by Alice Bloch -
SGN Contributing Writer
OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Through November 3
This season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, you couldn't go wrong by seeing the plays directed either by the festival's artistic director, Bill Rauch, or by his husband, Christopher Liam Moore. When I rank-ordered the nine productions I saw there during the opening week of the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, these four were at the top of my list: King Lear and Cymbeline (both directed by Rauch), and A Streetcar Named Desire and A Midsummer Night's Dream (both directed by Moore).
Through October 11
In the wrong hands, Cymbeline can be excruciatingly boring and seemingly endless. It's one of Shakespeare's late romances - complicated, improbable stories that include elements of comedy, tragedy, and fairy tale, with horrifying gore and magical reconciliations. The romances are difficult to mount successfully, and Cymbeline is perhaps the most difficult of all. When I attended the opening of the previous OSF production of Cymbeline, 15 years ago, I vowed never to see it again. I'm glad I broke that vow.
Rauch's production makes the most of the fairy-tale aspects of the play by peopling it with elves and singing ghosts, and by modeling some of the characters after Disney versions of the Grimm fairy tales. There's a wicked queen (played with cartoonish glee by Robin Goodrin Nordli) with a bright-red poison apple; a buffoonish, vain villain (interpreted so hilariously by Al Espinosa that the audience was sad to see him beheaded); a kindly doctor (the excellent Anthony Heald) who also serves as narrator; and a goofy mountain man (Jeffrey King, who proves that for a great actor, there are no small roles) with two goofy adopted sons (played with exuberance by Raffi Barsoumian and Ray Fisher).
Rauch doesn't shy away from the play's mixture of horror and comedy. He fully exploits the humor of the scene in which the virtuous heroine, Imogen (well-played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner) finds a headless man in her bed and mistakes him for her husband, Posthumus Leonatus (equally well-played by Daniel José Molina). I know, it doesn't sound funny - you have to be there.
Rauch also makes the most of the international cast of characters (Britain, Wales, ancient Rome, and Renaissance Italy are all represented) by casting veteran deaf actor Howie Seago as King Cymbeline. The characters' levels of skill in communicating with American Sign Language differentiate them as much as do their costumes (created by David C. Woolard) and modes of speech.
The versatile woodland set designed by Michael Ganio is used, with variations, for all three plays now running on the Elizabethan Stage. Projections and videos by Alexander V. Nichols create the illusion of deep woods behind the stage, and lighting designer David Weiner's fine work enhances the drama.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Through October 13
If you've seen anything by Shakespeare, you've probably seen A Midsummer Night's Dream. Moore sets this comedy in a Catholic high school in 1964. Theseus (Richard Howard) and Hippolyta (Judith Marie Bergan), the mature couple whose wedding frames the play, are presented as the priest and nun who run the school and are about to give up their religious vocation to marry each other. The four young lovers are graduating seniors. The 'mechanicals' (rustic mechanics) are the school's gym teacher, lunch lady, and so on. Moore weaves these 20th-century characters into Shakespeare's play skillfully enough to make his concept believable.
All four actors who played the young lovers did an impressive job. Christiana Clark as Helena was outstanding. Joe Wegner played Lysander with a sweet haplessness reminiscent of Gene Wilder. Tanya Thai McBride and Wayne T. Carr were excellent as Hermia and Demetrius, respectively.
The woodland fairies are modeled after the fairies in Victorian picture books: small, serious creatures wearing long dresses in somber colors. The children who play most of the fairies perform like true professionals. The scenes in which they hang the moon in the sky at nightfall and then retrieve it and store it away at daybreak are particularly charming.
On opening night, Gina Daniels as Puck had a nice twinkle in her eye but lacked charisma. Ted Deasy as Oberon, king of the fairies, movingly portrayed the distress of marital discord and the emergence of his character's compassion, while Terri McMahon as Titania, queen of the fairies, seemed brittle and static.
The real magic of this production comes from the earthiest characters, the mechanicals who perform with unwitting comedy the tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of the three human couples. In most productions, the play-within-a-play feels anticlimactic after the restoration of harmony in the fairy and human realms, but this year the mechanicals steal the show. I don't want to spoil your pleasure by describing too many details, so suffice it to say that on opening night Brent Hinkley (as the gym teacher playing Pyramus) proved himself a comic genius and thoroughly cracked up the other actors, as well as the audience. K.T. Vogt gave a star turn as the cafeteria lady playing a wall. The remaining players were also extremely funny: Michael J. Hume as the lion, Jon Beavers as a lanky Thisbe (in drag), and Isabell Monk O'Connor as the moonlight. Catherine E. Coulson was perfect as P.D. Quince, the drama teacher valiantly attempting to direct this motley band.
THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD
Through October 12
The third play that just opened on the Elizabethan Stage, The Heart of Robin Hood, provides good family entertainment and a feisty, cross-dressing heroine. As envisioned by playwright David Farr and director Joel Sass, Robin Hood (the always wonderful John Tufts) and his men are a gang of thugs. Marion (nicely played by Kate Hurster) trains herself in swordplay so as to join Robin's band and escape the terrible fate of marriage to evil Prince John (played with broad humor by Michael Elich). When Robin refuses to accept a woman in his troupe, Marion disguises herself as 'Martin of Sherwood' and forms a rival gang. Hilarity, narrow escapes, and acrobatics ensue.
