Reviewed by Judy Richter
The opening of the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has greater significance than is usual with this mid-June event. Featuring artistic director Libby Appel's final production before retiring and Bill Rauch's first since being named her successor, it's a showcase for what might be seen their contrasting approaches to the Bard. Appel directs William Shakespeare's "The Tempest," while Rauch directs "Romeo and Juliet." Sandwiched between them is "The Taming of the Shrew," helmed by guest director Kate Buckley.
Festival visitors also can see Shakespeare's "As You Like It," Tom Stoppard's "On the Razzle" and Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" (also directed by Appel), all of which opened in the indoor Bowmer Theatre in February. They were joined by August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" in April. Moliere's "Tartuffe" will replace "Cherry Orchard" in the Bowmer starting July 25. David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rabbit Hole" ended its indoor New Theatre run June 22, to be replaced by Lisa Loomer's "Distracted" starting July 3. Also playing in the New Theatre is "Tracy's Tiger," a world premiere musical by Linda Alper, Douglas Langworthy, Penny Metropulos and Sterling Tinsley. The 11-play season ends in early October for the Elizabethan and the end of October for the two indoor theaters.
One comment that applies to every production is that the language, especially Shakespeare's, is well spoken and clear, a tribute to the festival's voice and text coaches. Following are reviews of the three Elizabethan Theatre productions:
Libby Appel chose Shakespeare's "The Tempest" as her valedictory during this, her 12th year as artistic director of one of the nation's largest and oldest regional repertory companies. (She'll be back next season to guest-direct Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge.") "The Tempest" is a fitting farewell because it's about "an artist letting go," she said at a press conference during June's opening weekend. It also was Shakespeare's last play before he retired to Stratford, England. Therefore, Shakespeare may be seen as the play's central character, Prospero (the imposing Derrick Lee Weeden).
Appel opts for a minimal set by William Bloodgood, highlighted mainly by grayish tree trunks and lighted by Robert Peterson. Costumes by Deborah M. Dryden are inspired by the Spanish Renaissance, according to Appel. The production also is enriched by the music of composer and sound designer Todd Barton, starting with singing in the opening storm scene and continuing throughout the production, mainly performed by Ariel (the lithe Nancy Rodriguez) and her five shadows.
In a departure from the text, Appel eliminates the prenuptial pageant performed for Miranda (Nell Geisslinger) and Ferdinand (John Tufts) by Juno, Ceres and Iris. Instead Ariel's shadows, led by Robert Vincent Frank, recite Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments," and excerpts from other sonnets to celebrate the betrothal.
Besides the theme of an artist letting go, "The Tempest" is a play about enslavement and liberation. Prospero emotionally frees himself by forgiving the people who wronged him: his usurping sister, Antonia (Greta Oglesby); her co-conspirator, Alonso (Armando Durán), the king of Naples; and Sebastian (Tyrone Wilson), Alonso's brother. He also frees his servants, the good Ariel and the brutish Caliban (Dan Donohue). To emphasize the theme of enslavement, Ariel's arms are roped, Ferdinand is put into manacles while he serves Prospero to win Miranda's hand, and Caliban's body is encircled with ropes. Moreover, ropes are used as part of the set, allowing one of Ariel's shadows, Vanessa Nowitzky, to display her skills as a rope artist, along with some of her colleagues.
The cast is uniformly excellent with specific kudos to Weeden as Prospero. Also noteworthy are James Edmondson as Gonzalo, who helped Prospero after his downfall as the duke of Milan; Michael J. Hume as Stephano, a drunken butler; and Christopher DuVal as Trinculo, a jester. The scene in which Stephano and Trinculo discover Caliban and get him drunk on wine is hilarious, thanks to the comic acting skills of all three.
Opening night had a moment of magic that none of the artists could have created or anticipated. As Ariel led Ferdinand to Miranda for the first time, insects swarming in the light above his head looked like fairy dust.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
When she was invited to Ashland to direct Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," she had some misgivings, director Kate Buckley said at the mid-June press conference. After all, "Shrew" comes with a lot of baggage in this era of sexual equality. In rereading the play, however, she saw that it's really about a very complex relationship, and that's the tack she has taken with this amusing production.
