Friday, January 27, 2023

All the world's a stage ... especially Oregon

by Marlo Faulker
| June 25, 2010 9:00 PM

If you have ever been tempted to go to Ashland, Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this is the year to do it. Not one weak production mars the season.

Among the oldest and largest professional regional repertory theater companies in the United States, Oregon Shakespeare Festival celebrates 75 years of theater production in 2010. The three plays by William Shakespeare that filled that inaugural 1935 season (Twelfth Night, Henry IV Part I, and The Merchant of Venice) kick off the 75th OSF season in their spectacular outdoor Elizabethan Theater. Built on the site of the 1893 Ashland Chautauqua Theater, the OSF Elizabethan is the oldest existing full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western hemisphere.

Theater begins with words. OSF actor's use of language is stunning, their projection reaching the farthest seating. Their enunciation is perfect. And, their delivery is fluid as it is poetic in the Shakespearian tradition. Yet, it doesn't sound like traditional stage Shakespeare. It has more of an American inflection than the traditional British. OSF actors use it with clarity and ease. The audience follows without wondering, "What did he just say?"

Adding drama to language is the work of the amazing actors; directors; stage, costume, lighting and sound designers. Approximately 550 theater professionals make it all happen in three theaters.

Each production garners its share of "ahs," "wows," and deserved standing ovations. While not every production comes together balanced with unity, focus and solid casting; every production is, in its own way thrilling to the mind and to the emotions.

In the outdoor Elizabethan theater, the comedy, 12th Night, stuns on every level: cast, direction, set, costumes, lighting, sound. A modern set of giant brilliant green turf tumbles from the heights of an upper balcony and falls out at an angle on to the expansive stage.

An equally large angled opening dominates the fabric of the turf. Two classic columns of scaled size and height balance each side of the swath. This is the single physical set. Brightly costumed characters back in and out of the entrance and appear from around and behind the columns, signaling scene changes, as do clever lighting and the occasional bench and chair.

Great comedy is about timing. In 12th Night, timing is perfect. The actors, especially the seasoned members of the company, (some in their prime years of fifty and sixty plus) are lithe and flexible as they prance, run, jump, climb and roll across the stage, even sliding down the curve of the turf.

Language, timing, ease of movement, and clarity form the basis of all of the productions. Utilization of the permanent structure of the Elizabethan stage and balconies is a revelation.

When it seems as if every possible adaptation has been employed, designers and directors innovate, stimulating sold out audiences (1,190 seats) to new heights of appreciation. Ticket sales this season hover at 95 percent, an astounding figure in this economy, demonstrating audience recognition of OSF excellence and their loyalty to the season.

With construction of New Theater in 2002, OSF gained a venue with 270-360 seats, depending on its flexible configuration. This season's Ruined thrusts the audience into the drama with minimal space between the seating, set and action. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage, was by far the most powerful play seen by this reviewer this season.

Sounds and movement in the jungle setting intensifies the tension. There is no escape from war and "collateral damage" during the Congo rebellion in "Mama Nadi's" seedy jungle bar and brothel. She runs her "girls" with power and control the same as she does her customers: rebels, soldiers, salesmen and an independent buyer of gemstones and minerals. All of her girls have been raped repeatedly by all sides in the conflict. Of her two newest recruits, one is the victim of rape and kidnap by soldiers who kept her chained in the jungle for their pleasure. The other, has been "ruined" by rape with a bayonet.

Ruined pulses with tension, humor, violence, humanity, fear and love. It is a brilliant example of art giving face and shared experience to human drama. Human survival imbues the play with complex questions. Answers shock and shatter.

The play ended. The audience rose to an emotional standing ovation. The man behind this reviewer said, "That is the worst play I've ever seen. How could women be so stupid as to let men do those things to them?" I am still shaking my head.

The large indoor Bowmer Theater (seating 601) is named after Angus Bowmer, the young teacher from Southern Oregon Normal School (now, Southern Oregon University), who is the founder and was an early actor with OSF. Construction of the Bowmer in 1970 enabled OSF to extend their season into spring and fall. The 2010 season opened in late February with Hamlet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (ends July 4), and Pride and Prejudice. New plays such as She Loves Me, are added throughout the spring and summer while others have shorter runs.

Hamlet. The iconic Shakespeare. Having seen two previous productions of the drama at OSF as well as the Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton film versions, what could be new? Bill Rauch, OSF Artistic Director, directs this season's production with an insight to a contemporary eye. The King of Denmark is dead. His son, Hamlet, a quiet college student, has come home for his father's funeral. Spokane native, Dan Donohue, portrays Hamlet with a quiet rage. A modern castle, contemporary costuming and staging add to Donohue's fine-tuned spiral into madness and understanding of his fate.

Pride and Prejudice rotates in production on the Bowmer stage. This is a new adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan. To travel in time from the hard-edged Hamlet to Regency England in the same space and same theater is part of the magic of OSF. The stage, now a ballroom with chandeliers and broad woods seen through the windows, is the setting for the Bennett family travails as the five unmarried daughters find themselves without estate and not many options until a nearby country house is leased by a Mr. Bingley, who brings his friend to visit.

For the new production of She Loves Me, the 1950s musical adaptation of Miklos Lazlo's 1930s romantic comedy, Parfumerie, the Bowmer Theater changes again, this time, to a pink confection of a Hungarian Art Deco perfume shop. The play was adapted to film and the location shifted from Budapest to a book store in New York City in the 1940s with James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner, which further morphed in the 1998 hit film with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail.

This summer, two world premiers commissioned by OSF join the repertory: Throne of Blood, an adaptation by Ping Chong of Kurasawa's film adaptation of Macbeth; and American Night, by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash. The later is the first in a new cycle of commissioned plays by American playwrights. Each is based on a defining aspect of American History. The new plays go into production at the end of June and of July.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is not about which play is on stage. It is not about the actors. It is not about the designers or directors. It is about the depth and talent of all of the above. Their combined creativity explodes as theatrical magic. This is a repertory company. Whether drama or comedy, old or new, experimental or musical is your pleasure, this company does it all in world class fashion. 2010 is a great season. Do not miss the opportunity to experience the magic.

Marlo Faulkner is a Coeur d'Alene resident.

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