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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 4 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 27
Women rule the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Arts & Entertainment
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Women rule the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
ASHLAND, OREGON
Through November 2


If you've never attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, you might not know that only three or four of the eleven plays offered each season are by Shakespeare. This year, for the first time, a majority of the non-Shakespeare plays were written by women. Furthermore, the company turns Shakespearean tradition on its head by presenting The Two Gentlemen of Verona with an all-female cast.

The second innovation this season is a technical one: a new sound system in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. So much sound gets lost in a large open-air theater that it can be impossible for actors to project adequately without amplification. The actors performing in the Allen now wear body mikes, which deliver their words to all parts of the theater with little or no sound distortion. In the three opening nights I attended at the Allen, there was only one slight glitch when an actor bumped into another actor's mike. Otherwise, the sound was clear and natural.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Through October 12

Two Gents is very early Shakespeare and lacks the depth and subtlety of his later plays. However, this no-gents production in the Allen is thoroughly enjoyable. It doesn't hurt that the cast includes some of the finest actors in the company: Sofia Jean Gomez and Christiana Clark as Valentine and Proteus, the two gents; Erica Sullivan as Julia, the young woman loved, then spurned, then loved again by Proteus; K. T. Vogt as Launce, Proteus's servant; and veteran OSF actors Judith-Marie Bergan, Vilma Silva, and Catherine E. Coulson in smaller roles. It also doesn't hurt that a lovable Great Pyrenees named Picasso plays Launce's dog Crab.

Director Sarah Rasmussen has created an elegant production, with simple, versatile sets designed by Andrew Boyce and gorgeous, gender-bending costumes designed by Moria Sine Clinton. And it's such fun to see women roughhousing, clowning, and wooing each other onstage.

Richard III
Through October 10

Actor Dan Donohue's brilliant performances of Hal (in the Henry IV and V plays) and then Hamlet made his OSF reputation. This season he takes on another great Shakespeare role, the villainous but charismatic Richard III, and once again, his performance is superb: sly, self-aware, frightening, pathetic. Donohue connects exceptionally well with the audience and makes us all complicit in Richard's crimes.

This gripping, well-paced production, directed by James Bundy in the Allen, is firmly centered on the actors and brings out their best. On opening night, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, a festival newcomer, nearly stole the show with her powerful performance as Queen Margaret, whose husband and son have been killed by Richard.

Into the Woods
Through October 11

It's embarrassing for a theater and music critic to admit this, but I'd never seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods until opening night at the Allen. In fact, I'd never even heard the music from this amazing show, which mashes up a number of fairy tales and messes with the audience's expectation of a happy ending. Well! It's difficult to imagine a better introduction than the splendid OSF performance I witnessed, which fairly crackled with energy and spirit.

Amanda Dehnert, who directed last year's successful production of My Fair Lady, again serves as both stage director and music director. The performance begins in concert style, with the actors standing at lecterns, but each time the actors exit and re-enter, they are wearing more of their costumes. Gradually, concert becomes musical theater. This way of staging a musical seems to be Dehnert's trademark, and it definitely draws the audience into the performance.

Some of the cast are singers who can act, and some are actors who can sing pretty well. Some of the musicians are professionals, and some are middle- and high-school student apprentices. To the credit of Dehnert and all participants in this production, the quality of performance couldn't be much higher - no small feat with Sondheim's insanely complex music and lyrics.

Miriam A. Laube plays the witch with gusto and musicality. John Tufts and Jeremy Peter Johnson as the two princes are as funny as they are cute, and that's saying a lot. Noteworthy performers in the singing category are Rachael Warren, Miles Fletcher, Jennie Greenberry, and Johnson. In the acting category, Catherine E. Coulson, Howie Seago, Kjerstine Rose Anderson, and Royer Bockus shine. Robin Goodrin Nordl, who has made a long OSF career of tragic roles, gamely throws herself into broad comedy as the harried mother of Jack (the beanstalk guy) - she dances, mugs, and makes an astonishingly acrobatic entrance on a bedsheet. Matt Goodrich at the piano does a yeoman's job of keeping the music on-track, even when he is covered in flour at one particularly riotous moment.

