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Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Music Man, Cell Phone
by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

ASHLAND, OREGON: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opened its 74th year with four indoor productions that run at least until early summer when the three outdoor productions in the Festival's world famous Elizabethan Stage open and run through early October. By the end of July, OSF fans will have a chance to see 11 productions in rotating repertory. The Festival is not the only game in town with the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, a favorite with locals, staging the world premiere of Kickin' The Clouds Away, a new musical revue running through March 29. Read on:

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) opened its 74 year with an appropriately bloody production of Shakespeare's classic tragedy, Macbeth. Often called "The Scottish Play" from years of theatrical superstition and tradition, OSF's Macbeth is a mixture of styles and visual periods. Often jumbled, often intensely rewarding, one local reviewer headlined his review "Confused, Confusing Macbeth Opens OSF Season." This scribe has to agree.

OSF is a great supporter of "color blind casting" and the result is often timely but often muddled. Peter Macon, an African American actor who was incredible in the title role in Othello last summer, heads the cast as Macbeth. Following so closely on his Othello, this year's Macbeth often seems to be the same character cast in a different play. His rages, his quiet moments seem continued from last summer's staging.

Making her OSF debut, director Gale Edwards, a veteran of England's Royal Shakespeare Theatre, U.S. regional Shakespeare festivals and a number of Australian groups, mixes the images in Macbeth - often to stunning success, but sometimes bordering on unintentional comedy. Lady Macbeth, a solid performance by Robin Goodrin Nordli, is always dressed in red - often in high fashion 1950s satin evening dressings with flowing skirts. Red roses and a red table runner continue the color of blood throughout the play. The Scottish soldiers and royalty seem to be in an uncertain, timeless neo-Nazi European military uniform. Loyal Shakespeare fans are accepting of these continued "concept productions" that are now common on stages across the Western world, but for every insight the "concept" reveals, other confusion follows.

Nordli, an OSF favorite, is in her 15th year at Ashland. She has played 46 roles in 36 productions, many of them memorable even years after the original staging. Director Edwards keeps the action flowing on an intriguing unit set designed by Scott Bradley. A broken art deco staircase leads up to a second level which is intersected by a horizontal metal ramp where much of the action is played. The stage itself is a circle where the witches' cauldron can float up from beneath the stage. The full stage is ringed with burned bodies, frozen in time, fossilized in place.

The play's famous three witches are directed and costumed in classic style. Ghostly and warty, the three weird sisters seem traditional except for the director's decision to use three child-like witches to echo their actions. Are they children being recruited to follow the three? Are they young children of the three, in training to replace them? Confusion sets in, a much-discussed element in the visiting press corps. In Act Two, when the three visions of the witches crawl out of the cauldron, the oversized heads of the actors produced a solid round of laughter at first sight - not the planned reaction, to be sure.

In one contemporary touch that left the audience gasping, Lady Macduff is doused with gasoline on stage, but (thankfully) burned alive off stage. Perhaps the charred corpses that ring the stage are the result of other flaming deaths. In the strong supporting cast, Rex Young is a standout as Banquo.

Macbeth continues at the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre through November

Playwright Wole Soyinka and his Death and the King's Horseman fill OSF's "world theater" slot in the 2009 season. OSF's new director, Bill Rauch, is committed to bringing plays from non-Western traditions to the OSF stages. Last year's The Clay Cart was the first choice in the new series, which may or may not be featured in each season. The playwright is the first black African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986. Well known as a political activist, Soyinka is the author of more than 30 works of literature, including plays, poems, novels, essays and memoir.

Jailed for political reasons during Nigeria's civil war, he spent 1967-69 in solitary confinement. He fled Nigeria in the 1990s and now lives and teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Death and the King's Horseman is set in 1943. It pits Nigerian traditions against the British colonial policies. It has been 30 days since the Nigerian king has died. As is expected in Yoruba traditions, his horseman, Elesin Oba, is preparing to die a ritual death, a self-motivated suicide. Having had the honor of being the king's horseman in life, he is expected to die naturally on the 30th day after the king's death and join the king and lead him into the afterlife as his horseman in eternity. Oba knows what is expected of him - hundreds of years of tradition among the Yoruba and for generations in his own family decree that he will die this day.

Unfortunately, a well-intentioned British colonial officer and his clueless wife learn of the plan and interrupt the logical flow of Yoruba traditions. Oba is interviewed, imprisoned (since suicide is a criminal offense) and forced to life. A tangled plot finds Oba's son, sent by the British to college in England, arriving to honor his father's ritual death.

African designs, African drumming, convoluted plot complications and hard-to-follow thematic material make Death and the King's Horseman a serious challenge to most audiences. For some, it was the highlight of the four-play opening weekend. For others, this scribe included, it seemed more like an excursion into cultural anthropology. It continues through July 5, overlapping the opening of the outdoor season in early June.

OSF's new artistic director, Bill Rauch, in his second full year at Ashland, played a supporting role in Meredith Willson's) The Music Man 30 years ago in high school. Ever since then, Rauch has wanted to direct the classic all-American toe-tapping musical. In his second year as artistic director at OSF, Rauch gets his chance.

