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A Critical Look at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Summer-Fall Lineup

July 20, 2008

By Misha Berson, Seattle Times

Jul. 20–ASHLAND, Ore. — A distraught Othello murders his innocent wife, Desdemona. The Roman general Coriolanus goes over to the enemy army. Emily Webb, who perished young, yearns for the living from her Grover’s Corners grave.

All this, and much more, is transpiring on the boards at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) this summer. Meanwhile, those who run this major West Coast theater worry a lot about what’s happening at the gas pump, along with what’s occurring on stage.

Long dependent on cultural tourists making the drive up from California or down from Portland and the Seattle area for their Shakespeare fix, the Ashland theater complex has not yet seen a big plunge in patronage. Last season, OSF hit a record high of about 404,000 ducats sold, generating earned income of over $31.6 million for the nonprofit company.

Attendance continues to be high so far this year, perhaps in part due to curiosity: This is the freshman season for new artistic director Bill Rauch, who is making gradual (though visible) alterations in OSF’s dramatic fare.

Executive director Paul Nicholson remains cautious, however, in his hope that Oregon Shakes will keep drawing so many vacationers — often family groups from the Western U.S. who’d rather brave the high cost of gas than soaring airfares to farther-away destinations.

“Right now we’re running at 90 percent of capacity, which would put us very close to last year’s figures if it continues,” says Nicholson. “But we know that many people are not as well-off as they were a year ago, and a lot are delaying their decision to come here.”

During a recent week, despite hazy smoke from raging fires in nearby Northern California forests, OSF’s three theaters were packed. And audiences were, typically, enthusiastic about the open-air and indoor plays, both classic and contemporary. (More new works are on the way — see story below on OSF’s American-history drama project for details.)

On the surface, Rauch and his new team have changed little so far. Sets and costumes for the shows are still top-drawer, and often elaborate. Directors long associated with OSF have staged many of the 2008 shows. And heading the acting ensemble are such big Ashland favorites as Dan Donohue, Ray Porter, Anthony Heald, Vilma Silva and Armando Duran.

Sure, the tone of some offerings is more sexually explicit and campier than usual — sparking a few walkouts and letters of protest. But Rauch is not yet challenging long-held audience expectations more vigorously, with daring aesthetic conceits and edgier interpretations of classics.

Rauch may up the ante as he settles in. For now, OSF remains a popular purveyor of comedy and drama, captivating shows and weaker efforts. Here is a critical sampling of what’s playing outdoors and inside, through the summer and beyond.

“Othello”

At the Elizabethan Stage (outdoors), through Oct. 10

With a striking black-and-white motif, clarity of action and a driving tempo, Lisa Peterson’s staging of this racially loaded Shakespeare tragedy slices through the text like a sharp, sleek dagger.

Dan Donohue, a reliably insightful and eloquent actor in classical material, is a natural to play the treacherous Iago. He does so with an icy deliberation that, to borrow a phrase from Will, “burns like sulphur.” This Iago’s main motivation for destroying Othello is not primarily careerism or bigotry. It’s the toxic waste product of irrational jealousy over his own wife’s alleged infidelity.

Donohue’s Iago skillfully passes that contagion on to Othello, commandingly played by the physically and vocally imposing L.A. actor Peter Macon. He holds his own with Donohue, in his embodiment of a warrior whose innate nobility disintegrates with stunning speed once his sexual insecurities kick in.

There are some over-the-top touches in Macon’s turn, including a doozy of a grand mal seizure. But this Moor’s passion is a fine, fiery contrast with Donohue’s far cooler villainy.

Other satisfying elements: Sarah Rutan’s graceful Desdemona; Christopher Acebo’s sumptuous period costumes; the well-choreographed jousting (by John Sipes, the movement and fight director); and eerie music by Paul James Prendergast. They all enhance this vivid recounting of poisoned love, marital and collegial.

“Coriolanus”

At the New Theatre through Nov. 2

It may not be easy to score a ticket to this, but it’s worth the fuss and the three-hour time commitment to the show.

Director Laird Williamson adds a new winner to his long list of OSF credits with this darkly propulsive vision of an ancient political thriller with modern overtones.

There is much that is disturbingly relevant to our own time in Shakespeare’s clash between an arrogant, elitist military figure and the fragile forces of democracy alarmed by his growing political clout.

