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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 18, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 11
Oregon Shakespeare Festival starts 76th year with four new productions
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Oregon Shakespeare Festival starts 76th year with four new productions

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opened its 76th season ("the first of the next 75 years") late last month with four solid productions that ranged from an audience-pleasing production of To Kill A Mockingbird to a witty updating of a Moliere classic to a controversial rethinking of a Shakespeare "problem play." Ticket sales for the 2011 season are seven percent ahead of the record-breaking 75th anniversary season, and contributed income is even higher than last year. Things are looking good for the beloved theater festival in the tiny town of Ashland in southern Oregon.

The Festival opened its winter season with four plays at its two indoor theaters. Two more indoor productions open this spring before the three outdoor productions - in the trademarked Elizabethan Theatre - open in June. Two more indoor stagings open in mid-summer, bringing the total repertory number to 11 productions, of which nine are running concurrently during the busy summer months. OSF sold more than 414,000 tickets last year and is on the incredible road to surpass that this year. Before the curtain went up on the 2011 season, To Kill a Mockingbird was totally sold-out for the season, and the June opening of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates Of Penzance - the first musical on the outdoor stage - is likely to repeat that rare occurrence by selling out before its first night.



TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
The stage adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird has never been as successful as the novel or the prize-winning film adapted from it. Faithfully adapted - perhaps too faithfully - by Christopher Sergel, the stage version is a straightforward retelling of the plot with little of the charm associated with the book or the film. Three important children are almost impossible to cast, as the roles demand young actors strong enough to carry lengthy portions of the story. (Seattle's Intiman Theatre stumbled in this area in a production several years ago in the theater's American Cycle series.) While the Ashland cast, including the children, gets a round of applause for a solid approach, the magic of the novel/film is rarely recreated. Only in the lengthy trial scene in Act Two does the story come alive dramatically. All three children have problems being understood.

Mark Murphey is fine as Atticus, the small-town lawyer pressed into defending a local black man on charges of raping a white woman in Alabama in 1935. It's the unforgettable role that won Gregory Peck his Oscar as Best Actor when the famous film version was released. While Murphey is likeable, it's really two African American actors who steal the show: Isabell Monk O'Connor as Calpurnia, Atticus' black housekeeper, and Peter Macon as Tom Robertson, the accused. Marion McClinton directs with compassion, but it's a series of uphill battles with a weak stage adaptation.

No matter; the pre-opening sell-out creates OSF history and puts the production as the "must" of the spring season. With many performances selling heavily to school groups, single-ticket buyers on OSF's "bricks" - the courtyard that unites the three theaters - will have reasonable chances to pick up extra tickets as group sales often find one or two cancellations with extra tickets available for resale. It's worth a try.



MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Shakespeare's Measure For Measure is one the the Bard's most famous "problem plays." The story plays like a tragedy - sexual skullduggery, a beheading, various nefarious schemes - but ends in multiple weddings, the clear definition of a "comedy" in Elizabethan days. OSF's artistic director, Bill Rauch, decided to direct Measure For Measure with a decidedly contemporary (and Hispanic) feel. While Shakespeare (who, remember, never traveled out of England) set the play in Vienna, Rauch and OSF moves the setting to a modern-day city in the United States - one with a major Hispanic population.

"I never knew Vienna had so many Hispanic people," one reviewer quipped at the OSF press conference. To many, the major question about the updated production is "Why?" A modern updating is standard in Shakespeare productions today - usually to make the play "current." (Traditionalists disagree, of course, the case being made that Shakespeare's genius makes the issues timeless, therefore always current.) The updating - Romeo and Juliet into a modern-day West Side Story-type cultural conflict - should (many argue) shed some light onto the script. In this Measure For Measure, the updating seems to be "surface only," a gimmick that plays like a gimmick and adds little understanding to a conflicted script.

Nonetheless, the opening-night audience went crazy for the Hispanic touches, and other updates. Mistress Overdone, the proprietor of the local bawdy house, receives a gender-bending casting as a transvestite. Cristofer Jean is astonishing as a towering drag queen who is the madam of a house of prostitution - a "5 Live Girls" neon sign glares on stage. When his character is arrested later and strip-searched while being booked at the police station, Jean makes the moment truly poignant - giving up his artificial breasts seems the lowest form of humiliation that he can endure. It's a heartbreaking moment, but concern pops up immediately. Why put such focus on a minor character and take the focus off the convoluted main tale?

A strolling musical trio of Hispanic women, Las Colibri - brought from Los Angeles for the season - add a lot of life to the staging and clearly delighted the audience with their musical commentary, but, again, why? ("Why not?" of course, is the other side of the question. One man in the hotel elevator raved about the whole concept and noted that Measure For Measure, which he had just studied in a senior citizen Shakespeare course, is virtually unstageable, so "anything helps.")



THE IMAGINARY INVALID
Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid is a send-up of the medical profession circa 1750. For OSF, director Tracy Young and Oded Gross adapt the classic farce for an outing in Paris in the late 1960s. In a Hellzapoppin' rethinking, anything goes. The comic hit of the spring, The Imaginary Invalid prospers from an incredible performance by David Kelly in the title role. While the show runs far too long - nearly three hours - the fun almost never stops. The wild and wonderful staging - 1960s pop music, bell bottoms that won't stop, tongue-in-cheek fashions - conforms to the traditional "anything for a laugh" approach, but remains firmly grounded in polished performances.

It's a hoot and a half, and well worth a look. One marvelous throwaway line: "Have you ever grown a mustache and pretended to be a Gay porn star?"



THE LANGUAGE ARCHIVE
Julia Cho's imaginative The Language Archive is the new kid on the block for the OSF winter/spring season. The very new play - this is the second or third production - is rich with interesting characters and unpredictable situations. While the play may not reach classic status (few new works do), it is properly staged in the intimate New Theatre with a strong cast. For many OSF regulars, it will be the "find" of the season. Laurie Woolery directs with a sure hand - a hard task with such an unfocused play.

Complete box office information on all OSF stagings is available at (541) 482-4331 or at www.osfashland.org. Check it out.

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