The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is once again in the spotlight, only much more so than usual. Being a major attraction for theater-lovers from the North Bay and beyond—thousands of which make the trek Northward each year to see whatever is being offered on OSF's three world-class stages—there has been a great deal of interest in the 2008 season, which opened in late February with four new shows, and will have staged a full eleven plays by the time it closes in early November (with an anticipated 400,000 humans in attendance, a third of them from the North Bay and Bay Areas. This being Bill Rauch's first year as the new Artistic Director, with Rauch having made it clear that he plans to shake things up a bit at the Tony Award winning institution (Best Regional Theater, 1983), expectations have been high, with fans wondering if Rauch's get-to-know-you season will prove him to be the right person for the job. And the verdict is . . . . maybe. We'll have to wait and bit longer to be certain, but for now, based on the first four shows out of the gate, Rauch seems to have succeeded in making this a different festival—but is it better? We won't know until the summer, when the outdoor Elizabethan stage opens, and the rest of his vision is unleashed. Till then, the first shows are an interesting mix, with a decidedly more "hip" tone than many seasons of the past.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Mark Rucker, is easily the hippest of the bunch, with its hippy-punk-wiseguy mortals and bi-sexual party-monster fairies, but on opening weekend, pacing issues and an uneven tone made the show less than satisfying, despite its caffeinated energy and smarty-pants, take-that-mister-Shakespeare shenanigans. Midsummer, one of the Bards most popular (and therefore most overproduced) shows, is resilient enough to survive the occasional overly-outrageous production, and one could argue that anything that makes audiences stay awake thinking "I didn't expect this," is fulfilling the goal of theater. Director Rucker certainly seems committed to keeping us awake, piling on towers of lights, disco-ball dance sequences, buff boy-fairies prancing about to rave music, a VW bus full of burned-out aging hippies, and a Fairy King and Queen who generate so much sexual heat they practically burst into flames.
They are Christine Albright, as Titania, and Kevin Kennerly, as Oberon, and despite the fact that the characters are at war (a skirmish over ownership of a changeling boy, changelings clearly being a big deal in the fairy world), the two battling lovers clearly just want the fighting to stop and the loving to resume. As the four hapless lovers who wander into the forest, inadvertently stepping into the middle of the fracas, Christopher Michael Rivera (Demetrius), Tasso Feldman (Lysander), Kjerstine Anderson (Helena), and Emily Sophia Knapp (Hermia) are strangely bland and interchangeable (perhaps that's on purpose) as they pursue and escape each other and swap partners as they fall under the spell of the fairies, particularly that of Puck (John Tufts, playing Puck as a kinky, slinky bundle of bottled-up lust for his master, Oberon), who is instructed by Oberon to play Cupid with the couples, but keeps making the wrong mortals fall in love. Also in the forest are a band of lowbrow would-be thespians (the so-called "rude mechanicals"), escaping to the woods to practice a play. A motley bunch, played by a dream team of OSF's best character actors, these goofballs give the show its biggest laughs. As Peter Quince, the would-be director of the play-within-a-play, U. Jonathan Toppo is hilarious, a strutting, intense, polyestered bundle of high-strung self-delusion; Toppo works a loaves-and-fishes miracle with this role, producing much more from his few short lines than anyone would think possible. Francis Flute, Tom Snout, Snug, and Robin Starveling, the dependably inventive Eileen DeSandre, Josiah Phillips, Jeffrey King, and Richard Elmore all give their characters individual traits and foibles that play off one another like oddball harmonies in a barbershop quartet. The biggest and boldest of these characters is always Bottom, the pompous airhead who, thanks to Puck, ends up with a donkey's head (and this show, hooves), and even ends up sharing the leafy bower of a love-potioned Titania. He is played to hammy perfection by Ray Porter, making his return to Ashland after a two-year sojourn in Los Angeles.
