Reviewed by Judy Richter
Over the course of more than eight months starting in mid-February, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland stages a total of 11 plays in its three theaters. During the summer, it's possible to see nine or even 10 of them during a week's stay.
The current playbill lists Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" and "A Midsummer's Night Dream" along with the U.S. premiere of David Farr's "The Heart of Robin Hood" in the outdoor Elizabethan Stage.
The indoor Bowmer Theatre is featuring Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady," Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and August Wilson's "Two Trains Running." The latter will close July 7 to be replaced by the world premiere of Tanya Saracho's "The Tenth Muse."
Onstage in the smaller indoor Thomas Theatre (formerly known as New Theatre) are Shakespeare's "King Lear" and the world premiere of "The Unfortunates" by Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Monsef. The world premiere of Naomi Wallace's "The Liquid Plain" opens July 6.
The complete schedule and other details are available by calling (800) 219-8161 or visiting www.osfashland.org.
The following are capsule reviews of four plays seen during a recent visit to Ashland.
MY FAIR LADY
"My Fair Lady" was the clear standout during that visit. With music by Frederick Loewe and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, this musical version of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" was a Broadway smash when it opened in 1956. It starred Julie Andrews as Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as crotchety phonetics professor Henry Higgins, who tries to teach her how to speak like a lady.
The success of this brilliant Ashland production comes from several factors, starting with the show itself and its music, a nonstop string of hits like "Get Me to the Church on Time," "With a Little Bit of Luck," "On the Street Where You Live," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and others.
Then there's the cast, with Rachael Warren as Eliza and Jonathan Haugen as Higgins. The two of them have a chemistry not often seen in other productions.
Principals also include David Kelly as Colonel Pickering, Higgins' colleague; Anthony Heald as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's rascally father; Miriam A. Laube as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins' housekeeper; and Ken Robinson as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza's would-be suitor. Mrs. Higgins Henry's mother, is usually played by Chavez Ravine, but understudy Kate Mulligan ably filled in at the reviewed performance. Several of these performers have worked together at the festival for years and have developed a strong rapport that comes across on the stage.
However, what makes this production stand out from so many others over the years is the inventive direction by Amanda Dehnert, who also serves as musical director. Choreographer Jaclyn Miller also deserves kudos.
Just one example of Dehnert's creativity comes in the Ascot scene when the performers' hats, which have been suspended above the stage, descend directly onto each person's head.
There are countless other clever touches that add up to a thoroughly enjoyable, not-to-be-missed theatrical experience.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Although Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski in the film version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" has become iconic, Danforth Comins puts his own touch on the role in Tennessee Williams' classic tragedy. Comins has a boyish quality that might explain why his wife, Stella (Nell Geisslinger), was attracted to a man who can be crude and domineering.
Stanley's negative qualities really come to the fore when Blanche DuBois (Kate Mulligan), Stella's elder sister, comes to their cramped New Orleans apartment after the longtime DuBois plantation was lost to creditors.
The ladylike Blanche has refined tastes that attract Stanley's friend Mitch (Jeffrey King). However, Stanley's distrust of Blanche leads him to look into her background and find that she wasn't being truthful. In turn, his discoveries dissolve her psychological defenses, revealing her mental instability and leading to a wrenching conclusion.
Director Christopher Liam Moore and his talented cast have a solid grasp of the play's emotional undertones. It's an outstanding production.
TWO TRAINS RUNNING
The late August Wilson created an epic series of 10 plays highlighting aspects of the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century. "Two Trains Running" takes place in 1969 in Pittsburgh, the setting for most of the plays.
Memphis (Terry Bellamy) owns a neighborhood restaurant patronized by Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley), a suave numbers runner; Holloway (Josiah Phillips), an older, wiser man; West (Jerome Preston Bates), the community undertaker; and the mentally disturbed Hambone (Tyrone Wilson). Sterling (Kevin Kenerly) is a younger man who has returned to the neighborhood after five years in prison. The only other character is the aloof, slow-moving waitress, Risa (Bakesta King).
The restaurant is slated for demolition as part of urban renewal, but Memphis worries that he won't get what he considers a fair price. Sterling needs money to turn his life around. He's also trying to woo the reluctant Risa.
As directed by Lou Bellamy, the seven characters embody aspects of their culture as well as the time and place. As is Wilson's wont, it's talky, but there's poetry in those speeches along with some humor. It conveys a strong sense of what the characters are experiencing in that time and place.
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
William Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" can be difficult for today's audiences because it involves a macho man trying to subdue a strong-willed woman whom he wants to marry for money. True, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) has a nasty temper, but perhaps it's because her younger sister, the pretty but vacuous Bianca (Royer Bockus) is hotly pursued by men and favored by their father, Baptista (Robert Vincent Frank). However, Baptista won't allow Bianca to marry until Kate has a husband.
No man is interested until Petruchio (Ted Deasy) comes from Verona "to wive it wealthily in Padua." After a tempestuous wooing scene, he gets her to the altar, but their "honeymoon" is hardly idyllic as he treats her cruelly in the guise of kindness. She finally bends to his will, but has she really given in to him or does she relent just to have some peace? As directed by David Ivers, it appears that she might be getting Petruchio to do her will.
Scenic designer Jo Winiarski has given this version a boardwalk setting with modern costumes by Meg Neville. However, director Ivers overdoes some of the updating with raucous rock music (by sound designer Paul James Prendergast) and a preening rock star persona for Petruchio.
Overall, though, it's quite well acted, especially by Geisslinger and a strong supporting cast. However, as measured against some other "Shrew" productions seen at Ashland and elsewhere, as well as the other three shows reviewed this time, it doesn't stand out.