The most enjoyable performance of opening night was certainly that of Daniel T. Parker as Marion's servant Pierre, who might as well be named Nathan Lane. The rest of the cast did a fine job. Child actors Christopher Vincent and Madeline Day, and OSF trainee Alyssa C. Rhoney (as Plug, the dog) deserve special mention, along with Tasso Feldman (as a green giant and a wild boar) and Jonathan Haugen, who injected dry humor into the role of Marion's revered father.
Through November 3
Shakespeare's King Lear, directed by Rauch, has been playing in the 300-seat Thomas Theatre since February. This terrific production demonstrates what can be done with an excellent, small cast in an intimate setting. See it if you can. Better yet, see it twice, to catch both of the great actors (Jack Willis and Michael Winters) cast as Lear in alternating performances.
Rauch sets this timeless play in our era and presents Lear as an elder afflicted with dementia. In the performance I saw, Willis played Lear with complete commitment and left the audience shattered. Vilma Silva as his oldest daughter, Goneril, showed dignity even in her villainy. Richard Elmore was a fine Gloucester, and Raffi Barsoumian and Benjamin Pelteson both excelled as his sons. Daisuke Tsuji gave an exceptionally deep performance as the Fool. Sofia Jean Gomez was convincing as a modern-day Cordelia, and Rex Young was just right as Cornwall.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Through November 2
Moore's fine production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in the Bowmer Theatre, sustains the unrelenting tension of Tennessee Williams's powerful play and is just as devastating in its own way as King Lear. Kate Mulligan as Blanche absolutely makes the show with her tremendous range and intensity. Danforth Comins is good as Stanley, but I found his performance too cerebral. Nell Geisslinger gives welcome complexity to the role of Stella, and Jeffrey King is superb as Mitch, Blanche's suitor. Christopher Acebo's set is simple and evocative, and Robert Wierzel's lighting increases the tension.
MY FAIR LADY
Through November 2
One of Rauch's contributions to OSF is the addition of musicals to the festival's offerings, and they are almost always great successes. My Fair Lady is no exception. This thoroughly delightful production, directed by Amanda Dehnert, is playing in the Bowmer.
The cast, headed by Jonathan Haugen and Rachael Warren as Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, is jam-packed with festival favorites doing a splendid job. In the performance I attended, four understudies were substituted - including John Tufts and Kate Mulligan, both stars of other plays - without apparent strain. Anthony Heald as Alfred P. Doolittle, David Kelly as Colonel Pickering, and Miriam Laube as Mrs. Pearce were outstanding.
Ken Robinson gave the most memorable performance of the evening as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the usually boring character who sings 'The Street Where You Live.' Robinson played Freddy as a wacky innocent, camping out on Eliza's street and crawling up the railings into the audience, which roared its approval of his inspired physical comedy.
Jaclyn Miller's choreography is fabulous, especially considering that two grand pianos occupy much of the stage. The highlight is a prolonged dance routine during 'Get Me to the Church on Time.' Devon Painter's costumes are beautiful and apt.
TWO TRAINS RUNNING
Through July 7
A remarkable production of August Wilson's Two Trains Running is playing in the Bowmer, but you have to act fast. This absorbing ensemble piece vividly portrays the social atmosphere of the late 1960s in the Black community of Pittsburgh. Bakesta King and Tyrone Wilson are both extraordinary in their ability to say a lot with almost no words. Kenajuan Bentley delivers a fun, high-energy performance, and the rest of the cast - Terry Bellamy, Josiah Phillips, Kevin Kenerly, and Jerome Preston Bates - is uniformly excellent. Kudos to director Lou Bellamy for expert dramatic pacing and to Vicki Smith for the beautifully seedy set.
TWO TO SKIP
I found two of this year's productions - The Taming of the Shrew and the world premiere of The Unfortunates - unsatisfying, even though they have been popular with OSF audiences. The Unfortunates, a musical play set during and after World War I, was created by hip-hop group 3 Blind Mice (Jon Beavers, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef), plus Casey Hurt and Kristoffer Diaz. Unfortunately, the script and original song lyrics of The Unfortunates are weak and amateurish, making this show a waste of a talented cast. The Unfortunates runs through November 2.
The problem with the current Taming of the Shrew is subtler. This production, which director David Ivers has set in a present-day American beach town, is long on physical comedy and pop-culture references, and short on grappling with Shakespeare's text. The role of Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is cut so deeply that the complexity of her character is lost. The best performances come from the actors with smaller roles. The Taming of the Shrew runs through November 3.
THE DAEDALUS PROJECT
An upcoming OSF event of particular interest to LGBT audiences is the Daedalus Project. This annual affair includes a raucous variety show to benefit AIDS-related charities.
For more information and tickets to OSF plays and events, visit www.osfashland.org or call the box office at 1-800-219-8161.
IN HONOR OF MARIAN MICHENER
It isn't standard practice to dedicate a review, but I want to dedicate this one to my dear friend Marian Michener, who reviewed OSF and wrote SGN's 'Dyke About Town' column (under the pseudonym Mercy Moosemuzzle) for many years. Marian has Huntington's disease, an inherited brain disorder that gradually destroys physical control and mental faculties. Until recently, her enthusiasm for and participation in social and cultural life were unabated. She continued to get around town and invite her long list of friends to join her for concerts and plays, even when her increasing disability made it more and more difficult for her to do so. She introduced me and a number of other friends to OSF and to each other. Thank you, Marian, for enriching our lives with theater and friendship.
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