Reviewed by Judy Richter
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is celebrating its 75th anniversary season by presenting a total of 11 plays from mid-February to the end of October in its three theaters -- 8½ months of first-rate theater in beautiful Ashland, situated just a few miles north of the California border and easily accessible via Interstate 5. Ashland itself is a great place to visit with its outstanding restaurants, interesting shops, the woodsy Lithia Park right next to the theaters and nearby wineries and outdoor recreational opportunities.
For about 125,000 20,000 individuals every year, though, "the play's the thing." I wasn't able to go last year, so when I stopped by for a quick visit in June, I was reminded of all the reasons why the festival is so special. The costumes and sets are always impressive. There's a varied playbill from which to choose, and the quality of acting in the large company is admirable. Moreover, visitors who see several different plays will often have an opportunity to see how versatile those actors are. The leading man or leading lady of one show may have only a small role in another show, yet there's no dropoff in his or her performance.
This year's lineup in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre includes Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" and a musical, "She Loves Me," all running through the end of October. Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" runs through July 4, to be replaced by the world premiere of "Throne of Blood," Ping Chong's adaptation of the film directed by Akira Kurosawa, running July 21-Oct. 31.
In the smaller indoor New Theatre, Lynn Nottage's "Ruined" runs through Oct. 31. Lisa Kron's "Well" just closed and has been replaced by another world premiere, "American Night" by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash, also through Oct. 31. Playing in the outdoor Elizabethan Stage are Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" through Oct. 8, "Henry IV, Part One" through Oct. 9 and "The Merchant of Venice" through Oct. 10. Here's a rundown of the plays I saw:
Playwright Lisa Kron appeared as herself in the production I saw at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. At OSF her role was taken by Terri McMahon. On the surface, Lisa is telling the audience about her experience with seemingly chronic allergies that eventually led her to a clinic that helped her overcome them. On a deeper level, though, the play explores her relationship with her chronically ailing mother, Ann (Dee Maaske), who mostly sat upstage in her reclining chair. Four other actors -- Brent Hinkley, G. Valmont Thomas, Gina Daniels and K.T. Vogt -- portrayed the other characters who were supposed to help playwright Lisa tell her story. They also assumed their own names as they commented on and often disagreed with Lisa's version of events.
Running about 100 minutes without intermission, the play was directed by James Edmondson. He staged it in a three-quarters-round configuration (set by Richard L. Hay with costumes by Candice Cain, lighting by Dawn Chiang, music and sound by Joe Romano, and fight direction by U. Jonathan Toppo). As the actors took their bows, they left the stage, which is at the same level as the first row of the audience. At the end, the lights came up and the audience began to leave, but McMahon as Lisa was still sitting on the floor supposedly going through her playwright's notes. Before long, a few audience members went up to her and began talking with her -- something one doesn't see very often in the theater.
The play is amusing yet thought-provoking and well-performed, especially by McMahon and Maaske.
Lynn Nottage won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2009 play, "Ruined." A harrowing, two-act drama set in the Congo today, it personalizes the battle for control of the mineral riches in that African country. Specifically, it focuses on rape as one of the most brutal aspects of that upheaval. According to the program notes by director Liesl Tommy, "In the eastern part of the Congo, where our play lives, 200,000 females have been reported raped in the past decade."
The action takes place in a tavern-brothel in the jungle run by the imperious Mama Nadi (Kimberly Scott). Even though most of the women who work for her must give themselves to the men who go there, they're better off with Mama Nadi than they would be on their own. Previously raped, or "ruined," they've been rejected by their husbands and families.
They're played by Chinasa Ogbuagu, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Victoria Ward. Tyrone Wilson plays Christian, a salesman who is the uncle of one of them and who is quite fond of Mama Nadi. Jimonn Cole and Kenajuan Bentley play the commanders of the opposing forces. The action is accompanied by music composed by the Broken Chord Collective, which also designed the sound. Onstage music is provided by Kelvin Underwood on percussion and Chic Street Man on guitar.
The set is by Clint Ramos with costumes by Christal Weatherly and lighting by Robert Peterson. Some scenes are difficult to watch because of the way the male patrons manhandle the women. Along those same lines, the choreography by Randy Duncan is quite suggestive. Nevertheless, the play ends with a ray of hope, at least for Mama Nadi and Christian and perhaps for her women.
SHE LOVES ME
Rarely has the festival ventured into musical theater. It did "Three Penny Opera" 14 years ago, and last year it staged "The Music Man." This year's offering is "She Loves Me," and judging by the resounding applause, the audience loves it, too. Directed by Rebecca Taichman with choreography by John Carrafa, its two acts, spanning two hours and 40 minutes, are a sheer delight.
Set in a Budapest parfumerie in the 1930s, the show features a book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Two lovelorn people become pen pals, calling each other "dear friend." Coincidentally, the woman, Amalia Balash (Lisa McCormick) gets a job in the parfumerie, where the man, Georg Nowack (Mark Bedard), already works. The two clash constantly, but eventually they realize they're each other's pen pal, and all is well. Besides the leads, who are both terrific, the cast features a strong group of singer-actors such as Eymard Meneses Cabling, Robert Vincent Frank, Miriam A. Laube, Michael Elich and Michael J. Hume.
In an example of how company members can play varied parts, Dan Donohue, who plays Hamlet this year, appears relatively briefly as the officious head waiter in the restaurant where Amalia and Georg, still unknown to each other, are to meet. Donohue is hilarious as he tries to maintain order while the busboy (Eddie Lopez) clumsily juggles dishes. Longtime festival-goers may recall one of Donohue's first appearances there as the swaying waiter in Tom Stoppard's "Rough Crossing," an early example of his physical comedy skills.
Musical director Darcy Danielson on piano, leads the musicians, Lori Calhoun on woodwinds and Bruce McKern on bass, who are seated upstage in Scott Bradley's flexible set. The lovely period costumes are by Miranda Hoffman, with lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Kai Harada.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Another antagonistic couple who eventually get together are featured in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. Directed by artistic director emeritus Libby Appel, it features a parade of eccentric characters in England in 1813. Some characterizations border on caricatures, but the overall effect is amusing and engaging.
The cast is led by Kate Hurster as Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest of the five daughters of parents played by Mark Murphey and Judith-Marie Bergan. Her love interest is the aloof Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander), a friend of the Bennets' new neighbor, Charles Bingley (Christian Barillas), who takes an interest in the eldest daughter, Jane (Nell Geisslinger). Much of the conflict arises from class differences, for the Bennets aren't nearly as affluent as the families of the two young men.
Besides the leads, the cast features such OSF veterans as Michael J. Hume, Linda Alper, James Newcomb, Demetra Pittman and Robin Goodrin Nordli. The simple but impressive set is by William Bloodgood with handsome period costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, lighting by Robert Peterson, music and sound by Todd Barton, and choreography by Art Manke.