On opening night in the Allen, the only part of the production that fell flat was the video projection of the giant's head onto the top of the set. The low-tech effects worked much better: Red Riding Hood diving directly into the wolf's stomach, characters hidden in a magician's trunk, the two princes riding tricycles with horses' heads, the witch transforming herself into a beauty in record time while twirling in a length of cloth.

Water by the Spoonful
September 4 through November 2

Of the nine plays I attended during a week-long OSF marathon, Water by the Spoonful, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, was my favorite. It was also the favorite of my companion and of several friends who attended a different performance.

Directed by Shishir Kurup in the small Thomas Theatre, this is a stunning production of an outstanding play. It has originality, strong characters, well-written dialog, perfect pacing, and emotional impact - everything one could ask for.

The play concerns two connected groups: the family of Elliot Ortiz (played by Daniel José Molina), an Iraq War vet who has returned home with an injured leg, a painkiller addiction, and a ghost that haunts him; and the members of an online chat room in which recovering crack cocaine addicts help each other stay clean. Odessa Ortiz (screen name Haikumom, played by Vilma Silva) moderates the chat room.

Although Silva's deeply affecting performance makes her character the very heart of the play, this is an ensemble piece, in which the six major characters have nearly equal importance. All the actors do a terrific job in their individual roles and in their scenes together.

Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer's spare, effective set illustrates the characters' isolation and need for connection: a separate square on the floor represents each character's space, and computer screens on the back wall show the chat room denizens logging on and off. The music of John Coltrane and other jazz-influenced sounds designed by John Nobori provide an appropriately dissonant atmosphere. Video projections designed by Wickersheimer and Geoff Korf give beautiful visual form to the pervasive water imagery of the play.

Water by the Spoonful is now closed for the summer but will reopen for a two-month run beginning September 4.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window
Through July 3

This first-rate production of Lorraine Hansberry's rarely performed last play was definitely worth seeing, but unfortunately, it closed for the season before press time. If Hansberry had lived beyond age 34, she probably would have shortened a few scenes. OSF sought permission from her estate to do just that, and received permission in some cases but not in others. Nonetheless, this is an important, rewarding play, and it deserves to be performed more widely.

In the Angus Bowmer Theatre, director Juliette Carrillo, scenic designer Michiko Suzuki MacAdams, and sound designer David Molina vividly recreate Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. The crowded apartment of Sidney Brustein (Ron Menzel, in an extremely high-energy performance) and his wife Iris (the quirky, expressive Sofia Jean Gomez) overflows with books and papers, which lie in stacks under the couch and the coffee table. The sound track includes Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and other protest and folk singers.

A Gay playwright based on Edward Albee (perfectly portrayed by Benjamin Pelteson) is the Brusteins' upstairs neighbor. Iris's two sisters are Mavis (in an excellent performance by Erica Sullivan), a seemingly boring housewife who reveals a hidden complexity in a wonderful monologue that includes text from Medea in Greek; and Gloria (Vivia Font), a call girl being courted by an African American man (Armando McClain) who passes for white.

The dialog is long on philosophy and politics, but also contains a lot of humor, some of it quite biting. Hansberry, an African American Lesbian, was definitely ahead of her time - this 1964 play confronts racism, sexism, and homophobia.

The Tempest
Through November 2

During the half-hour before the play begins, while the audience fills the Bowmer, four male dancers (Will Cooper, Tim Rubel, David Silpa, and Jordon Waters) with shaved heads and pale painted skin sit in pools of light on an onstage beach. They are motionless as statues until, one by one, they slowly change poses in a style based on Japanese Butoh. In the course of the evening, the dancers function as a mute chorus, as servants to Prospero (the main character, played by Denis Arndt), as pieces of furniture, as entertainers at a betrothal ceremony, and as the means for the sprite Ariel (Kate Hurster, in a fresh, clear performance) to fly. The dancers provide much of the magic of this lovely production, directed by Tony Taccone.

