Seventy-Five Years and Counting
(Eight Plays in Four Days-June 8-11, 2010)
In four of the past five years, my wife Jacqueline and I have engaged in a whirlwind play-watching marathon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, OR). This year we were joined by family friend Sheila Devitt, a former Santa Fean who is living and acting in San Francisco. With much planning and a firm commitment to little sleep, we managed to attend eight productions in three and one-half days. We saw in order a moving modern adaptation and classic rendering of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; an exuberant Twelfth Night; a jaw-dropping, contemporary dress Hamlet; a traditional Henry the Fourth, Part One; an all-too-real production of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined; a classic The Merchant of Venice with a naturalistic Shylock; a hilarious Lisa Kron domestic meta-comedy, Well; and a finely etched variation of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Spanning centuries and theatrical genres, we all received a primer in the dramatic arts while glorying in the joys of superbly directed, mounted, and acted plays that were never less than engaging and, in a few instances, transformative.
The productions are held in three quite different theater spaces—the outdoor Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion which is modeled on the 1599 Fortune Theatre (1200 seats), a major state-of-the-art indoor theater named for OSF Founder Angus Bowmer (600 seats), and the New Theatre, a flexible, intimate space (360 seats). The season is composed of eleven major productions with 766 individual performances over nine months from February to late October. The outdoor season begins in early June which is the reason why Jackie and I visit Ashland at this time.
Founded by Angus Bowmer in 1935 as part of Ashland’s Fourth of July celebration, OSF is celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Under the third year direction of Bill Rauch, OSF has widened its play choices by including American musicals and more world drama and continuing its program of commissioning adaptations and new works. However, as Rauch recently noted, the audience is still paramount in Ashland: “OSF’s founder Angus Bowmer famously said that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was neither a director’s nor a playwright’s nor even an actor’s theatre; but our theatre belongs to our audience. It’s been true for all of our 75 years, and as we embark on creating art for another 75 it will be because of our audience’s continued support” (OSF Press Release—February 9, 2010). OSF membership and Sales Manager Eddie Wallace informed me that the Spring 2010 OSF season (February-June) was playing to 96% of house capacity, unequivocally proving that OSF’s patrons are keeping up their end of the bargain.
What follows will be a rather impressionistic set of observations about this year’s presentations with no pretensions to being definitive reviews and an interview with OSF Director of Literary Development, and Dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit about new directions and programs that OSF is instituting.
Our home base during our OSF trips is the Ashland Springs Hotel (212 East Main Street), a historic hotel dating from the days when people visited the area for the hot springs. While the Ashland Springs is a lovely restored hotel, its major attraction for us is that it’s one block from the OSF campus.
Jackie and I began our play immersion with a matinee performance of Joseph Hanreddy & J. R. Sullivan’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (PP) in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. I was less than sanguine about adding this play to our list because I feared the possibility of either a “Classics Comics” updating of the novel or a noble failure of the nature of the many attempts to put such ironic, interior works as The Great Gatsby on stage. My fears were allayed within minutes of entering the English country house setting of early nineteenth century England where it was a tragedy to have five unmarried daughters of marriageable age without deep financial pockets. Under the crisp, intelligent direction of Libby Appel, the cast, especially the leads Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Hurster) and Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander), revealed their rather idiosyncratic unsophisticated natures in a world that prized social decorum and class distinction.
Hanreddy and Sullivan have finessed many of the obstacles in adapting a work that is part epistolary in nature and that is replete with numerous scene changes; they simplified the language and created dialogue, eliminated most of the letters, and sharpened the narrative focus to Elizabeth and Darcy who embody the themes of love and money that affect and define all the other characters. The bare stage with a few chairs and the brisk direction of Appel function to keep the action moving in a manner that belies the actual time sequence of the novel. The result is a lively recounting of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship that makes its conclusion seem inevitable. The second act of this PP was more emotionally involving and moving than the more ironic and satiric original. It was a perfectly recognizable comedy of manners that nonetheless surprised and delighted. It was an unqualified success.
Tuesday evening we saw our first of three Shakespeare plays outdoors in the Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion, a staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (TN). One of gambles one takes in visiting Southern Oregon in early June is the vagaries of the weather. We have experienced blistering heat and humidity, persistent rain, and bone-chilling cold. As a result of past experiences, we pack as if we were planning a world-wide trek. This evening was cold with intermittent showers, so our gloves, rain gear, woolen hats, and many layers were employed and enjoyed. (In fact, the three days we saw plays outdoors in Ashland averaged ten degrees colder than the evenings we spent in Vancouver this February during the Winter Olympic Games.) But the outdoor performances certainly did keep us warm with their comedy and energy.
