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March 9, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 10
 
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Bits & Bytes
Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens 72nd season with three classic titles and modern Rabbit Hole, Oregon Cabaret delights with fun Men On Ice
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

ASHLAND, OR -- The Oregon Shakespeare Festival just opened its 72nd season with a solid group of thoroughly satisfying stagings. Shakespeare, of course, Chekhov, Stoppard and a highly emotional new work by David Lindsay-Abaire drew a VIP crowd of opening weekend well-wishers-state officials, OSF board members, long-time patrons of the Festival and the usual flood of theater critics from Oregon, Washington and California. Bits&Bytes and the reviewer for a Seattle daily were praised for traveling the furthest distance to review the new season..

The Festival has always been Gay/Lesbian friendly-the annual August Daedalus Project, an AIDS benefit, usually raises more than $55,000 in one weekend. This year's Daedalus Project is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 20, with community-wide events planned for the previous Saturday and Sunday. The event is often the focal point for GLBT theater fans who plan their OSF visits around the AIDS fundraiser.

OSF is not the only theater game in this tiny Oregon town. A local community group won high praise for a production of On Golden Pond, and--as usual-the Oregon Cabaret Theatre offers frothy fun with its new production of Men On Ice, a revival of a former sold out hit. Read on:

CLASSIC AS YOU LIKE IT MOVES TO 1930'S GREAT AMERICAN DEPRESSION
Shakespeare's As You Like It is one of the favorite plays of The Bard Of Avon for many OSF patrons. Frequently produced, OSF's 2007 staging moves the action from the Elizabethan era and the Robin Hood-like Forest Of Arden to a hobo camp in America during the Great Depression. The shift in time and place does little harm to the antics of the characters and does allow the music to mine the same sources as Hollywood's recent O Brother, Where Art Thou. The lively production will please most OSF's patrons, confuse a few, irritate the Shakespeare purists. The move sheds no enlightenment on the play, its characters or its themes-but it causes no great harm. This is the Festival's 14th production of the comedy since 1939 and it surely will not be the last.

J.R. Sullivan, a visiting director who guided OSF's Room Service into smash hit status two seasons back, tackles the Shakespeare classic with a broad attack. Touchstone, the beloved court clown, plays the accordion and approaches the gentle comedy as though it were Hellzapoppin' or a zany skit on the Laugh In of yesteryear-but the opening audience clearly loved the interpretation. David Kelly has great fun with the role and obviously satisfies the director's concept.

Mariam A. Laube brings a zesty twist to Rosalind, the play's central and most famous character. Usually played as an early feminist, especially when she flees from court and disguises herself as man in the Forest Of Arden, Laube here comes off as ditzy fool-one unkind Oregon critic dismissed her approach as Gidget Goes To The Forest Of Arden. It's clear she does what the director asks-and, to be fair, the audience ate it up. (Theatre history buffs-and you know who you are-will recall that a young Katharine Hepburn jumpstarted her stalled Hollywood career with a famous Rosalind that enchanted New York critics and audiences. Her legendary performance was clearly more "early feminist" than the Gidget variety.)

The production has many fine elements-a handsome, stylized set, a great deal of great enjoyable music (which, alas, makes the comedy very long), a terrific (and believable) wrestling scene, and wonderful (if broad) performances. It continues in repertory through Oct. 28 in the Angus Bowmer indoor theater.

(A digression--but fun note: A close reading of the biographies in the OSF Playbill program notes that John Tanner, the composer of original music for this As You Like It, "plays the ukulele and electric bass and owns one of Buster Keaton's original porkpie hats.")

LOVING STAGING OF CHERRY ORCHARD HIGHLIGHTS SEASON
Libby Appel, OSF's artistic director for the past 12 years, ends her work at the Festival this year. Her direction of her own adaptation of Chekhov's beloved The Cherry Orchard was a highlight of the opening weekend-and is sure to be a dramatic highlight of the season.

In her program notes, Appel pays tribute to her high school English teacher who introduced her to Chekhov when she was 16. Contemplating her upcoming retirement, Appel told the assembled press corps at a Sunday morning press conference that her work in adapting Cherry Orchard has inspired her to translate and adapt Chekhov's other three major stage works "as soon as I can." What a goal-and one that OSF will hopefully play a part in with future stagings. (Bill Rauch will take over as Artistic Director of the Festival for 2008-his first season will be announced any day now.)

Fans of serious theater will make this Cherry Orchard a "must see" on any 2007 Ashland visit. It continues through July 8 at the Bowmer Theatre.

