by Milton W. Hamlin -
SGN A&E Writer
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, is in full swing for the spring season with six full productions occupying the Festival's two indoor theaters. Three outdoor productions start previews in early June and two more indoor stagings open in July as two winter/spring openings close. Most of the season - February to early November - finds at least six productions in rotating repertory, allowing out-of-town visitors the chance to see as many as six plays in just three days. No wonder Ashland and OSF are known for 'theater vacations' for serious stage buffs.
Four productions opened in one weekend in late February to start the 2012 season. Traditional Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), classic Chekhov (Seagull), an ancient Chinese legend transformed into a new, commissioned world premiere (The White Snake), and a nearly forgotten American comedy (Animal Crackers) opened in a non-stop flow of first-rate theater. Rarely has OSF, or any theater company, produced four first-rate, four-star (or nearly) productions in one three-day period. Seattle Gay News was there - it remains the only Seattle publication to cover the full OSF season. As usual, Seattle's lively theater scene was well-represented onstage and backstage at the Festival.
ANCIENT CHINESE LEGEND
The out-and-out hit of the spring season is The White Snake, an OSF-commissioned script by noted New York and regional theater author/adapter/director Mary Zimmerman. One of the top innovative directors in the country, Zimmerman's work has been seen (and highly praised) at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Tony Award-winning Metamorphosis played here en route to Broadway and her award winning The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci was an earlier hit in the Emerald City. OSF's production of The White Snake will surely be the first of many stagings. A New York production is inevitable - and well deserved.
Like all of her work, The White Snake was created by Zimmerman and the acting company as the show was rehearsed. Based on an ancient Chinese legend, it's the story of a magical white snake who transforms herself into a beautiful woman and falls in love with a handsome young man who unwittingly marries her and then begins to suspect her dual personality. The production is full of imaginative, highly theatrical stagings that often left the audience breathless. Many of the stage effects are adapted from traditional Chinese and Asian drama - a width of blue silk fabric becomes a river, birds 'fly' on long bamboo poles - and others are completely new. Many are tongue-in-cheek - a Chinese philosopher keeps interrupting the story with contrived 'history' lessons. While Amy Kim Waschke, the human version of the title character, is of Asian descent, OSF follows its philosophy of 'color blind casting' with a merry mix of actors, including some brief gender-bending moments. Waschke, incidentally, is a veteran of the Seattle Children's Theatre.
The legendary White Snake and her companion and best friend, Green Snake, are created with oversized snake puppets, manipulated by the actors who play their human counterparts. A white parasol becomes the head of the white snake puppet when it needs to move into attack mode.
The large company of talented actors play multiple parts, a casting choice that often adds fun to the final results. At one point, a character appears who seems to be more than eight feet tall - he's obviously walking on stilts hidden by his elaborate Chinese robes. After the show, one audience member remarked on 'that really tall actor who only played one short scene.' Such is the magic of theater.
The White Snake continues at the indoor Bowmer Theatre through July 8. It's one of the most successful new theater works that this reviewer has seen in the last 10 years. Seeing it in Ashland undoubtedly means seeing it before New York. Highest recommendation. Four stars.
ZANY COMEDY WITH MUSIC
Inspired lunacy reigns in OSF's zany production of Animal Crackers, written in 1928 as a stage vehicle for the Marx Brothers. Best known from its 1930 film adaptation, the play is rarely staged today. That's sure to change with the new 2009 adaptation by Henry Wishcamper, using music from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. The original Broadway version of the laugh-filled comedy was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, but the riotous sons of Minnie Marx rarely followed the script. Kaufman is famous for his observation at one performance: 'Shhh, I think I just heard one of my lines.'
The wild antics of the new script were well-directed by Seattle's Allison Narver, but she must have come close to a nervous breakdown at the opening performance. It seemed (and one can only guess with a madcap romp like this) that anything that could go wrong did indeed go wrong. Props didn't appear ('Isn't there supposed to be a table around here?' the Groucho character, aka Captain Spaulding, ad-libbed when a table was supposed to float up from below the floor), cues were missed ('Wanna try that again?'), and such spontaneity ruled that there seemed to be as much laughter onstage as in the audience. At the Sunday press conference, OSF officials were in agreement that 'we need to see that one again.'
