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Oregon Shakespeare Festival lures Northwest theater fans, Daedalus Project fundraiser
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival reports that tickets sales are actually up midway through the 2008 10-month season. In this era of economic cutbacks and concerns, OSF is "doing better than expected," one company official confided to Bits&Bytes.

"It might be because of the focus on vacationing near home, it might be that the 'staycation' philosophy encourages local travel, but we like to think that it's also because we put on a hell of a show for theater fans." Well, yes, yes, yes to all of the above. Bits&Bytes recently made his third trip of the season to OSF - SGN remains the only publication in Washington to review the entire season for its entertainment readers. Read on:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) mounts 11 productions each year. The opening winter season in February introduces four new stagings in the Festival's two indoor theaters - several continue until early November when the Festival ends its 10-month run. New plays are added in April and May. The three outdoor theater productions, on the Elizabethan stage, officially mark the opening of the summer season, but OSF continues to add new productions in July, bringing the OSF total to 11. That's an incredible number of productions in rotating repertory. Visitors can easily see six plays in three days - and many do just that.

The midsummer openings this year include the new Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner and Arthur Miller's classic A View From The Bridge. SGN reviewed the winter and summer openings and puts OSF high on the entertainment list for local readers, and this OSF installment concludes the season coverage for the 2008 schedule.

Arthur Miller often worked classic Greek concepts of tragedy into his modern works. Willy, his iconographic "hero" of Death Of a Salesman, is destroyed by his tragic flaw. In his 1955 A View From the Bridge, Miller returned to the Aristotelian rules of tragedy in creating another modern-day hero who brings about his own downfall. Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman with strong, almost incestuous feelings about his beautiful young niece, cannot help himself. His rival, if only in his own mind, is his wife's cousin, one of two "submarines" (illegal Italian immigrants) living with them. The blond, handsome, charming Rodolpho is everything Eddie is not. (The young Jon Voight, just before creating Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, played Rodolpho in the highly praised 1963 off-Broadway revival, Bits&Bytes' first exposure to the Miller classic. Dustin Hoffman, before The Graduate was also in the cast in a minor role.)

OSF's production is simply one of the finest stagings imaginable. Like the stunning Othello on the outdoor stage - another all-time OSF "perfect" production - theater simply does not get better than this. Libby Appel, OSF's just-retired artistic director, returns in total triumph with this riveting View From the Bridge. Bill Rauch, OSF's new artistic director in his first full season, lured Appel back - a wise, wise decision that makes the transition a welcome time for all. (Rauch, an openly Gay man, is happy in his new role at OSF. He and his longtime male partner, with their two children, have settled into their new home in Ashland and are quickly "becoming part of the community" while he is leading OSF into new directions.)

Casting is perfect in this fine, fine production. Armando Duran properly underplays Eddie for most of the show, giving his histrionic emotional blowups a welcoming contrast. Stephanie Beatriz, in her first season at OSF, is perfection as Catharine, the young niece caught in the emotions of a young girl on the cusp on womanhood. It's easy to see why Eddie and Rodolpho have strong attractions to her. Vilma Silva, as Eddie's long-suffering wife, and David DeSantos, as Marco, the other "submarine" relative, provide strong support in key supporting roles.

This fine, fine production makes a late summer or fall trip to Ashland worthwhile. Highest recommendation. Along with the incredible production of Shakespeare's Othello on the outdoor stage, OSF hits 100 with both tragedies in this year's season.

Shakespeare's Coriolanus is rarely produced, and it's easy to see why. That makes OSF's outstanding staging even more successful. Directed with assured polish by Laird Williamson, a longtime OSF veteran actor and director, Coriolanus works in every aspect. Given a modern-day updating in sets and costumes, the production takes many risks and succeeds in most of them.

The only weak link - and it is a major one - is the casting of the title role. Danforth Comins, a five-year OSF veteran, has been wonderful in a wide variety of roles, but he lacks the physical stature, the vocal power and emotional strength that Coriolanus must have to command the stage and the play. He is "solid" in his performance, and that may be close enough.

Robynn Rodriguez is memorable as his driven mother, Volumnia. Demetra Pittman (happily remembered by Seattle visitors from her early work in the Emerald City), Rex Young and Richard Elmore provide strong support in secondary roles. The scenic and costume designs for this modern-day updating work beautifully. Attention has been paid to textual references, a rare occurrence in updated staging. When the general commands his ancient Roman troops to "pick up your armor" for battle, the modern-day soldiers don bulletproof vests. A classic production, the dream of Shakespeare purists, would work well today, but the modern-day setting works well enough.

Bill Rauch, OSF's new artistic director, is an open fan of Jeff Whitty, the Oregon playwright who won a Tony Award for his work on Avenue Q, the "adult puppet" musical that recently delighted Seattle audiences on its national tour stay at the Paramount. With The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler Whitty imagines that Hedda did not shoot herself (offstage) at the end of Ibsen's classic tragedy. Instead, she is alive and well and driving a convertible in modern-day America. Her friends in this "rambunctious postmodern comedy" include Medea, Tosca and Mammy (from Gone With The Wind). Designed as "a mind-bending and riotously funny comedy," the show is a delight for most of its sold-out audiences.

One friend, a theater critic from Northern California, said the show was her favorite of this and "many recent" seasons. A major Seattle critic noted that the audiences clearly loved the campy comedy, but wondered if the crowd was laughing with the characters or at them. Robin Goodrin Nordli, an OSF veteran with legions of fans, is at her best as Hedda. She premiered the role in an earlier production, also directed by Rauch, and she clearly has a fun time in the riotous role.

