Reviewed by Judy Richter
The old adage that the show must go on has become the new mantra at the 76-year-old Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. When a major structural beam suddenly cracked on June 18 during an understudy rehearsal, the 42-year-old Angus Bowmer Theatre was immediately evacuated, declared unsafe and closed for an indefinite period. OSF just recently announced that the opening is scheduled for Aug. 2.
Festival officials, artists and actors scrambled to make other arrangements as the 8 1/2-month season was nearing its peak attendance. Consequently, performances were shifted to the historic Ashland Armory and a theater on the Southern Oregon University campus in Ashland while a large white tent was erected in the festival's neighboring Lithia Park. The tent opened for its first Bowmer in the Park performance -- a matinee of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" -- on July 7.
While curious patrons filed in and looked for their seats, all of the festival's top brass along with several reporters observed from the sidelines. Artistic director Bill Rauch was greeted with a loud ovation as he spoke before the show. "So many people have made this possible," he said, noting that the decision to use a tent had been made just 13 days earlier and that this was the play's fourth venue.
Christopher Acebo, associate artistic director, designed a black-walled unit set to serve all tent shows with the addition of various set pieces and props. After this performance and several subsequent ones, the audience was asked to fill out a brief survey about the experience. There's not much to be done about the raked seating, which accommodates 598 people, just below the Bowmer's capacity. The narrow seats are hard plastic with no arm rests. They're attached to one another, so if someone nearby in the same row shifts position, other seats are jostled.
Perhaps the most obvious problem during "August: Osage County" was balancing the acoustics while running the air conditioner. Consequently, it was hard to hear some of the actors some of the time. However, during the changeover to that evening's performance of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," the sound system was completely redone, Rauch told the audience. The result was greatly improved acoustics.
Besides the two plays already mentioned, a new adaptation of Molière's "The Imaginary Invalid" is running in the tent. Carlyle Brown's "The African Company Presents Richard III" begins previews July 20. The smaller New Theatre is the venue for Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and Tony Taccone's "Ghost Light." The outdoor Elizabethan Theatre is featuring two Shakespeare plays, "Henry IV, Part Two" and "Love's Labor's Lost" along with Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance." A new work, "Willful," begins previws Aug. 7 and involves several sites.
In the meantime, the festival has added some Monday night performances of "Julius Caesar" in the New Theatre, "The Pirates of Penzance" in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre and the recently closed "To Kill a Mockingbird" at a theater in Medford, just north of Ashland. Following are capsule reviews of the six plays I saw during my recent stay in Ashland.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
As already mentioned, this inaugural production in the tent had some technical problems, mainly acoustical, but the performances were magnificent in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," winner of the 2008 Tony Award for best play and Pulitzer Prize for drama. The actors, most of them longtime festival veterans, gave no indication of being adversely affected by all the differing venues and the changes in sets and blocking that went with them. Their success is a tribute to the chemistry and rapport that these actors have developed during their years of working together.
Letts sets this three-act drama in the small town of Pawhuska, Okla., about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa in 2007. In short order, the Weston family and others gather at the family home upon learning that its patriarch, Beverly (Richard Elmore), is missing. The gathering turns into a wake when he is found dead, an apparent suicide.
The family includes Beverly's prescription-drug-addicted and addled wife, Violet (Judith-Marie Bergan) and their three adult daughters: Barbara (Robynn Rodriguez), Ivy (Terri McMahon) and Karen (Kate Mulligan). Also on hand are Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Catherine E. Coulson); her husband, Charlie (Tony DeBruno); and their 37-year-old son, Little Charles (Brent Hinkley). Joining Barbara are her estranged husband, Bill (Bill Geisslinger), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Savannah Edson). Karen is accompanied by her fiance, Steve (Jeffrey King). Observing the goings-on is Johnna (DeLanna Studi), a local Indian woman whom Beverly recently hired as a live-in housekeeper and cook.
Letts reveals the relationships within this dysfunctional family with a combination of sometimes explosive confrontations, scathing humor and shocking revelations. Bergan as Violet and Rodriguez as Barbara give especially powerful performances, but everyone else is terrific, too.
The production was directed by Christopher Liam Moore with sets by Neil Patel, costumes by Alex Jaeger, lighting by James F. Ingalls, and music and sound by Andre J. Pluess.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Because the central ideas in most of Shakespeare's plays are so timeless and universal, they lend themselves to re-imagining. Oftentimes this works, but sometimes it doesn't. Such is the case with "Measure for Measure." Artistic director Bill Rauch alters the setting to a modern American city with a sizable minority population. On paper, the idea seems OK, but in this case, it's a concept gone awry, largely because some of the acting doesn't measure up to the festival's usual high standards. This is especially true of Stephanie Beatriz's stilted performance as the central woman, Isabela, the novice nun who must choose between losing her virginity and saving the life of her brother, Claudio (Frankie J. Alvarez).
The cause of her dilemma is Angelo (René Millán), who has been empowered to enforce Vienna's laws during the absence of the duke, Vincentio (Anthony Heald, one of the stronger performers). One of those laws calls for the death of those who fornicate before marriage, as was the case with Claudio and his fiancee, Juliet (Alejandra Escalante).
Those who are familiar with the play know that Angelo is foiled in the end, but I didn't stay to see it happen. I left at intermission, as did a few others in the audience.
THE IMAGINARY INVALID
The festival is presenting the world premiere of an adaptation of Molière's "The Imaginary Invalid" by Oded Gross and Tracy Young. The production features original music by Paul James Prendergast with lyrics by Gross, Prendergast and Young. Young also directs.
