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Pretty Theft

'Fingersmith' debuts at Oregon Shakespeare Fest

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FINGERED 'Fingersmith' features (left to right) Erica Sullivan, Terri McMahon and Sara Bruner.
  • FINGERED 'Fingersmith' features (left to right) Erica Sullivan, Terri McMahon and Sara Bruner.

'It's very pleasing to me to have Fingersmith, the play, be presented in three acts, with two intermissions," says novelist Sarah Waters. "The story is set in Victorian times, and the classic form of the Victorian novel was in three volumes. So that's absolutely traditional."

The London-based Waters is onstage at the historic Armory building in Ashland, Ore., speaking to a crowd of theatergoers and fans. In just over three hours, her bestselling 2002 mystery Fingersmith—the twisty tale of a street-smart pickpocket involved in a plot to swindle a fragile heiress—will have its world premiere in a massive new stage adaptation by Alexa Junge. The opulent production was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which Waters admits she'd never heard of before being approached with the offer to turn her novel into a play.

"I was a bit worried, at first," she allows, confessing that her worst fears included actors with fake English accents reminiscent of Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. "Dick van Dyke has scarred the nation of England forever," she laughs.

Having seen many of her novels adapted to movies or television, Waters says most of those experiences have been positive.

"That's mainly because I've always kept a distance from the process," she says. "By the time one of my books is being adapted to television or something, I've already moved on to my next novel."

Attended by an international fan base (some of whom have traveled across whole continents to be here today), the award-winning Waters is perched between playwright Junge and Fingersmith director Bill Rauch, carefully answering a question about what she hopes audiences will take away from the play.

"Well, for me, novels are incredibly life-affirming things," she says. "Novels celebrate what's best about us as human beings—our capacity for invention, our capacity for surprising people. There is a great narrative relish in the novel Fingersmith, and one of the things that fascinates me about the process of watching it be turned into a play, is that I know I will see that relish, that narrative excitement, translated into a theatrical experience, with all of what the stage can add. When I wrote the novel, I wanted readers to finish it and say, 'Wow!'

"So this afternoon," she continues, "when we all get to see Fingersmith the play for the first time, I suppose I hope for the same thing, that audiences will be saying 'Wow!' as they leave the auditorium."

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs Tuesday–Sunday through Nov. 1. Venues, times and prices vary.

****

Before offering my succinct and reviews of four (count ‘em, four!) new shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, let me ask a question that has puzzled me for years. Why is it, here in the North Bay, that it’s so difficult to convince the average theatergoer to travel more than a few miles to see a show? In this arts rich area, the mere act of suggesting that a person drive from Rohnert Park to Mill Valley (or vice versa), or from Santa Rosa to Sonoma, just to catch a show—even one that is being raved-about by all who’ve seen it—is tantamount to asking someone to fly to Paris and back for a bag of croissants.

In spite of this, for the last 80 years of its existence (count ‘em, 80!), the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, located all that time in Ashland—a six-hour-drive from most parts of the North Bay—has proven that people actually will travel from far and wide to watch a play, if the right combination of elements is in place.

I’m suggesting that theater lovers should travel a little for good theater, and that means making the trip from Marin to Santa Rosa or from Petaluma to Rohnert Park, or from the North Bay to Southern Oregon.

And some people definitely do.

Every year, thousands of North Bay residents take the drive up over the Siskiyou Pass, and down into Ashland, which is about the most charming town you could imagine catching a play in. The primary draw is, of course, the shows, a mix of Shakespeare, classic America dramas and musicals, and world premieres, all presented with enormous invention, intelligence, experimentation and razzle-dazzle.

The festival opens each year in February with four shows playing in two indoor theaters, adds a few shows to those theaters up until June, when it opens the sprawling open-air Elizabethan Theater with three new shows. By the time the festival closes in early November, the OSF will present a total of eleven shows over nine months.

This year’s magnificent quartet of opening shows, the strongest batch of openers in some years, bodes very well for the rest of the festival. It proves the point that good theater is indeed worth driving for.

Much Ado About Nothing

Rating: ★★★★½ (Out of five)

William Shakespeare had a way of writing comedies with plots that veered close to the teetering edge of becoming tragedies. Sometimes, as in the comedy-romance Much Ado About Nothing, his stories venture so far into dark and dangerous territory it becomes difficult for directors to ease the production away from that brink, back into the realm of lightness and love and humor.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz works such miracles by making actual sense of certain plot turns that usually baffle those put in charge of making the various merry mix-ups make sense. Blain-Cruz sets the action—named as taking place in the Italian province of Messina—in a modern-day version of that world, one that includes such things as toe socks and exercise equipment, yet still carries elements of an ancient fairytale with plenty of European splendor. To the home of Leonato (Jack Willis), the Governor of Messina, comes military leader Don Pedro (Cristofer Jean), He is leading his officers home after a military action that apparently went well for almost everyone except for Don Pedro’s bitter, illegitimate, wheelchair-bound sister Don John (Regan Linton).