TN is a sprightly, well-acted production with strong performances by Brooke Parks (Viola), Rex Young (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Robin Goodrin Nordli (Maria), Michael J. Hume (Sir Toby Belch), and Kenajuan Bentley (Orsino). However, the performances by Miriam Laube (Olivia) and Michael Elich (Feste) were truly memorable. Ms. Laube whose OSF work I have fallen in love with over the past five years has created a foolish, vulnerable, very human Olivia who is as equally manacled to the conventions of courtly love as her wooer Count Orsino. Elich’s Feste is complex and perceptive as he plays host to his foolish betters and entertains us with his musical lyrics. Self-absorption is properly punished and we all leave the theater with a bit more cheer at recognizing our human follies.
The afternoon began with an afternoon matinee of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (H) at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Our friend Sheila Devitt arrived from a family visit in Eugene (OR) and joined us at the production. For all three of us, this play was the highlight of our OSF play marathon. It was a production for the ages.
Directors frequently talk of the action that occurs immediately before a play begins as a central factor in establishing a work’s tone. In this H, the audience enters to a long hallway that is dominated by a casket draped with a Danish flag. Hamlet in dark glasses and suit is sitting alone in this environment as various attendants wait nervously in the background. Finally, they begin removing the empty chairs until only Hamlet remains. The sky flashes as Hamlet approaches his father’s remains and the play begins. Without a word being spoken, the audience has experienced intimately the heir to the throne of Denmark’s grief and isolation. It’s a brilliant opening.
The stage is claustrophobic: the hall is the entire acting area which is surrounded by fortress walls and has three entrances from which further walls may be employed to further enclose the performance space. It is clear that Elsinore is a place where secrets could not remain long hidden and where evil happenings would affect all within its walls.
In keeping with its tradition of casting parts without racial or gender bias, this year OSF had a new twist in character portrayal that worked in the four instances I saw it employed. In the Shakespeare plays, one character, a confidante or confederate of a more central character or group, communicated by employing American Sign Language. In H, the ghost of Hamlet’s father was further distanced from the living by his signing and the action and character revelation developed seamlessly.
Dan Donohue (Hamlet) and Richard Elmore (Polonius) led an intelligent and diligent cast with detailed performances that revealed their characters’ strengths and human frailties. The real revelation for our small group, however, was the direction of Bill Rauch and Susannah Flood’s interpretation of Ophelia. Rauch allowed Hamlet to reveal his character and descent into madness by stressing Hamlet’s sense of loss and resulting confusion. The young Dane’s isolation puts him adrift among less idealistic and more politically savvy antagonists. On his return from England, Hamlet’s fate is determined by his decision to live in the larger outside of himself.
Bill Rauch also employed a directorial strategy that I had never seen done previously in a Shakespeare tragedy: He stopped the action, darkened the stage, and put a spotlight on Hamlet during his famous soliloquies and interior monologues. This bit of stagecraft allowed the audience to see Hamlet as a youth stumbling toward self-discovery rather than as a philosopher in touch with the mysteries of the universe.
As for Susannah Flood’s performance, her Ophelia was a show stopper. Most frequently, Ophelia is played as a victim of male prerogative who is driven to suicide by the loss of the men whom she most loved. However, here Ophelia is clearly making a choice to exit this world in which she is hemmed in by tradition and circumstance. Suicide is a radical option, but it is her choice and, perhaps, her only avenue of self-expression and self-definition. Ophelia as victim no longer exists for me.
That evening it was back to the Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion to see a Shakespeare play I had never seen performed on stage, Henry IV, Part One (HIV). While I had seen many film versions of Henry IV, including my favorite Orson Welles acting role as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, and had taught Henry V many times to underclassmen, I never had the opportunity to see HIV. I was gladdened to see that the qualities that made Henry V such a paragon of a Renaissance ruler—warrior courage, ruthless political intelligence, and the humane qualities of justice and mercy—are found in embryonic form in Prince Hal. King Henry IV is appropriately worried about his lineage since the Bolingbrokes had such a tenuous claim to the throne and since Falstaff as an emblem of the pleasures and diversions of the world is such a temptation for Henry’s son. Falstaff (David Kelly) dominated the stage in his appearances, but it is Hal (John Tufts) and his steady personal growth based on a full experience of the world rather than the ambitious Hotspur (Kevin Kenerly) and his steadfast and narrow vision of the world that wins the day. While it is a difficult challenge to engage audiences in mounting Shakespeare’s history plays, Director Penny Metropulos does a yeoman’s job in making Prince Hal a relevant figure for today.