She updates the action from Molière's 17th century French Renaissance to the 1960s, though still in Paris. She also incorporates some of the techniques of commedia dell'arte, which was in vogue during Molière's time. However, the result is often too broadly played, with mugging and other antics milking the audience for laughs -- with mixed results.
The usually superb David Kelly, who plays the central character, Argan, is caught up in this silliness. As a hypochondriac who tries all kinds of remedies from quacks, Kelly's Argan also is central to the numerous bodily function jokes, most of them silly rather than clever.
The story involves Angelique (Kimbre Lancaster), Argan's younger daughter, who wants to marry Guy (Rodney Gardiner), a musician, while Argan has already promised her to the dorky Thomas (Daisuke Tsuji), a medical student. In the meantime, Argan's second wife, Beline (Terri McMahon), is scheming with his attorney (U. Jonathan Toppo), to take control of Argan's money, thus shutting out Angelique and Argan's other daughter, Louison (Nell Geisslinger). Things are set aright by Argan's servant, Toinette (K.T. Vogt), and his brother, Beralde (Jeffrey King).
The right-on '60s costumes are by Christopher Acebo, who also designed the set. Lighting is by Lap Chi Chu with sound by Prendergast, projections by Michael K. Maag and choreography by Ken Roht.
An example of a concept that works is Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in the intimate New Theatre. Directed by Amanda Dehnert, it uses only 11 actors, with seven of them playing a variety of roles. The title character is played by a woman, the marvelous Vilma Silva. She is ably complemented by Jonathan Haugen as Brutus, Gregory Linington as Cassius and Danforth Comins as Mark Anthony. Even though she is assassinated before intermission, her ghost is omnipresent during the latter half. Likewise, the actors often sit along the sidelines. This concept seems to work especially well on Richard L. Hay's simple set, which configures the playing floor with the audience on four sides.
This production emphasizes the pros and cons of Caesar's assassination with the Brutus-led faction contending that she would become too powerful, to the detriment of Rome. The Anthony-led faction saw Caesar as a true heroine who cared for the welfare of the people of Rome. Banners outside the theater and in the lobby emphasize this point with pictures of assassinated leaders throughout world history. One side emphasizes their accomplishments, while the other enumerates the suffering or deaths during their time in power.
Not denoting any particular time period, Linda Roethke's costumes are mostly gray and black except for Caesar's white gown. The lighting is by Robert Peterson with music and sound by Fabian Obispo.
One of the festival's most intriguing offerings is the world premiere of "Ghost Light" by Tony Taccone. Conceived and developed by Taccone and Jonathan Moscone, who also directs, it looks at how the death of his father affects a 14-year-old boy even into adulthood. In this case, the boy is Moscone himself. His father, George Moscone, was the mayor of San Francisco when he was assassinated along with Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.
The action shifts from dream to reality and from that year to the present, when the adult Jon (the excellent Christopher Liam Moore) is to direct a production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." However, he can't decide how to interpret the scenes with the ghost of Hamlet's father. This experience leads him to come to terms with his own father's death.
He's aided in this process by a longtime friend, Louise (Robynn Rodriguez); and the imagined Mister (Derrick Lee Weeden). Also involved are Basil (Ted Deasy) and Loverboy (Danforth Comins), two of Jon's imagined boyfriends. Other principals are Peter Frechette as a film director, Bill Geisslinger as a prison guard (Jon's paternal grandfather) and Tyler James Myers as the young Jon.
The festival commissioned this work as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a "10-year program of commissioning up to 37 plays about moments of change in United States history," the program says. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, of which Taccone is the artistic director, will present the play in its upcoming season. Moscone is artistic director of another major San Francisco Bay Area company, California Shakespeare Theater. The set is by Todd Rosenthal with costumes by Meg Neville, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, music and sound by Andre J. Pluess, and projections and video by Maya Ciarrocchi.
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
The outdoor Elizabethan Theatre is usually the venue for Shakespeare and other classic playwrights, but two nights a week it bursts forth in song with "The Pirates of Penzance" with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W.S. Gilbert. Directed by artistic director Bill Rauch with musical direction by Daniel Gary Busby and choreography by Randy Duncan, this production incorporates all the genius of Gilbert and Sullivan with some inventive new touches. For example, "I Am the Pirate King," sung by the swashbuckling Michael Elich as the Pirate King, evolves into a rock song, while the hymn-like "Hail, Poetry" segues into gospel style.
The story concerns young Frederic (Eddie Lopez), a pirate apprentice who is forced to remain with a band of pirates because of a technicality in his contract. Ruth (the wonderfully versatile Robin Goodrin Nordli), the pirates' maid, is smitten with him, but he's unsure, since she's the only woman he has ever seen. That situation changes with the arrival of Major-General Stanley (David Kelly) and his lovely daughters. Frederic is immediately taken with one of them, Mabel (Khori Dastoor), but of course more complications arise until everything turns out well in the end.
Even though most of the actors are better known for their acting than their singing, they acquit themselves quite well. Standouts include Lopez, a fine tenor as Frederic; and Kelly, who's a natural for the patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." As Mabel, Dastoor has much operatic experience, but her coloratura has an unpleasant edge.
Wearing formal attire, the orchestra sits in the inner above, while Busby conducts from the front row of the audience. The production is enhanced by Michael Ganio's set, Deborah M. Dryden's costumes, Jane Cox's lighting, and Kai Harada and Joanna Lynn Staub's sound. Also adding to the enjoyment are seagull and bat puppets atop long, flexible poles carried by six people in tuxedos.For More Information