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The 75th Oregon Shakespeare Festival
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The 75th Oregon Shakespeare Festival

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

In the final days of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) opened its 75th anniversary season for four productions. If a sports analogy is ever correct in a theater situation, OSF took home three gold medals and one bronze. The Tony Award-winning company mounts a total of 11 productions in three theaters during its February-October season. Two more indoor productions join the repertoire this spring before the three outdoor Shakespeare productions open in mid-June. The final two indoor stagings open in July to complete the season. SGN will review all of the summer openings in late June.

BILL RAUCH DIRECTS OPENING HAMLET, MODERN DRESS RULES
Bill Rauch, the OSF's latest artistic director (and first openly Gay administrator in the Festival's history) uses a decidedly modern approach to Shakespeare's Hamlet - and the concept works, giving Ashland its first of three "gold medals" in this year's opening lineup. In his 10 seasons at OSF, Dan Donohue has built a solid fan base. His work in the title role will add another laurel wreath to his acting record.

Rauch whips the lengthy Hamlet into workable shape with a unit set that uses a series of doors and sliding walls to change the scenery. His cast hurries through the plot, speeding from one emotional high to another. It's a very modern production that seems rooted in the historical past. Electronic surveillance cameras watch the interior of the palace at all times. Twisted barbed wire circles across the outcroppings of exterior walls. The new king, Claudius, is clearly uncertain of his claim to his late brother's throne.

Devoted to non-traditional casting, OSF works hard to find ways to incorporate the concept. Here, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, usually classmates of Hamlet's from college, are now women - daughters of the palace's nanny and cook, the program (strangely) tells us. They also seem to be involved in a Lesbian relationship. The visiting actors are a troupe of hip-hop musicians, and when they perform their play-within-the-play, they use a rap routine as their approach. The Ghost of Hamlet's Father is played by Howie Seago, a world-famous actor from The National Theatre For The Deaf, and he uses American Sign Language for his performance. Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is an African American actress, the "color blind" casting concept that started the whole alternative casting cycle. While the number of "non-traditional" approaches threaten to overwhelm the production, it is to Rauch and the production's credit that the various "modern" touches pull together and work. Purists will complain - Rauch noted that most of OSF's loyal audience prefers traditional approaches to classic plays, "women's dresses that touch the floor," he laughed - but this modern-dress Hamlet is an out-and-out success for a modern audience.

Acting highlights include Jeffrey King as Claudius and Richard Elmore's touching Polonius (famous for his platitudes, "Never a borrower or a lender be" and "To thine own self be true"). The large cast, heavy with a mixture of strange accents that seem to be very foreign to Denmark (or to Shakespeare), works hard and turns in solid performances. Donohue anchors the production - as Hamlet should. It continues in production in the indoor Bowmer Theatre through October 30.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF BRINGS MICHAEL WINTERS BACK TO ASHLAND
Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the second "gold medal" production for OSF this season. In addition to featuring a top-notch Maggie the Cat and her sexually confused husband, Brick, this production brings Seattle's Michael Winters back to Ashland for the first time since 1973, making his Big Daddy a career highlight. Winters spent four seasons at Ashland early in his career, and his return this summer captures a stunning performance that won the audience in his first scene.

Christopher Liam Moore directs a solid production of the first-rate script. He uses a 1974 revision by Williams that includes far more profanity, far more specific homosexual references to Brick's relationship to his college friend, and far more details about the two men who founded the plantation and later turned it over to Big Daddy - "the two old queens who shared this very room." The subtlety of the original 1950s script is favored by many Williams' fans, but this version works well enough.

Stephanie Beatriz is fine as the sexually frustrated Maggie the Cat. Danforth Comins is solid as Brick, stumbling about on his newly broken ankle, sleeping well away from the predatory Maggie. Winters is outstanding as Big Daddy - he walks away with the production and his character doesn't even enter until Act Two. Kate Mulligan and Rex Young are memorable as Mae and Cooper, the greedy "Sister Woman" and "Brother Man." Catherine E. Coulson was an audience favorite as Big Mama, but her heavily padded costume kept nearly self-destructing at the opening performance, which proved to be a major distraction. (Ashland is usually technically smooth, but one door lost its doorknob on the set at the opening of Hamlet and a chair leg was broken at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "Live" theater is live, after all.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through July 4 in the indoor Bowmer Theatre.

PRIDE & PREJUDICE DELIGHTS AT OSF, LIBBY APPEL RETURNS
There are literally dozens of stage adaptations of Jane Austin's beloved Pride and Prejudice, and Libby Appel and her crew read at least a dozen established scripts before deciding on a solid version by Joseph Hanreddy and J. R. Sullivan. The original novel, of course, guides the adaptation and the production clarifies the adaptation, so the only question is about the overall result. I'm happy to report that OSF wins another gold medal for Pride and Prejudice.

Libby Appel, OSF's former artistic director, returns this summer with another hit. Her witty direction adds a clear dimension to the fun at hand as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet try to marry off their five daughters in England of 1813. Judith-Marie Bergan is delightful as the pushy Mrs. B. and OSF favorite Mark Murphey details a fine father of the five. Each individual daughter is well-developed, but it is the overall production that shines.

Appel has all the teacups click on their saucers at the exact split second, all four chandeliers descend at exactly the same moment, every door slams in unison. It is a very artificial approach that works beautifully. Lengthy scenes of social dance add to the party flavor of the complicated storyline - in short, a production to savor. It runs through October 31 in the indoor Bowmer Theatre.

WELL WINS OVER OPENING AUDIENCES, EXPECT AN OSF HIT
Well, an unlikely New York hit in recent years, is Lisa Kron's rambling take on illness and "wellness." Noted for her unconventional play structure, in Well, Kron played her own self on stage in New York while her chronically ill mother was brought to life by an elderly actress. In Ashland, OSF actress Terri McMahon tackles the role of Lisa and Dee Maaske, a truly beloved OSF veteran, gets the scene-stealing role of the mother, who insists she is not faking her numerous illnesses. Four supporting actors play the various other characters - many of them delightful.

Well is the only "bronze" medalist for this scribe, but that is a truly personal reflection on the script. To many, these short, intermission-less ramblings work as "theater for therapy." For others, they prove to be unconventional scripts that never cease to delight. OSF has wisely staged the intimate production in the small New Theatre, where it continues through June 18. Knowing Ashland, contemporary audiences will flock to the show and turn it into a sellout. Plan ahead.

Complete ticket information on all Ashland productions - all 11 of them - is available at www.osfandland.org or (800) 482-2111. Last season was the most heavily attended season in the Festival's history - an amazing feat in this economic period. Expect this, the Festival's 75th year, to be another record-breaking year.

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