The skies cleared and the weather stayed cool as we went to the intimate New Theatre for a matinee performance of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined (R). Nottage went to Central Africa with the goal of producing Brecht’s Mother Courage. Instead, she returned with the resolve to write a contemporary work of survival that attempted to articulate the very difficult and very necessary steps in beginning the process of healing after unthinkable violations of body and soul have happened. The cast is universally excellent and the set is appropriately seedy and threatening. The central character Mama Nadi (Kimberly Scott) is a brothel owner in a no man’s land between competing government and rebel forces. Mama is a force of nature. The play is about violence and greed and lust and corruption and how abused and marginalized women attempt to navigate these dangers while still retaining their humanity. The ersatz family the abused women create may be unconventional but hope survives and a positive future remains a possibility. Liesl Tommy’s direction is taut, raw, and riveting. Yet, I was most personally affected by a stunning portrayal of middle-age love and devotion in the character of Christian (Tyrone Wilson) who as her only emissary outside the war zone provides Mama Nadi with supplies for her business. He’s a small man in deep waters who is willing to take a desperate chance at happiness.
The third night at the Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion was the driest and coldest yet. Bill Rauch’s direction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (MOV) was clear and naturalistic, focusing on Shylock’s personal isolation and financial dealings rather than treating the character as an allegorical figure of medieval anti-Semitism. The play seems more an indictment of business and the pursuit of wealth where everything is a transaction, including marriage, and where power politics win out. As always in Shakespeare’s comedies, love triumphs over greed. Though sorely abused, Shylock in this equation has violated Renaissance decorum by replacing the demands of the heart with the accumulation of gold.
Anthony Heald (Shylock) was first among equals in holding the stage in his nuanced and affecting portrayal of Shylock. I also enjoyed Michael Winters (Old Gobbo Launcelot’s Father) in a small comic turn. Hours earlier, Jackie had seen him rule the stage as Big Daddy in the lead of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (CHTR). (This is another pleasure of an OSF play marathon: One gets to see talented actors playing a variety of roles in a number of plays. For example, I greatly admired Judith-Marie Bergan comic interpretations of Mrs. Bennet in PP and Mistress Quickly in HIV and Susannah Flood as the giddy and feckless Lydia Bennet in PP prior to seeing her devastating Ophelia.)
Sheila and I saw a matinee performance of Lisa Kron’s Well (W) in the New Theatre on a day when the sun actually warmed Ashland and suggested that summer would arrive this year. Kron is a performance artist who within W is trying to create a universal statement about a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Acting as a caretaker for her mother whose life of illness and political activism she could never understand, Lisa is trying to employ art to clarify and understand the past.. Terri McMahon (Lisa) and Dee Maaske (Lisa’s mother Ann) hold sway over Lisa’s four person cast who are trying to rehearse Ann’s restructuring of reality. However, they find Ann’s version of events—in essence, reality rather than art-- more interesting and compelling. The action devolves and all five actors break their characters and leave the dumb-founded Lisa alone on the stage. The play ends with Lisa reading Ann’s letters from her mother’s politically active period as the audience leaves the theater. Director James Edmonson avoids the traps of preciousness and sterile irony inherent in mounting meta-dramatic pieces and keeps the action believable and emotionally satisfying. After the tragic catharsis of H and R, W provided Sheila and me with the recognizable human observation that life is chaos and true wisdom comes in accepting this axiom.
After the production of Well, I had the opportunity to speak with OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy (Dr.) Lue Morgan Douthit about the company’s new initiative, the Black Swan Lab for New Work (BSL) (July 7-October 31, 2010). OSF Media relations Media Director Amy Richard and I played phone tag for a few days in trying to get together to discuss this program that was instituted only last year. I’d like to publicly thank Ms. Richard for her time and energy in meeting the demands of my rather full schedule.
Ms. Douthit, Sheila Devitt, and I sat outside the New Theatre and discussed OSF’s commitment to new work. The company has always commissioned new works and adaptations of classic works of literature. Under Bill Rauch’s leadership, OSF has strengthened this commitment. Adaptations of Don Quixote and The Servant of Two Masters were produced last year while Ping Chong’s adaptation of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Culture Clash’s American Night are part of this season’s schedule. Even more ambitious is a thirty-seven play project over ten years entitled American Revolutions: The United States History Project.
