Reviewed by Judy Richter
A midsummer trip to Ashland, Ore., completed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's offerings for me. After seeing the four shows that opened the 2007 season in late February and the three Shakespeares that opened the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre in June, I went back in early August to see the other four productions, all indoors. The larger Angus Bowmer Theatre was the setting for Molière's "Tartuffe" and August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean." In the more intimate, flexible New Theatre were the relatively new "Distracted" by Lisa Loomer and a world premiere musical, "Tracy's Tiger," created by a team of OSF artists.
The week was marked by a major transition as artistic director Libby Appel began a three-month sabbatical on Aug. 1before officially retiring at the end of the season.Therefore, her successor, Bill Rauch, began his tenure, taking over day-to-day operations after planning the 2008 season.
Molière's "Tartuffe," directed by Peter Amster, seen in its second regular performance after opening July 25, is a comic masterpiece, but not every theater company can master its language and plot twists. Happily, Amster and his OSF cast have no such problems. The comic timing is impeccable, the characterizations exacting. This production uses a translation by Ranjit Bolt, who worked with Amster and dramaturg David Copelin to change some British words and expressions to American ones while retaining the ryhmed couplets, which the actors handle well. Some of the choices are definitely in the modern American vernacular with some vulgarities, but they seem to fit the situation even with Mara Blumenfeld's handsome 17th century costumes and Richard L. Hay's classic set design (lit by Chris Binder). The sound and music are by Todd Barton, inspired by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).
Anthony Heald leads the cast as Tartuffe, a hypocrite who poses as a regligious man while taking advantage of the generosity of his naive host, Orgon (Richard Elmore) and trying to seduce Orgon's wife, Elmire (Suzanne Irving). Except for Orgon's cantankerous mother, Mme. Pernelle (Eileen DeSandre), who's just as deceived as her son, everyone in Orgon's household sees Tartuffe's true colors. When Orgon decides to give his estate and the hand of his daughter, Mariane (Laura Morache), to Tartuffe, the others lay a trap to open Orgon's eyes.
Amster and his actors wisely underplay the comedy, relying instead on subtle changes in expression and gesture, thus amplifying the enjoyment. Besides those already mentioned, noteworthy contributions come from the other principals: Gregory Linington as Damis, Orgon's son; Richard Howard as Cleante, Elmire's brother; Linda Alper as Dorine, Orgon's outspoken maid; and Kevin Kenerly as Valere, Mariane's fiance.
GEM OF THE OCEAN
Although it was the late August Wilson's penultimate play, written in 2003, "Gem of the Ocean" takes its chronological place as the first of Wilson's 10 plays describing the African American experience during each decade of the 20th century. Like many other plays in the chronology, it is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, this time in 1904. Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Declaration 41 years earlier, Jim Crow laws were enacted to repress former slaves and their descendants.
The action takes place in the home of Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby), a 285-year-old spiritual adviser to the black community. Sharing her home are Eli (Josiah Phillips), her gatekeeper; and Black Mary (the role normally played by Shona Tucker was taken by understudy Gwendolyn Mulamba at the reviewed performance), Aunt Ester's protégé and housekeeper. They are joined by Citizen Barlow (Kevin Kenerly), a troubled young man newly arrived from Alabama. Frequent visitors are Solly Two Kings (G. Valmont Thomas), Aunt Ester's friend and a former conductor on the Underground Railroad; and Caesar (Derrick Lee Weeden), the rigid local constable and Black Mary's brother. The only white visitor is Rutherford Selig (Bill Geisslinger), a traveling peddler.
There's no doubt that "Gem" is a work of genius, and director Tim Bond, the designers and the actors bring out the best in it. Aided by composer Michael Keck, the production is filled with music such as spirituals sung by the multi-talented cast. The set is by William Bloodgood, the costumes by Susan E. Mickey and the lighting by Robert Peterson. Patdro Harris is the movement director. All of their artistry comes together in the climactic "City of Bones" scene in the second act, when Aunt Ester, Black Mary, Solly and Eli work together in a ritual intended to cleanse Citizen's soul and to evoke the history of a people who suffered greatly, starting with their terrible voyages from Africa. It's a thrilling scene that gradually builds in tension and intensity, riveting the audience and transporting them on that journey.
The individual performances are outstanding, especially by Oglesby, who commands the stage as Aunt Ester; Weeden, who makes Cesar so threatening; and Mulamba, whose portrayal of Black Mary seems flawless even though she's the understudy. Although Kenerly does a good job as Citizen Barlow, he's a bit too citified to be convincing as a poor country boy who just came up from Alabama.
This is only the second production of Lisa Loomer's "Distracted" after its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this year. According to artistic director Libby Appel, the playwright was in residence at OSF and made some revisions.
It's a thought-provoking play about a caring mother, Mama (Robynn Rodriguez), whose 9-year-old son, Jesse (James Edson), is hyperactive. He has such difficulty concentrating and sitting still that adults wonder if he has attention deficit disorder, ADD. Or is he just a normal, bright boy with enormous energy? Either way, he needs help because he's getting into trouble at school. Mama and Dad (U. Jonathan Toppo), who is easily distracted himself, take Jesse to a series of so-called experts to try to help the boy. They try all kinds of treatments and therapies, including -- reluctantly -- Ritalin.
Loomer provides no easy answers, for there are none, and it's now clear how Jesse will fare in the future. However, she provides a thoughtful, even disturbing look at what seems to be a growing problem in today's society. Director Liz Diamond and her actors delve into the complexities of the characters and issues. Rodriguez is brilliant as the determined Mama. Strong support comes from Caroline Shaffer, Gwendolyn Mulamba and Thom Rivera, who portray three characters each. Others are Judith-Marie Bergan as neighbor Sherry, whose son is on Ritalin; Vilma Silva as neighbor Vera, whose son is on Zoloft; and Kjerstine Anderson as Natalie, Sherry's troubled teenage daughter.
The fluid set is by Robert Brill with costumes by Ilona Somogyi, lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Jeremy J. Lee. Peter Flaherty designed the overhead videos that effectively evoke the paintings in doctors' offices, TV shows or cell phones.
Based on a novella of the same name by William Saroyan and augmented by his short story "The Barber Whose Uncle Had His Head Bitten Off by a Circus Tiger," "Tracy's Tiger" is a new musical set in San Francisco in the 1950s. It was created by former OSF staffer Douglas Langworthy along with company members Penny Metropulos, associate artistic director; Linda Alper, actor; and Sterling Tinsley, composer. Metropulos also serves as director, with Tinsley as musical director and Alper in the cast.
It's the story of a young man, Thomas Tracy (Jeremy Peter Johnson), whose alter-ego is an imaginary Tiger (René Millán). Thomas works at a coffee company along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, where he meets a young woman, Laura Luthy (Laura Morache), who has her own imaginary Tigress (Nell Geisslinger). Complications arise after Thomas goes to Laura's home in nearby Daly City and meets her parents, Oliver (Richard Farrell) and Viola (Miriam A. Laube). More complications arise when the Tiger gets loose and inadvertently terrorizes the city.
Despite the stellar cast, which also includes David Kelly, Brad Whitmore, Michael J. Hume, Alper and Juan Rivera LeBron -- all in multiple roles -- "Tracy's Tiger" doesn't work. Most of the characters aren't engaging, nor is the story. The music, despite echoes of Stephen Sondheim, doesn't seem memorable.
The artistic team makes strong contributions, with choreography by Patdro Harris, set by William Bloodgood, costumes by Deborah M. Dryden, lighting by Michael Chybowski and sound by Jeff Mockus, but they can't overcome the show's inherent weaknesses.