Williamson spreads the web of betrayals and counterbetrayals, social stresses and counterstresses, throughout his in-the-round staging. The actors swarm in from all sides, at times fanning up aisles into the audience, as Rome’s starving plebeians, military mucky-mucks and anxious “tribunes of the people” grab for power. Youthful provocateurs resemble Portland’s anarchist WTO activists, garbed likewise in black hoodies.

Power struggles also fracture the family of Coriolanus, as his pushy mom, Volumnia (a chilling Robynn Rodriguez), tries to engineer her son’s fate — and the state’s.

There is a weak spot in the show, unfortunately at its center. Danforth Comins has the intensity and strapping physique to essay Coriolanus. But his vocal stridency turns too many exchanges with fellow actors into shouting matches.

Insufficient vocal nuance is a longtime issue at OSF, and still needs addressing.

Comins could take a cue from his colleague Michael Elich, who plays the smarmy general of the enemy Volscians with less volume and greater effect.

“Our Town”

At the Elizabethan Stage through Oct. 11

Audiences expect Shakespeare plays at OSF’s giant open-air arena, and usually get them.

An exception this year (and not selling quite so well as Will’s works) is this Thornton Wilder classic staged by Chay Yew (also a playwright, and the former head of Seattle’s NW Asian American Theatre).

As a director, Yew often favors quiet intelligence over flash and bombast. That’s a blessing in his quietly touching way with Wilder’s study of life and death in a “typical” New England town in the early 1900s.

The citizens of Grover’s Corners, N.H., go about their daily rituals, but it is their (and our) mortality that concerns Wilder most. The voices of the beloved dead, beseeching the living to savor every moment, dominate the play’s second half and echo in your head later.

Lucidly acted (with a haunting turn by Donohue, as a town misfit, and the casually authoritative Heald as narrator), this “Our Town” is also neatly adorned with folksy choral music.

Missing, though, are a few of the less obvious, ambivalent notes in Wilder’s script (well-revealed in Intiman’s 2004 version). And though cross-cultural casting makes sense in this swatch of Americana, Mahira Kakkar’s discernible foreign accent, in the role of Emily, is an aural distraction in an otherwise solid production.

“The Clay Cart”

At the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Nov. 2

Eager to widen the scope of OSF’s classical repertoire, Rauch has decorously mounted a bawdy, rollicking folk tale from the pen of an ancient Indian author, Sudraka.

It follows the sensuous romance between a highborn but poor (and married) merchant (Cristofer Jean), and a low-caste but beguiling courtesan (Miriam A. Laube). Assorted servants, relatives, gamblers and a Buddhist monk promote and complicate the wooing.

Festooned with colorful silk saris, ornate hanging lanterns, Hindu statuary and a rainbow assortment of satin throw pillows, this is an East Asian eye-candy orgy — and, at three hours, a lengthy one.

The multicultural ensemble has a blast playing Indian dress-up, dancing with bells on ankles, executing slapstick moves and singing Hindi-style songs with brio (if varying degrees of prowess).

The whole schmear is sort of Bollywood, live. Visually delicious, too long, rather absurd and generally enjoyable — with a pinch of social satire, and a shimmer of the erotic in there, too.

“The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler”

At the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Nov. 1

Causing more comment is this rambunctious postmodern comedy by Oregon-bred Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”), about a famous dramatic persona busting out of literary purgatory.

Played by OSF stalwart Robin Goodrin Nordli, the jammed-up Scandinavian frau Hedda apparently didn’t succeed in the suicide she performed at the end of Ibsen’s play “Hedda Gabler” (which, by the by, Nordli starred in at OSF, in 2003).

To her surprise, Hedda is hanging with such dissed and disgruntled female characters as Medea (Kate Mulligan), Tosca (Gwendolyn Mulamba) and an Aunt Jemima-esque maid (intrepid, hilarious Kimberly Scott).

As Hedda hits the road to alter her fate, Whitty skewers some of Western lit’s sacred cows (and a few bulls). And Act 1′s spree of one-liners and the physical shtick in Bill Rauch’s lively staging are often funny.

But the license to parody stereotypes has also, alas, emboldened Whitty to overindulge in them. In a rambling Act 2, the black-mammy jokes and flaming campiness of two characters from “The Boys in the Band” (a breakthrough gay Broadway play) become enough already. And a pesky question nags — is the largely white, hetero audience at OSF heartily chortling with these musty fictional cliches? Or at them?

“The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler” (I also saw an earlier draft, at California’s South Coast Repertory) ultimately spends an age rummaging around for an ending. It settles on a message that validates theater, and stereotypes, and is a long, awkward time comin’.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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