Rucker certainly does brings some clever ideas to the show; whenever one of the lovers is alone in the forest, members of the boy-toy fairy ensemble keeping running past them, snatching an item of clothing until all four lovers are wandering about in their underwear, which begins changing color, going from white to blue and red as the plot, and the passion, increases. That's pretty clever. The dazzling sets and costumes, by Walt Spangler and Katherine Roth, respectively, and the spectacular light-design by Robert Peterson, do much to keep things interesting on stage. Unfortunately, with a second act that lags as so many good actors milk every word and syllable for laughs, the show ultimately suffers from too much cleverness. Fortunately, all of the problems displayed on opening weekend are the fixable kind, and with an eight month run in the Angus Bowmer Theater, the cast has plenty of time to nail own its pacing inconsistencies, so the only question that remains is whether audiences will be drawn to a Midsummer Night's Dream that is so outlandishly different. I suppose it's a matter of taste. Some will like it, and some won't. I liked it.
Another play certain to polarize audiences is The Clay Cart, one of Rauch's much ballyhooed contributions to the current schedule, and a sing of his commitment to start introducing more classics from outside the Western canon that has ruled the OSF for years. The Clay Cart, a peppy English adaptation of a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit epic, is an Indian comedy-drama packed with crazy characters, tragic misunderstandings, hair's-breadth escapes, and twists of fate; in other words, it's very "Shakespearean," and yet, coming from a very different culture in a very different time, the show can't avoid being . . . . different, with characters that think and behave in ways that will be foreign to many most audiences. Not that it isn't interesting, but most of the time this Clay Cart—directed with an eye toward visual and musical splendor by Rauch—reminded me of a really great parade at Disneyland, a pageant of pretty things and catchy tunes that proceeds beautifully by, but does little to captivate us dramatically or emotionally, existing almost entirely on a superficial, purely visual level.
The story, rumored to have been the basis of the "opera" at the end of the movie Moulin Rouge, is promising enough. A kind-hearted, philosphical landowner named Charudatta (Cristofer Jean, also marking a return to Ashland after a long absence) has suffered a financial setback, and yet still longs for the company of the beautiful concubine Vassantesena (Miriam A. Laube), who loves him in return. Unfortunately, she is also desired by the infantile-but-evil Samsthanaka (Brent Hinkley), the King's idiot brother-in-law, who will stop at nothing to destroy Charudatta and possess Samsthanaka for his own. The rest is a motley mosaic of stolen money, accusations, lies, murders, twists-and-turns, ultimate sacrifices, and a spectacular storm (in which even the chandeliers over the audience sway in the make-believe wind), but with all of that activity going on, there never seems to be much happening, the result of a story-telling style that treats every event, big or small, with equal attention. It's not bad, by any means, but it getting used to. Fortunately, The Clay Cart truly is a beautiful play to watch, with a lovely, eye-candy set by Christopher Acebo, who's created a circular stage surrounded by pillars and dangling lamps and an enormous statue of a big green foot. The costumes, by Deborah M. Dryden, are also gorgeous, and if there seems to be little build-up of drama on stage, just pay attention to the dramatic quick-changes undergone by the concubine Vassantesena, who sometimes transforms herself entirely in less than 40 seconds of offstage time. Rauch wisely uses live musicians for the atmospheric score, composed and conducted by Andre Pluess, the live-ness of which adds a sense of spectacle and excitement to a play that, for no fault of its own beyond being three millennia old, often lacks the kind of excitement, or emotional depth, that one expects from an epic about evil kings, poor philosophers, and Christ-like concubines.
The Clay Cart runs through November 2.