Invited to stay and recuperate in laid-back Messina, the company of Don Pedro all settle in. The quick-witted Benedick (a first-rate Danforth Comins) immediately takes up his years old war-of-words with Leonato’s nicee Beatrice (Christiana Clark, also excellent). Each of them having publically sworn their opposition to the institution of marriage, their friends, of course, quickly whip up a plot to trick them into falling in love—which works all too well, to hilarious and surprisingly moving effect. Meanwhile, as Don John looks for ways to cause trouble wherever possible, the young and overly earnest soldier Claudio (Carlo Alban) falls for Leonato’s daughter Hero (Leah Anderson), and that’s where Shakespeare’s plot usually causes problems.

As Don John’s scheme to foil the lover’s impending marriage unfolds, many of the characters make choices that are, to modern audiences, unforgivable. And because this is a comedy, they are, of course, forgiven. But in this sparkling, effective production, Blain-Cruz makes a number of ingenious choices that turn these simplistic characters into real people. Though Alban, as Claudio, often seems a bit out-of-depths compared to the rest of his cast, he may be the best Claudio I’ve ever seen on stage. Let’s face it. This is not an easy part, and by playing up the character’s earnestness, his emotional commitment to doing what is right in any situation—and by exhibiting genuine remorse when things go south—he makes the character work, which is saying something.

Adding to the pleasures of the production are Rex Young as Dogberry, a tongue-tied security chief who gets about with spectacular grace on a Segway. Young gets laughs (big ones) merely from the way he moves makes that thing move.

With a simple set that uses a series of dangling chandeliers as metaphors when the light-hearted plot goes temporarily dark, this Much Ado About Nothing makes much more of what is often not much. The motions are rich and nuanced, the comedic elements beautifully carried out, the language is crisp and clear, and the climax is believably bittersweet, with just the right touch of hope and happiness.

Pericles

Rating: ★★★★★ (Out of five)

One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime, Pericles (he co-authored the thing, but it’s still good) has not felt much love for over the past 100 years. Maybe it’s because this epic high sea adventure is not exactly simple or cheap to produce, what with its rapidly changing scenes: from exotic islands to ocean storms to shipwrecks to more exotic islands to brothels and palaces and graveyards and jousts and sacred temples and resurrections and battles and tricks and riddles and pirates and kidnappings and, ultimately, the timely arrival of one very helpful goddess.

In this case, she’s on a trapeze.

Sort of. Not exactly.

Anyway, it’s cool.

The last time I saw Pericles produced, three years ago in Berkeley, more directorial energy was put into finding clever and ironic ways to stage these visual wonders then was put into making the emotional core of the play, and it’s heartbreaking characters, resemble anything real.

Gorgeously directed by Joseph Haj, the play-that-can-no-longer-be-staged has been turned into that rarity of a theatrical event: a magical, richly emotional play that is, form it’s acting to the unchecked loveliness of its visual presentation, pretty much perfect.

Prince Pericles of Tyre (Wayne T. Carr) is like a Shakespearean playboy/Odysseus, bouncing from island to island in search of fame, fortune and a bit of true love. His first stop does not work out so well. When he agrees to gamble his head on his chances of solving an impossible riddle (tattooed on the back of the resident princess), Pericles ends up on the lam—and the trajectory of his oceanic escape is anything but smooth.

The story careens from tragedy to absurdity and back again, but in Haj’s ingenious hands, the outrageousness of the plot works, even with its wild swings from adventure (Quick! Hide!) to comedy (Look! Pirates!) to drama (My wife is dead and I’ve accidentally left my daughter with murderers) to fantasy (She’s alive!).

As poor Pericles spends his life trying the fix a few major mistakes, the OSF tech team unleashes a combination of high tech miracles and classic stage trickery, bringing beauty and deep emotion to what might have been a hodgepodge of colliding plot points.

What makes Haj’s vision so moving is that he takes the story at face value, treating as real and valuable and full of humanity what most others treat as slightly-silly mythological foolishness.

In the end, this Pericles—as satisfying a show as I have seen at OSF in years—is exactly what Shakespeare wrote it to be. The tale of a man’s life, from youthful ambition to aged regret, tied together by a shining, unbreakable thread of love, persistence, and hope.

