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OSF Day Two: Seagull and Henry V

June 16, 2012

My Oregon Shakespeare Festival experience this year is so far proving to be unusual: OK, I'm only three plays in, but never have I been to a theatre festival that produces such polarized responses in me.

Though audiences and other critics seem to love it, The White Snake incited a Medusa-like stare in this reviewer. And yesterday's pair of productions -- Chekhov's The Seagull (simply entitled Seagull) adapted and directed by Libby Appel, and a production of Shakespeare's Henry V created by Joseph Haj -- respectively caused me unmitigated excitement and dull disappointment.

First, Seagull: There were numerous moments in this luminous production of Chekhov's play of dashed professional and personal hopes where I was giggling and crying at once. Superbly cast, with every actor, whether playing a major or minor role, able to find something moving and fresh to show us in their characterization, the play mined the depths of human passivity and misguided intention.

The opening play-within-a-play scene sets the tone for the rest of the work: When Nina (a fresh-faced Nell Geisslinger) first enters, she trips and falls flat on her face. Such is the pitiful comedy of life and so it plays itself out over the course of this production's intimate conversation with its audience.  The youthful passion between Konstantin (an effete and wiry Tasso Feldman) and Nina is evident immediately in the way the pair spring around Christopher Acebo's bare-bones set. A small, elevated wedge-shaped concourse at the back of the stage, like the cleft in a seagull's wing or the chink between two stage curtains about to open or close, provides a crucial bit of definition to an otherwise barren, lake-blue stage. Racing up and down this chink, the young lovers give us a sense of their potential. Yet the rough-looking proscenium for Konstantin's play, a frame fashioned from several bits of bleached wood whose branches look like they're carrying a recently shot animal prostrate on its back and ready to be turned on a spit, makes us dimly aware of a more brutal reality that awaits the temporarily ecstatic lovers.

And then, when Nina performs the play, we get a sense of her natural talent as an actress faced with experimental material, and Konstantin's similar skill as a dramatist of beautiful and unusual works. Rather than hamming up the performance within a performance, as is the usual choice for actors playing Nina, Geisslinger performs the scene with a conviction that makes sense of Konstantin's raw stage poetry. By the end of the play, when Nina talks openly about her limitations as an actress, memories of the opening scene serve to permeate the fallen present with even greater bathos. 

I could go on and on about this most transcendent of Seagulls. But you get the gist and I want to say a few words about Henry V before heading out for a hike. The show closes very soon -- on June 22 -- and I urge anyone within striking distance of Ashland to go see it.

So now on to Henry V. I have to preface my thoughts about this production by remembering a conversation I had yesterday morning with my friend Beth who's accompanying me this weekend, about how productions of Shakespeare history plays always seem to involve intermittent clatterings of war-like drums and actors in black army fatigues and besmirched faces standing with their legs apart looking tough and staring into middle distance.

And then we showed up to the theatre last night and what do we get from the very first moment? intermittent clatterings of war-like drums and actors in black army fatigues and besmirched faces standing with their legs apart looking tough and staring into middle distance. From that moment on, the production heaped cliche onto cliche. I was utterly bored. The actors barked the text out in a way that made it almost incomprehensible.

The casting of deaf actor Howie Seago as Exeter is an interesting choice. But the signing on stage is distracting and I spent way too much time wondering how all the extraneous movement fits in with the director's interpretation of the play. The gulf in fashion sense between the English and French is similarly strange. In their architectural, patterned shirts and jerkins, the French courtiers all look like they've stepped off a John Galliano catwalk (which is ironic considering that Galliano is a British designer.) The "well dressed French" gambit is of course another cliche. And putting the elderly, bearded King of France in a loose sequined dress so that he resembles a disheveled Miss Havisham is simply confounding.

What a mess. 


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