It is "the" unexpected hit of the season. Plan far ahead for prime seats. Like most of the OSF season, tickets are available for most performances with only a few days' notice - a major change from earlier, more affluent times. Tickets and complete performance details are available, toll free, at (866) 545-6337.

Ashland the nearby towns have a heavy population of Hispanic residents. OSF has always prided itself on cultural diversity and tends to feature a new play each season with Latino characters or plot situations. This year's Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner by Luis Alfaro is proving popular with audiences of all backgrounds.

Wisely programmed for the intimate New Theatre, the Festival's smallest performing area, the production is top-notch in every aspect. The story of a Hispanic woman who eats and eats (Sno Balls and pork rinds are her favorite treat) and literally balloons up and up - the final act finds her in a "fat suit" soaring over the set and most of the audience (think of Peter Pan flying around the auditorium). The concept of " magic realism," that Hispanic literary trait where the impossible is clearly possible, delights many audiences, especially the younger, more "hip" theater fans. To be honest, the show did not work for this scribe, but it is selling well - and audiences love the show and the plights of Minerva and her family. It continues until November 2.

For several decades, OSF's annual August Daedalus Project has been "the" event of the summer for local and visiting Gay and Lesbian theater fans. Always scheduled the third Monday in August (a night the theaters are "dark"), the all-day affair features numerous fundraising activities - a marathon run, free events on "The Bricks," the plaza that connects OSF's three theaters, a play-reading (usually of a new or classic GLBT-themed work), silent and life auctions of art work, and sales of homemade jams and baked goodies. In the evening, the Daedalus Project "talent show" packs the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.

The original concept was great fun - "a talentless talent show," as one Project founder jokingly described it. Actors who couldn't sing sang their hearts out. Backstage technicians who couldn't dance danced their toes off. It was a great, giddy tongue-in-cheek event that raised "tons of money" money for various AIDS projects - local, state and national. The talent show, in recent years, has put more emphasis on talent - a novel idea that works almost as well as the original concept. In recent years, Daedalus has raised nearly $60,000 each year for the one-day event. "The first year, we raised $8,000 - which was four times as much as we expected," one Project founder confided to Bits&Bytes. "We thought we had died and gone to heaven!"

With Daedalus as the anchoring event, many GLBT theater fans find mid-August a time to plan an OSF visit. Other theaters in town--especially the highly respected, very successful Oregon Cabaret Theatre, also prosper with the influx of GLBT visitors. (OCT continues its delightful production of Archie & Mehitabel into September - SGN and Bits&Bytes reviewed it in June.) On a recent visit, Bits&Bytes noted productions of A Trip To Bountiful and Promises, Promises (the Neil Simon/Burt Bacharach musical adapted from Hollywood's classic The Apartment) playing in local theaters. There's no doubt about it, theater is alive in well in Ashland, OR.

There is no question that the eight-hour drive to Ashland is a long, boring one. I-5 is, for most of the trip (pardon the expression), straight as an arrow. It is not until you reach southern Oregon that the mountain passes provide a variation - and a beautifully scenic one, too. Air travel is another possibility, but the trip into Medford, north of Ashland, is an expensive one - usually twice the cost of a trip to San Francisco, which is twice as far away. (Since there is little competition for the Medford/Ashland airport, costs are disproportionately high.)

The train does not go anywhere near Ashland or Medford - it cuts over to Eastern Oregon after a stop in Eugene. Bus travel is possible, but there is no downtown bus station and travelers, are let off on a freeway exit mini-mart stop and must fend for themselves to get into town. The drive down is often the best choice.

Some tips to make the drive easier:

For many, Ashland is a two-tank vacation - one tank down, one tank back (plus a little extra). This Shakespeare fan refills in Tacoma on the way home.

McDonald's is always a safe choice for a break or a quick bite. Budget-minded vacationers will find the $1 meal items a real savings. Bathrooms are always cleaner than the rest stops by the highway - and very few Oregon rest stops offer the free coffee and cookies that Washington travelers expect. McDonald's also allows free or low-cost refills on beverage items - soft drink refills are usually free and coffee refills vary from 25 to 45 cents in Oregon (where most prices are markedly lower than in the Seattle area).

Plan a music itinerary for your trip. Bits&Bytes took a long-unplayed stack of double CDs with him and enjoyed revisiting Liza, Dolly, Cher and Neil Diamond in concert, plus single discs from Bette and Barbra and a few classical CDs as well. Many friends stock up on books-on-tape (or CDs) - this writer once listened to all 16 parts of Lonesome Dove on an Ashland outing. Agatha Christie is another no-brainer that passes the time with great pleasure.

Check out the local radio stations using your speed dial button. Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" seemed to play every 30 minutes on various stations in various cities and towns. The new "I Can Sleep When I'm Dead" seemed to dominate the country and western stations - the dominant music station. And, expect lots and lots of Christian stations with Bible sermons. Do not expect classical music stations for much of the drive.

Stop frequently. One friend is addicted to "possibilities" at public rest stops. Another hits every antique mall on the way. Take frequent breaks and allow time for road construction slowdowns.

Housing costs can be kept to a minimum by checking out "stand-alone" motels or hotels. While the national chains all have outlets in Ashland, locally owned hotels/motels - like the Columbia Hotel or the Palms Motel - have lower rates. Motels in Talent or Phoenix or Medord, just minutes from Ashland, are even lower.

Be sure to sign up at OSF's box office to get early mailings on next season's shows. Tickets for the 2009 season go on sale in mid-November, and many key summer weekends will be sold out long before the February openings in the winter season. Yeah, go ahead and tell 'em that SGN and Bits&Bytes told you to stop by.

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