Wayne T. Carr, who plays Caliban, the second nonhuman character, provides plenty of magic, too. He displays remarkable athleticism and emotional range, spending nearly the entire play on his haunches and movingly portraying the pathos and anger of an enslaved creature and the gradual development of the character's dignity.

In smaller roles, Richard Elmore and Barzin Akhavan are very funny as the clownish Stephano and Trinculo.

Kudos to scenic designer Daniel Ostling, lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols, costume designer Anita Yavich, and movement director John Sipes for creating a striking, evocative atmosphere.

The performance I attended was marred only by Arndt's lack of diction and emotion. A weak Prospero is a fatal flaw in almost any production of The Tempest, so this production's effectiveness is all the more impressive.

The Comedy of Errors
Through November 2

This madcap show, set in Harlem in the 1920s, takes some liberties with Shakespeare's text, but loses nothing of importance and gains some marvelous music, dancing, and singing. The separation and reunion of two sets of twins and of their parents has extra resonance when the twins are African American, with one set having grown up in the South and the other in the North.

Under Kent Gash's direction in the Thomas, the play gallops along at a dizzying pace, which all cast members handle without apparent strain. It's near-impossible to imagine this production without Rodney Gardiner as both Dromios. He simply makes the show. Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Ramiz Monsef, Bakesta King, and Mark Murphey also give standout performances in smaller roles.

The Cocoanuts
Through November 2

The chaos, fast pace, and crazy humor of this Marx Brothers musical, written by Irving Berlin and George S. Kaufman and adapted for OSF by Mark Bedard, make it a nice companion piece to The Comedy of Errors. Expertly directed by David Ivers, choreographed by Jaclyn Miller, and orchestrated by Gregg Coffin, the production is just plain fun.

Bedard as Groucho, Brent Hinkley as Harpo, and John Tufts as Chico are an unbeatable team and delight in cracking up the rest of the cast and the Bowmer audience with their ad-lib antics. David Kelley as Detective Hennessey manages to make the same gags funny again and again.

Jennie Greenberry's voice does justice to Berlin's songs, and Miles Fletcher, Erin O'Connor, and Katie Bradley execute some cute routines with verve. Darcy Danielson does a fine job of conducting from the keyboard.

A Wrinkle in Time
Through November 1

If you read and loved the Madeleine L'Engle novel A Wrinkle in Time during your childhood, you'll probably love this production, adapted and directed by Tracy Young. Excerpts of recorded interviews with fans of the book and staged readings of passages from the book make reading itself the principal subject of the play.

Alejandra Escalante, Sara Bruner, Joe Wegner, Mark Bedard, and Jeremy Thompson all do well as the children in the story, with Bedard and Thompson bringing particularly eloquent body language to their roles as teenage boys. A charming additional child (Jada Rae Perry) does science experiments onstage. In the adult roles, Judith-Marie Bergan, Michele Jais, Kate Mulligan, Daniel T. Parker, and U. Jonathan Toppo are all top-notch.

Coming up: Daedalus Project, Family Album, and The Great Society
You might want to travel to Ashland for the all-day OSF Daedalus Project on August 18. This annual event raises money to end the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to remember and celebrate those who have died from the disease. Activities include an afternoon play reading and an always-hilarious evening variety show.

Two plays will have world premieres at OSF in July. Family Album, a rock-and-roll musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the team behind the Tony Award-winning show Passing Strange, will run in the Thomas July 1-August 31. Robert Shenkkan's The Great Society, commissioned by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, will run in the Bowmer July 23-November 1. The Great Society is the sequel to Shenkkan's Tony Award-winning All the Way, commissioned by OSF to tell the story of Lyndon B. Johnson in the manner of Shakespeare's history plays. Bill Rauch, artistic director of OSF, once again directs. After the OSF run, All the Way and The Great Society will move to the Seattle Rep, where Rauch and key members of the OSF cast will continue their roles.

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