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A Night at the Shakespeare Fest

Oregon's annual festival opens strong


STAGE LEFT Sofia Jean Gomez and Ron Menzel play radical artists in Lorraine Hansberry's final play. - JENNY GRAHAM
  • Jenny Graham
  • STAGE LEFT Sofia Jean Gomez and Ron Menzel play radical artists in Lorraine Hansberry's final play.

One of Shakespeare's very first plays, a reclaimed stage version of the Marx Brothers first Broadway hit, a revival of Lorraine Hansberry's last play and Shakespeare's own final play—these are the first four shows to kick off the current year-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the scenic mountain town of Ashland.

This year, there seems to be an initial emphasis on firsts and lasts, and on the specific discomfort and pain we feel when trapped in worlds that seem to be both ending and beginning at once. Between now and fall, a total of 11 shows will eventually open. Here's the scoop on the first four.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window

The best of the bunch, so far, is Hansberry's final play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Whatever else is said about it, it's certain to become one of the most hotly debated plays of the spring season.

Lorraine Hansberry is the playwright best known for writing A Raisin in the Sun, which made her the first female African-American writer to open a show on Broadway.

That was 1959.

By the time The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window opened in 1964, Hansberry was in the final months of a losing battle with cancer. An act of love to the very end, Sidney Brustein was polarizing, to say the least. Critically savaged by some, though earning fierce devotion from others, it was attacked by critics for packing in too many different contemporary social issues. Watching the play today, it's obvious that it's the work of an artist desperate to say as much as possible in the short time she had left.

The story of Sidney Brustein (Ron Menzel), a Greenwich Village artist struggling to make a positive impact on the world but thwarted by his own self-doubts and cynical views, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is kind of a mess. Plot points are packed with minute details one moment and left maddeningly vague the next. And there's a sequence of theatrical absurdity so jarring and unexpected it would shock Edward Albee, whom it seems to be making direct fun of.

In spite of all of that, as presented by OSF, Hansberry's last work is about as meaty and thought-provoking a play as I've seen in years. If it's guilty of caring too deeply and attempting to say too much, I wish more plays tried to commit a similar crime.

Simultaneously large-hearted and hard-headed, Sidney is an amazing character, capable of nonjudgmental acceptance but also adept at vicious, verbal cruelty. He's been hurt by his own failures and the failures of the political system, and his marriage to Iris (Sofia Jean Gomez) is straining at the seams. Iris, an actress too self-loathing to actually audition for anything, is tired of Sidney's schemes. No sooner has his latest labor of love failed (a folk club where people listen to records instead of live music), he buys a failing Greenwich Village newspaper, immediately testing his resolve to avoid taking sides in any political contest.

"You're gonna wear out your ass sitting on that fence," warns his best friend, Alton (Armando McClain), a light-skinned African American who most people assume is white. Alton is in love with Iris' beautiful sister Gloria (Vivia Font), not knowing she's a high-priced call girl. Iris' other sister, Mavis (Erica Sullivan), is a right-wing Republican who serves as Sidney's chief antagonist, especially when he decides to jump off the fence and support the candidacy of his politician buddy Wally (Danforth Comins), who vows to fight the "bosses" who control the city.

"Fight Bossism," that's the sign Sidney hangs in his window, a straight-forward but simplistic message that comes back to bite him, as he gradually learns some devastating messages about the way the world, his marriage and his own belief systems actually function.

Brilliantly acted by a first-rate cast and directed with unflinching passion by Juliette Carrillo, Hansberry's final work surges on a wave of authentic dialogue and clashing intellectual ideas, making Sidney Brustein a wild, unfocused but truly volcanic eruption of heartbreak and wounded rage.

The Tempest

If only Berkeley Rep director Tony Taccone's new production of The Tempest had a fraction of the same stormy energy. In the beloved shipwreck fantasy, Shakespeare, like Hansberry, was also writing his final play, saying goodbye to the theater, while cramming in a boatload of thoughts on life, love humanity and art.

Prospero (Denis Arndt) has dreamed of revenge since being shipwrecked on a magical island, with only his daughter Miranda (Alejandra Escalante), the spiteful man-monster Caliban (Wayne T. Carr), and the spirit Ariel (an excellent Kate Hurster, all watchful fire and icy strength). When a chance wind brings near the island a ship containing those who betrayed him, Prospero conjures a storm that sinks it, putting all his enemies within his grasp.

