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Oregon Shakes: The Shakedown

August 1, 2011

I've been wanting to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) ever since I first heard about the massive, southern Oregon-based company's fame upon arriving in the U.S. in 1998. I'm ashamed that it's taken me so long to actually make the seven-hour road-trip to Ashland, the small town where the 76-year-old festival takes place. Not only is the festival very old, but it's also very big: Each year OSF presents an eight-and-a-half-month season of eleven plays in three theatres -- that's more than 780 performances annually with attendance of around 400,000 people.

In my defense, getting to visit and write about OSF has not been easy. I've tried on a number of occasions to persuade editors to send me to Ashland, but to no avail. Amidst shrinking budgets, the media is cutting back, and Ashland, it seems, is not considered news anymore by many media organizations that should know better. The San Francisco Chronicle used to send its theatre critic there every year. This hasn't happened for some time now. Covering OSF would be a sensible thing for The Chron to reinstate: Practically every person I spoke over the weekend hailed from the Bay Area and several lamented the lack of coverage. (I too found it hard to unearth reviews online of any of the shows.) The Chronicle should make an effort to put its critic, Robert Hurwitt, back on the OSF beat. Audiences are clearly craving decent coverage of the event.

Anyway, I had a few days of free time, so I ended up going under my own steam. I am very glad I made the effort, not just because of the variety of the work I saw, but also because of the the gorgeous sun-drenched valley setting surrounded by hiking and biking trails covered in wild flowers and dotted with vineyards (the excellent biodynamic Cow Horn winery in particular was well worth a visit).

The first thing that struck me about Ashland is that apart from Stratford-upon-Avon, I can't think of another town so completely consumed by theatre. Go into any restaurant or bar and the wait staff will want to compare notes on shows they've seen with you and offer recommendations. Every book store is packed with theatre books. The local frozen yogurt dispensary gives you a 15% discount for saying you're seeing plays at OSF. It's a very special place.

The second thing that comes to mind upon visiting OSF is how vibrant the actual festival is. There are always three plays going on at once. There are fantastic pre-play concerts in the central courtyard. Pre-show presentations and backstage tours are a daily occurrence. There is so much buzz about the place.

I caught four plays in all three of the OSF's spaces over a couple of days -- two Shakespeares: Measure for Measure (directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch) and Julius Caesar (directed by Amanda Dehnert,) Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance (again directed by Rauch), and Ghost Light, a world premiere conceived and directed by Jonathan Moscone and written by Tony Taccone. The last of these productions was of particular interest because its creators are both Bay Area theatre luminaries. Taccone is the artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Moscone is the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theatre. I gather that Ghost Light will get a Berkeley Rep production in the coming season.

Pirates was by far the highlight of my weekend. The operetta is all about the stifling limits of a person's obsession with a sense of "duty," and Rauch, with his fine cast and swashbuckling mise-en-scene created a universe that seemed to push at the boundaries of this ill-advised and overly proper sense of duty. Sudden, seamless segues into unrelated musical matters was the main feature of the production that conveyed this idea. The cast would be happily singing Sullivan's buttoned-up British music and then for apparently no reason slide into a snippet from a disco hit or show tune or gospel hymn or rap track. Just as Frederic, the protagonist, is struggling under the weight of his misplaced sense of propriety, so the production threatened to spill beyond its confines. Clever stuff. The use of the Elizabethan Stage -- a Renaissance theatre copycat which is usually employed for Shakespeare productions -- was also used to great effect. It complemented the production's main conceit of subverting sacred cows (just as it's ok to mess around with Sullivan's music, there's no reason why you can't present a musical in a space normally reserved for Shakespeare) and it was lovely siting under the stars watching seagull puppets careening through the night sky and the Skull and Crossbones flag flying in the breeze where the traditional Union Jack once flew.

Conversely two Shakespeare productions were inventive and enthusiastically performed but left me feeling slightly disappointed.

Rauch chose to situate his Measure for Measure in a blighted American city of the 1970s (perhaps Los Angeles?) with a strong Latino flavor. The reasons for doing so are still not clear to me. I loved the opening gambit in which a trio of cleaning ladies pulled instruments out of their cleaning cart and launches into song while cleaning up an office. The music in general was the highlight of the show, with the trio appearing at different intervals of the play to sing songs reflecting on the prevailing, often dark, mood. But in general, the conceits of the production seemed overbearing and a little gimmicky. I also struggled with Stepanie Beatriz's Isabela. The actress performed the role in a one dimensional way -- she was pouty and whiney throughout. Her nasal voice didn't help matters. On the other hand, the cast did a great job of making the most of a challenging performance environment: The play was performed in the make-do tent that was erected in a rush following the sudden closure of the Angus Bowmer theatre owing to a beam that threatened to collapse. I am impressed with the OSF's "the show must go on!" sense of urgency in finding a solution to its venue problem so efficiently. But the tent has poor acoustics so the actors had to be miked and the seating was very cramped for the audience. We all managed to get through it together though. I gather and am relieved to hear that the company will be restored to the proper venue in the coming days.

Dehnert's Julius Caesar, played in the round in the flexible New Theatre, possessed a virile, savage energy. The focused ensemble cast was on stage, or sitting in close proximity to it, nearly all of the time. Once again, the use of a radical conceit -- in this case, a woman in the role of the title character -- threatened to upset the rhythm of the drama. Caroline Shaffer (the understudy for the role, stepping in for regular actress Vilma Silva) was bold and grave as Caesar. The problem was that the production did little to support the reasoning behind the casting decision. I've seen plenty of Shakespeare with actresses cast in male roles. If it's simply a case of "gender blind" casting, then that's one thing. The audience tends to get over the surprise quickly and say "OK, there's a woman playing Caesar and now we'll focus on the drama..." But Dehnert seemed to be making a statement about feminism in this production. Several traditionally men's roles were played by women besides Caesar and the director went as far as to change the pronouns in the text to refer to Caesar as "she" and "her." What I took away from all of this was something along the lines of "women are as capable of being dictators and doing dreadful things as men." Yet I couldn't help but think, "so what?". The play does little in and of itself to substantiate this reading and the casting decision seemed to stick out like a sore thumb throughout.

Ghost Light, also at the New Theatre, (this time configured into a thrust rather than in-the-round arrangement) was a quirky and at times compelling drama. In a macro sense, the play presents a psychological riff on what it means to lose a parent, a compelling universal theme. More specifically, and perhaps less compellingly on the whole, it comes across as a sort of theatrical therapy session for the man who conceived and directed it, Jonathan Moscone. Moscone is the son of George Moscone, a former Mayor of San Francisco who was murdered by supervisor Dan White in 1978 along with Harvey Milk. In the intervening years, Milk has become a hero (as the film starring Sean Penn a few years ago attests) while Moscone is far less well remembered. The play seeks in part to restore Moscone's legacy while delving into how his son has tried to come to terms with his past through the lens of a production he's trying to direct of Hamlet. The parallels between Moscone junior, a Bay Area theatre director, and Shakespeare's Great Dane seemed a little overblown and the play would have been stronger if it had been half an hour shorter in length. But the production was well-acted and Taccone has an eye for spunky dialogue. I look forward to seeing how the play develops from here as it moves to Berkeley Rep.


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