All Ashland’s a stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
It’s 100 degrees in Ashland, Oregon, which makes the prospect of sitting in an air-conditioned theater an appealing one, even if it weren’t at the justifiably renowned Oregon Shakespe are Festival. An Ashland institution since 1935, the OSF has grown from a humble weekend-long affair to a nine-month-long theatrical juggernaut, and although it's mid-week in August, all three venues are packed with festival-goers.
A few things reveal themselves to the festival tyro immediately, not least of all that there’s a whole lot more than Shakespeare going on at this festival. Of the 11 plays comprising the 2012 season, just four are written by Shakespeare, two others inspired by him, and the rest, including a rowdy rendition of the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers, have pretty much nothing to do with the playwright at all, save that they are plays.
My festival experience gets off to a rocky start with the puzzling Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, an adaption by OSF's artistic director Bill Rauch and Tracy Young (whose first collaborative version of same appeared onstage in 1998). An attempt to highlight the similarities between the three disparate tales, the results can only generously be described as a disjointed mish-mash. Watching an irritatingly histrionic Medea (Miriam A. Laube) plot to murder her children as a lilting Rodgers and Hammerstein tune begins to swell across the stage is disconcerting at best, and leaves me both confused and cold.
Fortunately my frustrations are short-lived, as the next production on my list is the Rob Melrose-directed Troilous and Cressida, a visually stunning, disarmingly nuanced tale of the many levels of honor, and its interpretations.
Set in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, Melrose turns Cressida (played when I see it by understudy Brittany Brook) into a blue-jeaned tomboy with a gauzy veil and a quick wit, Troilus (Raffi Barsoumian) into a preternaturally handsome yet vulnerable youth in an all-too adult uniform, Ulysses (Mark Murphey) into a taciturn career soldier, and Ajax (Elijah Alexander) into an unstable sniper with little regard for rule or law. Smoothly-paced and forcefully performed by a strong, multi-ethnic cast, T&C easily becomes one of my favorites of the festival.
Next up is a foray to Ashland's iconic Elizabethan Stage, modeled on the 17th century Fortune Theatre, a rival to the Globe. The show, a middle-of-the-road production of Henry V, boasts a few distinctive twists, including percussionist Kelvin Underwood -- firmly ensconced in the musician's gallery on the second floor -- providing vigorous accompaniment to the action on a variety of noise-making devices, and several multilingual interludes, not just Katherine’s (Brooke Parks) Shakespeare-penned, double-entendre-laden French but also the deliberate use of ASL by deaf actor Howie Seago as the Duke of Exeter and his speaking interpreter/boy (Christine Albright) which adds an unexpected layer to both the character and to my own definition of multilingual.
I miss out on seeing one of the most buzzed-about shows of the season, All the Way, by Robert Schenkkan, about the first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, starring ACT’s Jack Willis. Instead, I saw Party People, penned by performance ensemble UNIVERSES. (Both plays commissioned by OSF as part of their ongoing American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle). Last, but definitely not least, I attend an astutely madcap production of Animal Crackers, directed by Allison Narver, starring Mark Bedard as Captain Spaulding/Groucho, John Tufts as Ravelli/Chico, and Brent Hinkley as The Professor/Harpo.
Considering that the evening before I had watched Tufts as a grim-faced Henry V murder a felonious Hinkley as Bardolph, my respect for their versatility and aggressively comedic chops grows with every scene. Quick on their collective feet, mixing in bits of off-the-cuff improv and oddience participation, the cast infuses each outrageous gag with sparkling vitality, never dropping a beat even when their characters drop their pants (“where’s the flash?”). In short, it’s a memorable end to a memorable weekend, despite not being written by the venerable Bard.