It's a story in which Shakespeare examines the pro-and-con possibilities of vengeance and forgiveness, and there is much richness to bring to the surface—much of which is missed here.

Taccone does bring some strong visual ideas to the stage—bald ethereal dancers, a metal-winged spirit, a spare set covered in red carpet—but except for these enchanting visual adornments, the overall production feels strangely flat and recycled. As the shipwrecked sorcerer Prospero, Arndt is oddly tentative and lifeless, and his speeches are often mumbled and hard to hear.

It's unfortunate, because unlike Sidney Brustein, in which so much is said so beautifully, this Tempest aims mainly at looking beautiful and ends up doing little more than that.

Comedy of Errors

Compared to The Tempest, Shakespeare's much earlier A Comedy of Errors, directed by Kent Gash, is crackling with cleverness and sheer spirited fun. With the action set during the Harlem Renaissance, Gash fills the story of two long-separated sets of identical twins into an eye-popping, music-filled romp that is clever, funny, sexy and satisfying.

In Shakespeare's play (believed by many to be his first attempt at comedy), the towns of Ephesus and Syracuse are at war, declaring death on anyone from the opposite town. In Gash's staging, it's New Orleans, La., against Harlem, N.Y., where the action is set. In OSF's small Thomas Theater (if there's a better spot for intimate, innovative interpretations of Shakespeare on the West Coast, I don't know where it is), the story plays out on a slab of faux concrete emblazoned with the names of Harlem landmarks of the 1920s, with a tall clock tower overlooking everything from one corner.

Into town comes the wealthy Antipholus (Tobie Windham) and his servant, Dromio (Rodney Gardiner), both from New Orleans. They have been wandering for years, searching for their lost twin brothers, who, for some reason, bear the exact same names. Separated in childhood by a storm at sea (Shakespeare did like his storms), they've arrived in Harlem. Unbeknownst to them, their grownup twins also live in Harlem, where Antipholus (also Tobie Windham) is a respected businessman and Dromio is his wise-cracking, much-put-upon assistant.

Nothing that happens afterward quite makes sense, but the fun of this staging is how entertainingly Gash and his energetic cast keep all the various plates spinning.

The Cocoanuts

One thing about OSF, they do keep their seasons varied. The Cocoanuts, directed by David Ivers, reassembles the original details of the Marx Brothers' show, which made them famous in 1925 and was later turned into the film of the same name. Mark Bedard, who also adapted George Kaufman's original play for this production, channels Groucho in a performance that frequently veers off script into some outrageously silly audience improv.

The story, such as it is, takes place at a Florida hotel during the 1920s land boom, where the Cocoanuts Hotel is being run (into the ground) by the outrageously avaricious Mr. Hammer, aka Groucho. His put-upon head clerk, Jamison (Eduardo Placer, in the Zeppo role) has fallen in love with the wealthy Polly Potter (Jennie Greenberry), whose mother (the splendid K. T. Vogt) prefers that her daughter marry Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank), who is only pretending to be wealthy. Into the mix come two con men, Harpo and Chico (Brent Hinkley and John Tufts, both brilliant), who add complications to Mr. Hammer's plan to marry Polly's mother.

This is the show that gave the Marx Brothers' famous "viaduct" bit ("Why a duck? Why not a chicken?"), and the loopy scene where a half-naked detective sings "I want my shirt" to music from the opera Carmen. It's also got Berlin's sweet love song "Always," and a bunch of other early Irving Berlin tunes that are clever and melodic, if not very well-known.

The comedic power of the play is not the story, of course, or the songs, as nicely put together as they are. For audiences in Ashland, this will be all about seeing the Marx Brothers alive onstage again (or almost). The entire cast has the uncanny skill to celebrate the timeless genius of the Marx Brothers while at the same time playing with material's unavoidable datedness.

This is the second Marx musical to land at Ashland in the last three years. Earlier, the same team brought Animal Crackers to the stage. Will there be more? Well, as Groucho/Bedard says at the end of the show, "See you when we return for another chapter, here at the Oregon Marx Brothers Festival!"

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