"No one was interested in having me direct the show," Rauch confided to the assembled group of journalists at a press conference Sunday morning. "Now that I am in charge at OSF, I picked the show for me," he laughed. Turns out he made a wise choice. In these uncertain economic and political times, The Music Man is a refreshing visit to an America that might never existed, but sure is a welcome location.

River City, Iowa, in 1912 is a colorless place, especially in this "concept production" which starts with everything on stage - sets, costumes, props - in black and white until Harold Hill in a red-and-white striped ice cream jacket gets off the train and brings his con job to the rubes in town. Michael Elich seems born to play Hill. An experienced OSF veteran with a terrific mixture of Shakespeare and contemporary characters in his resume, Elich obviously has great fun as Harold Hill - and the audience senses it and gives back with sincere joy.

Scene by scene, moment by moment, color creeps into the production. Part of a store's sign subtly turns into color between scenes. A bit of pastel color shows up on a minor character. By the end of the show, when "76 Trombones" encores throughout the theater, the show is a blazing tradition of red, white and blue.

The only weak link in the production is the performance of Gwendolyn Mulamba as Marian The Librarian, the show's only character who demands a strong singing voice. The talented African American actress has been a great performer in other OSF seasons, but the "colorblind" casting here only calls attention to her weak singing voice. Marian gets the show's big ballads, "'Til There Was You" and "My White Knight," and Mulamba simply cannot pull either off.

One plus point is the casting of new OSF ensemble actor Howie Seago, a hearing impaired actor who appeared in Seattle with the National Theatre Of The Deaf and, more recently, played a major role at Intiman Theatre in The Skin of our Teeth. In Music Man, Seago plays Marcellus, Hill's sidekick in larceny, using American Sign Language voiced by the other actors on stage. One of the children in the ensemble is also hearing impaired and signs her dialog and songs.

The Music Man is a musical and theater delight, a rare event in OSF history. Mini-musicals have sometimes appeared but this is one of the few classic big, Broadway musicals to join the OSF history repertoire. It continues through November 1 at the Bowmer Theatre. For Rauch, it is another personal success, one of many in his seven years directing and now leading OSF. Rauch, the Festival's first major openly Gay administrator, lives in Ashland with his partner of many years and their two adopted children. Seeing the four of them at the theater, in restaurants around town, in conversation with loyal OSF supporters is always a delight for GLBT visitors.

One of the hottest playwrights in contemporary theater is Sarah Ruhl. Seattle has seen two of her productions at ACT in the past two summers, The Clean House two seasons ago and Eurydice last summer. Both have been huge hits for ACT and have whetted the appetite for her other plays. OSF has a clear winner on its hands with her latest work, Dead Man's Cell Phone which had a huge success off-Broadway in New York last fall. (ArtsWest in West Seattle has just announced that Cell Phone will open its 2009-10 season next September.)

It's been years - perhaps decades - since Bits&Bytes has walked into a play, even a new work, knowing nothing about it except the title. From the opening moments, Dead Man's Cell Phone caught the audience's attention and kept the crowd enthralled for every minute. The concept is simple - and the title hints at it.

A plain young woman is finishing her lunch at a diner and the cell phone of a very quiet man several tables away keeps ringing. Annoyed, she finally picks his cell phone up but finds that the man has died eating his lunch. She responds to the phone call and slowly gets involved in the life he led, the wife he cheated on, the mother he hated, the brother he ignored. And so it goes.

Wonderfully audacious, the play is an off-the-wall delight. Act Two opens with a lengthy monologue from the dead man - "You probably wondered how I died," he addresses the audience and then tells us. Making his OSF debut, director Christopher Liam Moore brings a wealth of experience from theater and television direction to Ashland, including a major "community collaboration with GLBT people of faith."

Sarah Agnew is wonderfully vulnerable as Jean, the woman who picks up the ringing cell phone. Catherine E. Coulson is an over-the-top delight as the vulgar mother of the dead man. Jeffrey King is terrific as the dead man who finally talks in Act Two. Brent Hinkley is quietly appealing as his brother who falls in love with the sweet Jean. Terri McMahon is a bright spot as the soon-to-be divorced wife of the title character, and Miriam A. Laube is memorable as the mistress and, double cast (it seems) as a stranger at an airport.

OSF's loyal audience loved Dead Man's Cell Phone. Staged in the intimate New Theatre, it is the out-and-out hit of the winter season. It runs just through June 19, overlapping the summer openings for tried-and-true Shakespeare fans who wait until the outdoor stage is in full swing before traveling to Ashland.

Three more works by Shakespeare, a staging of Goldoni's classic farce, The Servant Of Two Masters, a stage adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost, a world premiere and other works open in March, April, June and July, bringing OSF's season to a total of 11 productions. Check with the box office at (800) 219-8161 or at for complete details. Ask for a copy of the free, full-color season brochure. This year, the flyer has six variations in its cover photograph - a clever promotional idea that found opening weekend visitors seeking out all six to take home.

Bits&Bytes returns to Ashland, briefly, next week for a review of the Oregon Cabaret Theatre's new production, a world premiere musical revue, Kickin' The Clouds Away and details on other theater in Ashland - the Gay themed Death Trap and the campy Bullshot Crummond. Watch for it.

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