Hence, the shrewish Katherina (Vilma Silva) isn't quite as ferocious as some other productions have made her, and her tamer, Petruchio (Michael Elich), isn't quite as outrageous or rough. Instead, there's a bit more of a battle of wits and perhaps attrition as Katherina begins to cool her hot-headedness in part as a survival mechanism and in part as a way to please her husband, whom she is coming to love. Likewise, Petruchio learns to appreciate Katherina's strong personality and to love her for it as well as for her efforts to please him.
Despite this more 21st century approach to the two central characters, the production itself features lush period costumes by David Kay Mickelsen and a relatively simple set by Richard L. Hay (lighting by Robert Peterson) with one witty, modern touch: a sign reading, "Baptista's Trattoria di Padua." The music and sound are by Todd Barton.
In addition to the layered performances by Silva and Elich, the production is enhanced by Sarah Rutan as Bianca, Katherina's younger sister; Jeffrey King as Baptista, their father; and Danforth Comins as Lucentio, who is in love with Bianca. Also seeking Bianca's hand are the old Gremio, played by James Edmondson; and the foolish Hortensio, played by Shad Willingham. Lucentio's servants are played by Jeff Cummings as Tranio and Mark Bedard as Biondello, who contribute to the hilarity of a hat-swapping scene with Lucentio. Robin Goodrin Nordli assumes a male persona to portray Grumio, Petruchio's servant. Completing the cast in smaller roles are Jeris Schaefer as Nicholas, Tony DeBruno as Vincentio, Tyler Layton as the widow, Robert Vincent Frank as the pedant, Catherine E. Coulson as the tailor and Dee Maaske as the haberdasher.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Bill Rauch has guest-directed other productions at the festival, but this is his first since his appointment as Libby Appel's successor. As the artistic director designate, he also has been solely responsible for planning the 2008 season and has been in Ashland since the beginning of this season. Appel had tapped him to direct Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" last year before his appointment.
As Rauch says in his program notes and as he reiterated in the press conference, he sees "Romeo and Juliet" as not just the longstanding feud between the Capulets and Montagues, "two households both alike in dignity," the prologue says. Instead he wants to stress the generation gap between parents and children. In line with this concept, he has costume designer Shigeru Yaji placing the older generation in the Italian Renaissance and the younger generation in contemporary Italian outfits and school uniforms. Likewise, composer Paul James Prendergast's music is inspired by both the Renaissance and the present day. The simple set by Christopher Acebo, with lighting by Robert Peterson, provides a somewhat neutral platform for the differences.
While Rauch's concept works to a degree, it seems strained, sometimes calling unnecessary attention to itself rather than the inevitable tragedy that awaits the star-crossed lovers, Romeo (John Tufts) and Juliet (Christine Albright). Moreover, it applies primarily to Juliet's relationship with her parents, Lord Capulet (Jonathan Haugen) and Lady Capulet (Shona Tucker), who want to her to marry Paris (Rafael Untalan) and who mourn the death of Tybalt (René Millán), Juliet's cousin. The text doesn't provide a strong sense of the relationship between Romeo and his parents, Lord Montague (Robert Sicular) and Lady Montague (Liisa Ivary). He's more closely involved with his buddies, Benvolio (Juan Rivera LeBron) and Balthasar (Adam Yazbeck), who are about his age, along with the somewhat older Mercutio (Dan Donohue, who gets in a quick physical allusion to "West Side Story," the musical inspired by "Romeo and Juliet."). Instead it is two members of the older generation, Juliet's nurse (Demetra Pittman) and Friar Laurence (the excellent Mark Murphey), who assist Romeo and Juliet in their secret romance and marriage.
This tends to be a high-energy production, perhaps too high at times, especially where Tufts as Romeo and Haugen as Lord Capulet are concerned. Both tend to peak too early, but one can hope that they'll find a different arc with subsequent performances. At the opening, however, it was difficult to feel an emotional connection with the two lovers, diluting the tragedy of their deaths.