical satire about sexual and geographical politics during the Trojan War. The action—and I use that word loosely—is set several years into the famous siege of Troy, placed somewhere between the legendary kidnapping of the beautiful Helen and the famous Trojan Horse episode. A deliberately thoughtful look at the costs of violence, Shakespeare shows us what war looks like when it’s stuck in a quagmire, with little happening beyond soldiers waiting, and waiting, and waiting, their psyches slowly disintegrating.

The story follows Trojan prince Troilus (here played by Raffi Barsoumian) who’s fallen hard for the lovely Cressida (Tala Ashe), a Trojan woman whose family is in disgrace after the defection of her father to the besieging Greek army. When their love is threatened by a prisoner swap agreement between the two sides, Shakespeare relates a very different story of what happens when true love is denied.

When staged with the emphasis on the slow heartbreak at the center of Shakespeare’s storytelling, this is devastating material, and director Rob Melrose begins with an intriguing interpretation that promises more than it ultimately delivers.

Updated to modern-day Bagdhad, the Trojans have been turned into Iraqis, with the Greeks transformed into American soldiers, the versatile New Theater turned into a rubble-filled battle filled outside a ruined city. Melrose’s vision is tasty, at first. There is a visceral thrill at seeing recognizable names like Achilles (Peter Macon) and Ulysses (Mark Murphey) portrayed as Desert Storm army guys, but somewhere along the way, the direction becomes muffled and confusing, and the ultimate pathos of Shakespeare’s low-key tragedy is ultimately not served as well as it could have been.

Far less serious, and much better, is Allison Narver’s hilarious and inventive staging of Animal Crackers. Energetic and entertaining, if somewhat overlong, this is Henry Wishcamper’s fan-friendly adaptation of the celebrated Marx Brothers musical, built from the original Broadway script (by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind) that launched the Marx Brothers' career.

Like the classic movie inspired by the play, Animal Crackers is the story of one wild weekend at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (K.T. Vogt), who invites the celebrated African explorer Captain Spaulding (a Groucho-channeling Mark Bedard) to give a lecture at her home. Bedard captures Groucho’s physical mannerisms to a tee, though his vocal impersonation occasionally wanders. Forming the rest of the famous foursome, Brent Hinkley, John Tufts and Eddie Lopez (Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, respectively) recreate some of the most famous bits in classic-comedy history. With a live chamber orchestra on stage, and some inspired physical choreography that sends the cast literally careening off of one another, the low-brow shenanigans do begin to wear thin into the show’s overstuffed third portion. Not that Narver’s madcap confection is ever boring. It’s not. Ultimately, I recommend Animal Crackers, because too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Also recommended is director Libby Appel’s shimmering production of Anton Chekhov’s poignant The Seagull, with a crisp and lucid English adaptation by Appel that shows its intentions beginning with the title, shorted to merely Seagull.

Chekhov’s tale of a family of Russian artists clashing over money, art and love—love denied, love ignored, love destroyed—is presented in such an unfussy and straightforward manner, the playwright’s rocky emotional jigsaw puzzle becomes pleasantly, unexpectedly and heartbreakingly clear, as all of Chekhov’s pieces fall beautifully, one by one, into place.

The theme of impossible love continues in my favorite show of the current crop. The White Snake, written and directed by the Tony-winning Mary Zimmerman, brings a little-known Chinese folktale to life through eye-pleasing visuals that are as poetic and the luscious and heartbreaking text. If you think Romeo and Juliet had it hard, consider the problems facing White Snake (Amy Kim Wascke), a mountain snake spirit who ventures to the city of humans for one day, and falls hard for a kind-hearted pharmacist (Christopher Livingston), who does not suspect that the woman of his dreams is actually a snake in human disguise. Told in one fluid act, the story touches a rainbow array of tones and feeling as the two mismatched lovers catch the eye of a cruel priest (Jack Willis), who decries the couple’s love as unnatural, and vows to separate them forever. At once achingly simple and miles deep, The White Snake packs a huge emotional wallop, with a breathtaking ending that somehow blends heartache and delight into a single unforgettable image.

For the full schedule, visit www.OSFashland.org.

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