BSL is the brain child of Bill Rauch and (Dr.) Polly Carl (formerly of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and currently at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago). Dr. Carl developed a model of how OSF might best develop new work which led to the Festival receiving a $50,000 grant from an individual donor to initiate BSL in 2009 (OSF Press Release—June 12, 2009). The Lab consists of ten actors from a specific year’s acting pool (this year there are eleven members) who work directly with playwrights at the earliest stages of a dramatic work. BSL is located in the Black Swan, an on-campus performance space that in 1977 became a theater where new, edgier, riskier work was performed, and since the 2002 opening of the New Theatre, has been used for rehearsals and educational events.
Lue Douthit observed that BSL is based on “artist-driven work” in which “people are invited into the process [where experienced professionals are provided the] opportunity to teach the process of play development.” Lue further commented on the theory that underlies BSL: “The more one understands the process, the various steps, the more one can appreciate new ideas…[The result is more] provocative theater.”
BSL is intended to have a vital function in the creation of season schedules. Artistic Director Bill Rauch places a high premium on variety and desires to have as many options as possible. OSF has been commissioning new work for the past fifteen years with the goal of taking a wider perspective on what constitutes theater; BSL helps in defining and expanding such a position. This is especially important in light of the time and expense involved. Lue revealed that the development of new plays “is most often a three or four year process and there is nothing linear about it.”
What was most revealing for me was Lue’s discussion about the specific work of BSL: “Plays are two-dimensional blueprints for performance….Actors speak the author’s words while people listen, [but also] actors through their bodies interpret what is described in two dimensions.” Lue is sanguine about her 2010 cast who are engaged in the work of BSL: “The work is detailed and labor intensive. The cast of eleven provide their skills, bodies, and intelligence. The actors read for truth with no showiness. [They engage in] earnest, hard work with a depth of generosity and humility.” This small group of actors “in reading for writers create a type of masque that is the basic nature of repertoire performance.” At present, there is “no public performance component” for BSL. However, Lue realizes that “public discourse has value” and the project is moving incrementally in that direction.
A member of OSF for seventeen years, Lue Douthit is not only helping others attain their dreams but has achieved one of her own: “I came here [OSF] as a new play girl and [working in new play development] has long been a dream of mine. The work has exceeded my expectations and I find it heartening and humbling.” BSL functions to undermine some of the basic misconceptions about theater: “Many assume that plays shouldn’t be difficult [to produce] and expect all work should be similar in presentation. However, acting is a craft with a specific skill set and [dramatic performance] has emotional impact….[Furthermore,] the cast of eleven actors’ dedication to craft is paying early dividends [in their own performance(s)].” BSL is in its infancy but will undoubtedly provide a bright future for playwrights, actors, and audiences.
I have deliberately avoided commenting on the design elements in the plays I saw because I don’t have the expertise to do these artists justice. I will say that the overall design of Hamlet, the scenic design of Ruined, the costuming of Twelfth Night, and the lighting of Pride and Prejudice are personally memorable and part of the high level of professionalism that defines the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions.
I have also declined to rate the productions, though if forced to do so, I would give all of them four or five chiles (we don’t use stars in Santa Fe) with Hamlet and Ruined being unqualifiedly successful theatrical experiences. If I would have attempted a rating of the productions, I would be comparing apples and oranges as we saw the last preview performances of the three Shakespeare plays in the Allen Pavilion while the other four plays were in the middle or nearing the end of long runs. I’ll have to be content with saying that the work was universally well-crafted and effectively mounted and would be well worth another viewing.
Sheila Devitt is a young actress whose introduction to the OSF was summed up by her first impression: “I am amazed to see such a thriving theatrical community…How can I work here?” As she is currently preparing new audition material to become a company member in the San Francisco area, Sheila was interested in what David DeSantos (Laertes in Hamlet) had to say about persistence in a post-play talk. DeSantos mentioned that lead actor Dan Donohue had to audition many times before being accepted by OSF and, at the audition at which he was finally offered a position, he had to do seven prepared pieces. Sheila was in general agreement that Hamlet was a very special production that underscored the obssessional nature of the young Dane. She also found the ensemble acting in Ruined and Well and the intimate nature of the New Theatre especially appealing.
Early on Saturday, June 12, 2010, Sheila, Jackie, and I had breakfast at the Ashland Springs Hotel prior to heading to San Francisco (Sheila) and to Portland (Jackie and me). The subject of that breakfast conversation was a sleepy-eyed set of schemes to return to Ashland for the 2011 OSF season.