Reviewed by Judy Richter
Change is in the air at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which opened its 2008 season with four plays the weekend of Feb. 22-24. The most obvious change is that Bill Rauch has succeeded the recently retired Libby Appel as artistic director. (She'll be back to direct Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" later this year.) Rauch had previously directed at the festival and began working at his new job last year, thus planning the current season. Rauch has made several changes in the structure of the artistic leadership, and some new faces have replaced familiar ones in the acting company. Nevertheless, many festival veterans are still onstage, and the newcomers match up to the festival's standard of excellence.
Rauch has chosen a widely disparate set of plays to open his first season -- William Shakespeare, of course, with "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; an American masterpiece, August Wilson's "Fences"; a possibly 2,000-year-old Sanskrit play from India, Sudraka's "The Clay Cart"; and a world premiere, "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," by American playwright Julie Marie Myatt. The first three are in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, while the latter is in the smaller New Theatre.
Still to come are seven more plays: Jeff Whitty's "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler" and Miller's "A View From the Bridge" in the Bowmer; Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and Luis Alfaro's "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner" in the New Theatre; and Shakespeare's "Othello" and "The Comedy of Errors" along with Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, which opens in June. The season runs through Nov. 2.
Here's rundown on the four season-opening plays:
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
You know you're in for a nontraditional approach to this Shakespeare comedy when the fairy Puck (John Tufts) appears in a tutu over black pants with a black mesh muscle shirt and knee-high, lace-up, black leather boots with high heels and stacked soles (costumes by Katherine Roth). His confederates -- Moth (Mark Bedard), Cobweb (Eddie Lopez), Peaseblossom (Neil Shah) and Mustardseed (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) -- are similarly garbed as they do a disco-style dance (choreography by Ken Roht) to music by sound designer Todd Barton and co-composer Roht.
Guest director Mark Rucker and his design team set the play in what appears to be the '60s and early '70s with a stark contrast between the mostly white setting of the court of Duke Theseus of Athens (Michael Elich) and the far more fanciful forest. Scenic designer Walt Spangler moves curving metallic towers with lighted circles to denote the setting, aided by the spectacular lighting design of Robert Peterson, who has created, among other things, neon star bursts in various colors.
Despite all the stunning visual effects and the campy fairies, the story itself remains intact. Hermia (Emily Sophia Knapp) and her beloved Lysander (Tasso Feldman) flee from the court and go to the forest after Theseus threatens to punish her for disobeying her mother, Egeus (Linda Alper) by rejecting Demetrius (Christopher Michael Rivera) as her husband-to-be. As Hermia and Lysander flee, they're followed by Demetrius and Helena (Kjerstine Anderson), who loves Demetrius even though he treats her badly. When Oberon (Kevin Kenerly), king of the fairies, sees what's happening, he decides to intervene with Puck's help. He also wants to punish his queen, Titania (Christine Albright), because she won't give him her changeling child (alternately played by Collin Malcolm and Kevin Weatherby). As the four young people try to get things sorted out in the forest, they gradually strip down to their underwear -- symbolic of their shedding the ways of the court and starting afresh.
Shakespeare makes things even more interesting with the six rude mechanicals, who are rehearsing a play for the wedding of Theseus and his intended, Hippolyta (Shona Tucker), queen of the Amazons.This motley group arrives in the forest in a psychedelic VW bus and piles out in full hippie regalia. The most uptight is their ostensible leader, Peter Quince (U. Jonathan Toppo), while the most voluble is the buffoonish Nick Bottom (the hilarious Ray Porter). Also in this crew are Francis Flute (Eileen DeSandre), Tom Snout (Josiah Phillips), Snug (Jeffrey King) and Robin Starveling (Richard Elmore).
All works out for the best, and the festival is off to a somewhat racy start.
The late August Wilson's powerful "Fences" deservedly won both the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer for drama after its premiere in 1985. As part of his canon of 10 plays set in each of the 20th century's decades, this one takes place in the 1950s, when segregation still had a strong grip on the nation despite some breakthroughs. Guest director Leah C. Gardiner likens the play to Shakespeare's "King Lear." Certainly there are parallels between Wilson's Troy Maxson (Charles Robinson) and the Bard's Lear. Frayed father-child relationships are primary, but there's also the raging against the storm in Lear's case and the raging against Mr. Death in Troy's case. Tragic flaws lead to the downfall of both heroes.