Chekhov described his plays as "comedies"-as in comedy/dramas that are part of the "human comedy" that really describes life for most people. His characters are warm, often loving and periodically ridiculous in their behavior. For example, Madame Ranevskaya, The Cherry Orchard's main character, simply cannot face the fact that she has run out of money and that back taxes will force the sale of her beloved estate and its world famous cherry orchard. She gives away money without thought as the inevitable is about to happen. She laughs off the troubles of the world-and her own family. She is Russia in transformation-a symbol of the past unable to cope with the current or the future.

Sensitive direction, solid casting and fine, shaded performances mark this Cherry Orchard. Judith-Marie Bergan is at her best as Ranevskaya. Richard Howard has been an OSF favorite for 19 seasons, and his work as Gayev, her brother, shows him in top form. The large, ensemble cast works beautifully together (with one major miscasting) and makes this Cherry Orchard one to treasure, one to remember.

STOPPARD'S COMIC ON THE RAZZLE DELIGHTS CROWD
If Appel's The Cherry Orchard was the meat-and-potatoes offering of the opening weekend's theatrical banquet, then Tom Stoppard's adaptation of On The Razzle was the gooey dessert that topped off the dinner. Clearly the audience favorite of the opening series, On The Razzle is Stoppard's reworking on a mid-1800's Viennese farce with an untranslatable title that might be Out On A Lark.

The 1840's farce by Johann Nestroy was also the source of Thornton Wilder's 1938 The Merchant of Yonkers, a Broadway failure that Wilder refashioned in 1955 as Ruth Gordon's The Matchmaker. In 1964, the story became the immortal musical Hello, Dolly!

On The Razzle can be a sidesplitting comic farce-as Seattle's ACT showed many decades ago. At OSF, Laird Williamson's direction makes it into an exhausting comic romp. The action never stops, the jokes never stop, the actors never stop racing about the colorful sets. It's great fun-but it might have been funnier with a few quiet moments. As it is, it's the comic hit of the season.

Wordplay-a trademark of playwright Stoppard-abounds. "He'll alter you before dessert," one character warns. He then reflects that maybe, "He'll desert you before the altar." The overprotective uncle is concerned with "My ward!" but another character hears "My word!" The uncle demands, "Unhand my foot, sir!" but the lover proclaims, "I love your niece" but the uncle thinks he says, "I love your knees." And so it goes.

Tony DeBruno heads the likable cast in the zany romp. It plays the full season in the Bowmer, closing Oct. 28.

NEW RABBIT HOLE HITS HOME WITH ITS TALE OF FAMILY GRIEF
OSF traditionally mixes Shakespeare and theater classics with modern works. David Lindsay-Abaire's new Rabbit Hole, which just ended a much extended run on Broadway, fills the "new, provocative drama" slot for the spring Ashland season. (The Broadway production was directed by Dan Sullivan, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre for nearly 20 years.)

James Edmundson's strong cast, a handsome set and sensitive direction make this modern saga on one family's grief a dramatic hit. It's a restrained, subtle, sincere production of a provocative new script.

Lindsay-Abaire shot to fame with his early script, Fuddy Meers, which OSF produced in 2001 (and Seattle audiences saw at ACT the same season). Kimberly Akimbo and the new musical High Fidelity followed. (Bits&Bytes thoroughly enjoyed High Fidelity on Broadway in December but it closed within two weeks-a victim of producers with little faith in the finished product and one devastating New York Times review.)

The tale of a married couple coping-or not coping-with the death of their four year old son, Rabbit Hole is not a perfect play, as an upcoming Seattle production will show. But it is an important, compelling play that will surely please serious theatergoers.

Robin Goodrin Nordli and Bill Geisslinger are the parents of the dead boy and both do terrific work in their different approaches to grief. Dee Maaske and Tyler Layton add comic---and needed-zip to the script as the flamboyant mother and sister of Nordli. When comedy is used-it's a zinger. A politically-incorrect moment occurs one another character is described: "An overweight woman with more chins than a Chinese phone book."

While the characters, and the script, seem to wallow in self pity at times, Rabbit Hole is sure to be a dramatic hit with OSF faithful. It plays at the intimate New Theatre just through June 22.

OSF OFFERS 11 PLAYS IN ROTATING REPERTORY THROUGH OCTOBER 28
As usual, OSF offers 11 productions for the 2007 season. Three outdoor Shakespeare productions-The Tempest, The Taming Of The Shrew and Romeo And Juliet--open in early June. For complete details on the season, OSF offers a toll-free number (800) 219-8161. Use the same number to ask for a free copy of the 2007 season brochure or the upcoming list of 2008 titles. And, yea, go ahead and tell 'em Bits&Bytes told ya to call.

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