August 10, 2006

Theater in Ashland, Oregon

My wife and I made our annual journey to the small town of Ashland, in southern Oregon, for a weekend of theater, good food, and relaxation. It works every time. The pattern is to drive down (about 400 miles straight down I-5) on a Thursday, see two plays a day on Friday through Sunday, and then drive back home on Monday. Every now and then we through in a visit to friends along the way or a Rogue River float trip or something, but that’s the basic plan.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been operating there in Ashland for over 70 years. Their season runs from February to October and includes eleven plays in that time. The organization has three theaters: a large indoor theater, a small, flexible, indoor theater, and an outdoor, Elizabethan-style (well, except for the comfortable seats on the floor) stage. The company is permanent and quite stable, so you can see some of the same actors from year to year, which is quite a treat. I haven’t seen a bad performance in ten years.

On Friday afternoon, we saw the history, King John, which was played on a simple, but effective stage, so our focus was on the characters, nearly all of whom were embedded in an environment of greed, ambition, deceit, and violence. It was a marvelously cynical world, in which the echoes of our own time were too apparent. (There was a line bemoaning the poor intelligence that allowed the French army to land on English soil without warning that brought a hiss of recognition from the audience. Nothing but Shakespeare's words.)

At dinner after the show, there was a discussion at the next table about who was the “moral center” of the play. I'm not sure what their idea of what that concept means, but I couldn't see any of their candidates as the “moral center.” Every character was motivated by some ambition for power or money or both. The Bastard was willing to abandon anyone or anything for gain and served as a constant voice for violence. Toward the end he even began to horrify the other, equally venal characters. The only human-seeming character (other than the pawn, Arthur), was the simpler man, Hubert, who struggled to keep his head and his heart above the fray, as others sought to use him for their purposes.

Friday evening’s play was The Merry Wives of Windsor, staged on a very tarted-up Elizabethan stage with extravagantly bizarre costumes. This company knows how to pull the comedy out of the Bard's words, no doubt about it. There was slapstick, shameless mugging, and hilarious malapropisms. Quite a romp.

Saturday’s plays were a couple of my favorites: The Importance of Being Earnest in the Angus Bowmer Theater and Cyrano De Bergerac in the Elizabethan Theater. The company puts so much into their comedies. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed comedy more anywhere else. As expected, they did a wonderful job with the Earnest.

I was a little disappointed with the Cyrano. I’ve loved the play since I read it in school and I was very much looking forward to a fine, robust performance on the Elizabethan stage. Unfortunately, the understudy was in the title role and, while we’ve seen this actor do marvelous things in other performances and he knew his lines, he wasn’t able to bring the necessary panache to the role. Neither in physical presence nor in his voice was he the dominant figure that the role requires.

On Sunday afternoon, we saw a very interesting David Edgar play, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As I watched it, I realized that, although I knew the outlines of the story (who doesn’t), I didn’t know how it ended. I don’t think I’ve read the original. Anyway, the play is an adaptation of the original, and the several other adaptations made along the way, and it is a psychologically complex and insightful work. The set was a marvel of complexity made simple and the actor playing the lead did a terrific job with the dual role: a shrinking, diffident, troubled Jekyll and a brutal, aggressive – trouble – Hyde.

The closing play was Two Gentlemen of Verona, in the Elizabethan Theater. The play involves the conflicts and opportunities that arise from leaving the place in which one has grown up and formed one’s values and going to another place, where those values are put to the test. In this presentation, they set “Verona” in a conservative, collective kind of community modeled something after the Amish and the like, while the other place is rich, hedonistic, and looked something like the Hamptons (not that I’ve ever been there). It was an interesting way to make the environments in which the conflicts occur clear.

This performance was interesting in another way, which was a first for us in Ashland. As we were eating dinner before the performance, I looked out the window and noticed that the street trees were swaying vigorously and wondered if that meant rain. Sure enough, within a couple of seconds, someone walked by under an umbrella. It was raining and the theater was wet when we arrived, being open to the sky. The heavy rain had quit by then, but showers still threatened, so we bought a couple of plastic ponchos, which the concessionaires were selling like, well, umbrellas. If one likes, in the event of rain, one may get a refund, as long as one asks for it early enough. I saw only one couple leave. It really didn’t rain enough to worry about, once the play began.

I’m ready to go again next year, already. There’s an interesting line-up, including Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard, On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard (a favorite of mine), August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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