Troy's background is far more humble than Lear's. He was born in the South and had some brushes with the law before moving to Pittsburgh and marrying his beloved wife, Rose (Shona Tucker). Troy works as a garbage collector and has two sons. The elder, Lyons (Kevin Kenerly), is from a previous relationship. He's 34, living on his own and trying to make a living as a musician. He always urges Troy to come hear him play, but Troy refuses. The younger, Cory (Cameron Knight), is from his marriage. Cory is a high school senior and a talented football player, so talented that he has been offered a college scholarship. Troy opposes Cory's dream, ostensibly because Troy doesn't want his son to experience the disappointment and perceived discrimination that Troy faced as a baseball player for the Negro Leagues. Rose says Troy didn't make it because he was too old by the time he got out of jail. Still, Troy's attitude drives Cory away. The other member of Troy's family is his brother, Gabriel (G. Valmont Thomas), a child-like man who suffered brain damage in the war.
Despite warnings from his genial but wise best friend, Jim Bono (Josiah Phillips), Troy also creates a major rift with Rose because of an affair he has with another woman, who dies giving birth to his daughter. The scenes when Troy tells Rose about his pending fatherhood and later brings his daughter home are wrenching, for Rose is bewildered and deeply hurt that she wasn't woman enough for him. Troy goes downhill, eventually drinking himself to death but paving the way for family reconciliation at his funeral. The role of Raynell, Troy's daughter, at about age 10 is played alternately by Catiana Graham and Dominique Moore.
The artistic team helps to tell the story with a set by Scott Bradley, costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, lighting by Dawn Chiang, and music and sound by Michael Keck. The real stars, though, are Wilson's words and characters, Gardiner's direction and the cast's acting -- all brilliant and memorable.
THE CLAY CART
In keeping with his goal of presenting plays from around the world, director Bill Rauch chose the possibly 2,000-year-old "The Clay Cart" from India to help open the season and to mark his directoral debut as artistic director. Translated from Sanskrit by J.A.B. van Buitenen, Sudraka's play is basically an old-fashioned love story in which boy and girl meet, fall in love, overcome obstacles and live happily ever after. The central characters are Charudatta (Cristofer Jean), a merchant whose generosity has impoverished him; and Vasantasena (Miriam A. Laube), a respected courtesan. The obstacles are imposed mainly by the villainous Samsthanaka (Brent Hinkley), who is the evil king's brother-in-law.
The play opens impressively with the entire large cast singing music by sound designer Andre Pluess and sitting outside a circular platform designed by Christopher Acebo with lighting by Christopher Akerlind. In the center is a toy cart pulled by Charudatta's son, Rohasena (alternately played by Jasmine Risser and Kaj Pandey). The production also features choreography by Anjani Ambegaokar with much of the dancing well done by Laube.
The first act seems melodramatic with some over-acting, especially by Hinkley. Perhaps that's why there were some empty seats after the opening night's intermission. The second act works better, especially as one begins to see Shakespearean elements such as mixups, coincidences and even the revival of a supposedly dead woman. It's highly unlikely that the Bard knew this play, but it shows how some dramatic devices are universal.
Even though the play seems overproduced in parts, Rauch succeeds in his quest to introduce festival audiences to classics from outside the Western world.
WELCOME HOME, JENNY SUTTER
With the war in Iraq still festering, playwright Julie Marie Myatt deals with one of its unique aspects in "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter." Directed by Jessica Thebus in its world premiere, the play looks at a first for the United States: women coming home from combat duty. In this case the woman is the traumatized Jenny Sutter (Gwendolyn Mulamba), a 30-year-old Marine who lost part of a leg in Iraq and wears a prosthesis. After being discharged from a hospital, she can't face going home to Los Angeles, where her mother is caring for her children. Instead she goes to a bus station where she meets Lou (Kate Mulligan), a friendly, talkative drifter trying to shed an array of addictions. Lou is going back to Slab City, a former World War II military base in the desert of Southern California. Slab City, now owned by the state, has become a haven for lost souls in RVs, buses, campers and tents.
Lou generously shares her rustic accommodations with Jenny, who says little but has nightmares. Gradually, however, Jenny begins to open up, ever so little, thanks to the kindness of Lou and Buddy (David Kelly), Lou's sometime lover, a gentle, man deformed by childhood abuse but now preaching to residents (he was ordained over the Internet). Also helpful is Cheryl (K.T. Vogt), Lou's therapist. Even the cynical, sullen Donald (Gregory Linington) helps in his own way. Completing the cast is Cameron Knight as Hugo, who sells tickets at the bus station.
Richard L. Hay's set is minimal, starting with a cot and two benches. Lighting is by Allen Lee Hughes, costumes by Lynn Jeffries, and music and sound by Paul James Prendergast. Although the pace slows in a few places, the acting is spot-on, especially by Mulamba, who takes the audience along on Jenny's difficult journey back to civilian life and her responsibilities. The play will travel to Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in July after completing its run in Ashland. It deserves to be seen nationwide as Americans welcome home the men and women who have been serving in Iraq.