Guys and Dolls

Rating: ★★★★½ (Out of five)

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Or so they say.

The popularity of some shows can eventually lead to that show’s decline, because the more we see it, the more we see its foibles and flaws. It’s not dissimilar to watching a magician perform the same illusion over and over. Eventually, we stop being distracted by the illusionist’s misdirection, and we see the trick for what it is: a trick.

Such is the case with Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, a show so popular that every high school and community theater company in the nation cannot resist taking a crack at it. So despite the show’s inherent charm and tuneful songs, repetition has taken the magic away for many of us.

Cue Mary Zimmerman, a card-carrying theatrical magician of the highest order. Known for taking impossible source material (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, Disney’s stage version Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book), Zimmerman has taken on the herculean task of making Guys and Dolls look fresh, fun, and significant—and she’s done it.

Behind a mostly bare stage occupied at all times by a wooden table and a portable scale model of New York City (think the diminutive facsimile of Stonehenge in Spinal Tap), a massive wall occasionally opens up windows that reveal various scene-setting images (palm trees, sewer grates). Other scene elements roll on and off—or bounce on, in the case of several dozen beach balls that appear in one scene set in Havana, Cuba—but the razzle-dazzle in this Guys and Dolls is the superb cast.

As the confirmed-bachelor and gambler Sky Masterson and the engaged-but-marriage-phobic Nathan Detroit, Jeremy Peter Johnson and Rodney Gardiner are forces of nature, bringing stellar voices and magnificent character work to what have become easy-to-phone-in cliché’s. In the hands of such inventive actors, these two cartoonish characters, affable criminals caught in the magnetic pull of love, become richly detailed human beings. The entire cast follows suit.

As the Detroit’s longsuffering showgirl fiancée Miss Adelaide, Robin Goodrin Nordli is outstandingly funny, managing to play Adelaide’s psychosomatic cold for maximum comedy without losing sight of the fact that the character is also super sexy. And in the precarious role of Sarah Brown, the prim Salvation Army zealot who Masterson must woo to win a bet with Detroit, Kate Hurster pulls off a similar high wire act, maintaining her character’s inherent commitment to godliness and decency while revealing the just enough of the flesh-and-blood woman she hides from the world, and from herself.

In short, this cast somehow turn these people into folks with real emotions roiling under their skins, and the result is a Guys and Dolls that has more than just dynamite singing and dancing and a fluffy, superficial plot—this one has real heart.

And plenty of magic.

Fingersmith

Rating: ★★★★½ (Out of five)

Sarah Waters’ bestselling Victorian crime thriller Fingersmith became THE novel to read about ten years ago, fueled by its daring combination of Dickensian detail and heart-pounding lesbian sex. With a sprawling cast of characters and a whole parade of provocative details—public hangings, Victorian pornography, and that aforementioned girl-on-girl bedroom action—Fingersmith might not sound like an obvious choice for a Shakespeare Festival to want to turn into a play.

It’s a good thing OSF has built a reputation in recent years on its willingness to break rules. This world premiere commission from playwright Alexa Junge brings with it the kind of electric buzz and audience anticipation I haven’t felt in a theater of any kind since the opening weekend of Alien in 1979. By the first of two intermissions in this sprawling three-hour epic, the opening day audience—myself included—knew that that anticipation was not for naught.

The story, about which little can be revealed, is set in two very different households in 1861 London, begins with an indecent, but potentially profitable, proposal. Sue Trinder (a magnificent Sara Bruner) is a pickpocket who’s grown up in the makeshift “family” of the amiable Fagin-like criminal Mrs. Sucksby (Kate Mulligan). When a legendary conman name Gentleman (Elijah Alexander, all handsomeness and charm) appears with a scheme to marry the mentally frail heiress Maud Lilly, he enlists Sue to take employment in the rich woman’s household, becoming his accomplice in convincing the haunted Maud to marry him.

Things, to say the least, take a few turns, and the head-spinning plot is like its own character in a show jam-packed with characters from the criminal underworld and the not-so-pure aristocracy.

Directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, the story clips along with pacing and polish, its shape-shifting cast augmented by some delightful stagecraft, including boats and carriages sailing or clip-clopping along on a rotating stage and a pair of jaw-dropping lynchings.

The story is so tightly written by Junge that even the projected subtitles informing the audience of what is happening when are nothing short of brilliant, as well timed as a master comedian landing a joke that bust a gut while breaking your heart.

For the full schedule and information about this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit the website at www.osfashland.org

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