Welcome Home Jenny Sutter, a world-premiere by Los Angeles playwright Julie Marie Myatt, directed by Jessica Thebus, is the flip opposite of The Clay Cart, being a small, simply staged story that packs an enormous emotional punch without a lot of visual flash or Disneyland stage magic. Sensitively crafted by Myatt, a playwright with an established fondness for outcasts and underdogs, Welcome Back, Jenny Sutter is an examination of grief, disillusionment, sacrifice, and healing, told through the experiences of a returning Marine, too hurt and too frightened to face her family after a stint in Iraq that has left her with too many bad dreams and one less leg than when she signed up. Jenny (played with ferocious quiet by Gwendolyn Mulamba) has a ticket home, but can't bring herself to get on the bus, or to answer the phone when her family calls. She is in an emotional limbo, afraid to let her family see her with her new prosthetic leg and guilty-angry-ambivalent feelings about how she came to acquire it. Through a chance bus-station meeting with the high-strung motor-mouth Lou (Kate Milligan, an electric ball of contrary emotions)—recovering from so many addictions she is unable to do pretty much anything—Jenny ends up sharing a tent with Lou at Slab City, a rent-free community of transients and outcasts, all getting their shit together at a decommissioned military base in the California desert. There, she is received by the residents with a mix of open-hearted understanding and suspicion, as Jenny sleeps, argues, debates, flirts, seeks quiet, heals (a little)—and waits for an inner signal that it's time to go home. She, of course, is not the only one seeking comfort and healing, and by caring for Jenny, some of the desert rats and social misfits find that they too are a bit better off than before Jenny arrived. Among the denizens of Slab City, which suddenly is hit with a crime wave as someone begins stealing personal hygiene items from all the tents, trailers, and lean-tos, are the self-appointed preacher Buddy, played by David Kelly with astonishing gentleness and wisdom, Cheryl (K.T. Voight) a hairdresser-turned-therapist-without-a-license, and Donald (Gregory Linington), a free-thinking loner who is attracted to Jenny as a person but repulsed by her as a symbol of a war he hates.
Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter runs through June 20.
The politics of the Iraq war, though touched upon here and there in Myatt's poetry-in-motion script, are kept largely on the sidelines, as Myatt is mainly interested in exploring the boundaries of human frailty, the personal costs of living in fear, and the little kindnesses that can add up to major breakthroughs when offered by one person reaching out to another and dares to listen. It's a beautiful play that deserves a long life in the theater, one that will hopefully last long after the real-life participants in this particular war have all come home. Fences, August Wilson's Tony-winning play about an African American father-son conflict in the mid-1950s, has almost always been directed by men. By selecting Leah C. Gardner to helm this production of Fences, Rauch is breaking down a few fences of his own, the result of which, in this case, is a magnificent show that reaches into corners untouched in other productions of this play.
Troy Maxson (the great Charles Robinson), is a former Negro Leagues ballplayer whose disappointments and anger at not being given a shot at the majors linger years later, long after black players have been allowed to play professionally alongside whites. Now working as a trash-collector, Troy is fighting again, against just about everyone. On the job, where he works with his longtime friend Bono (Josiah Phillips again), Troy is fighting to be made the first black man to drive a trash truck in Philadelphia, despite the fact that he has no drivers license. At home, he is fighting his son, Cory (Cameron Knight), who wants to play football, and is being recruited by a major college ready to give the young-man a full scholarship, if his father will only give his consent. Still angry over his own experiences, perhaps unwilling to allow his son to succeed where he could not, Troy keeps throwing roadblocks in Cory's path, despite the intercession of his wife Rosa (a powerhouse performance by Shona Tucker), who reveals layer upon layer of strength and resolve as she watches the two men she loves engage in a battle of power and one-ups-man-ship. Troy's adult son Lyons (Kevin Kennerly, also featured in Midsummer), stops by from time to time to borrow money and try to lure his father to come see him play the guitar at a local club. Another occasional visitor is Gabriel (G, Valmont Thomas, never better), a mentally ill man-child who, like his namesake the angel Gabriel, carries a trumpet in the event of the end of the world. He reveres Troy, whose constant inquiries about this older brother may not be entirely brotherly.
Troy, as written by Wilson, is a remarkable creation, a man whose strengths and weaknesses are fighting within his soul as powerfully as he is fighting the world around him. It is easy to see why Rose loves him, and why she cannot abandon him, even as his betrayals—against Cory, Lyons, Bono, Gabriel, even against herself—begin stacking up.
Powerfully acted by the entire cast, the play benefits greatly from Gardner's direction, bringing a woman's touch to the play by allowing Rose to rise up as a character every bit as strong and memorable as Troy. Emphasizing Wilson's themes of regret, resolve and forgiveness, Gardner stacks the deck with masterful details and perfectly-paced backyard battles. Easily the best show of this initial batch, Fences is a must-see in Ashland, and proves that Rauch, whose artistic gambles may sometimes fall short, can—and in this case definitely do—result in a theatrical triumph that sticks around in the mind and heart long after the last devastating blast of the trumpet.
Fences runs through July 6.
For information on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit the website at www.osfashland.org, or call the box office at (800) 219-8161
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