Despite the problems (a rare occasion at OSF) at the opening, the show is an out-and-out comic delight. Period songs like 'Three Little Words,' the lovely ballad 'Who's Been Listening to My Heart,' 'We're Three of the Four Musketeers,' and, of course, 'Hooray for Captain Spaulding' just add to the fun. Highest recommendation. Four stars.
Animal Crackers continues at the Bowmer all season, ending November 4. Some jolly gender-bending and some superb, extra-campy puppet work adds to the LGBT interest.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet remains one of the Bard's most popular plays. OSF acting and directing veteran Laird Williamson tackles the 2012 staging and is blessed with a pair of title actors who are simply incandescent. Alejandra Escalante is a memorable Juliet and Daniel Jose Molina is equally fine as a youthful Romeo. Strong support comes from character actors - Isabell Monk O'Connor as the flustered Nurse and Tony DeBruno as Friar Laurence, the misguided monk who unknowingly creates the tragedy.
OSF stages this Romeo and Juliet in the California territory just before the historic gold rush. Lord and Lady Capulet become Don and Dona Capulet and, like last year's Hispanic take on Measure for Measure, simple phrases are translated into basic Spanish. Shakespeare purists will not be happy with OSF again this season (and this scribe is one - it seems absurd to rewrite Shakespeare to justify a setting change) but most of the audience will not be bothered. High recommendation. Three and a half stars.
Romeo and Juliet continues at the Bowmer through November 4. In an OSF first, a Spanish open-captioned performance is scheduled October 6. Traditional open-captioned performances are planned for May 10 and October 20. A sign-interpreted performance is offered this weekend, April 28.
Former OSF artistic director Libby Appel returns to Ashland with her new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. Appel, strangely, retitles the play simply Seagull - an attempt, it seems, to mark the new adaptation as her own. 'Pretentious poppycock!' was this writer's first reaction, but the fine direction and even finer acting wiped away any serious concerns. This Seagull is one of the best Chekhov stagings this scribe has seen in the past 20 years, in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, or Ashland - and that says a lot.
Performed on a thrust stage in the intimate New Theatre (which gets a new name this season from a zillion-dollar naming grant), Seagull gives the audience amazing access to the production, and to the script and the acting company. Kathryn Meisle is a superb Arkadina, a vain, aging actress who fears that her son will be (rightly) perceived as an adult and limit her future acting roles. The strong Chekhov characters are fully intact, and his best lines, rightly, remain. Early in the play, Marya/Masha (a memorable Kate Hurster) comments that she 'is in mourning for my life.' And that, in a nutshell, is Chekhov.
Libby's direction is totally on-target until the final, tragic moments of the production, when a strange split-second lighting change seems to indicate the story is finished, the tale is told. Then, perhaps as an unwise coda, the final moments of the play are revealed. It was an uncomfortable moment for the audience and one that should be reconsidered before future productions are planned. (As a rule, OSF - like most professional theaters - freezes a show at the final preview and no changes are made during the run.)
Seagull continues at the New Theatre through June 22. High recommendation. Three and a half stars.
Two new shows have opened at OSF since the early spring opening weekend. A theatrical collage combines elements from works by Euripides, Shakespeare, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. The result - the just-opened Medea / Macbeth / Cinderella - will either be a comic delight or a total bomb. Reviews are not yet in. SGN will review it this summer. It continues in the Bowmer through November 3. Shakespeare's rarely staged Troilus and Cressida is up and running (with generally favorably reactions) at the New Theatre. It continues through November 4 in an updated, war-torn Middle Eastern staging.
The outdoor Elizabethan Stage productions, opening in early June, include Shakespeare's Henry V, As You Like It, and an updated version of The Merry Wives of Windsor - Alison Carey's world premiere, The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. SGN will review all five of the spring and summer shows in July. Watch for it.
SPECIAL LGBT INTEREST
As usual, the Daedalus Project - OSF's annual AIDS fundraiser - on Monday, August 20, is a major lure for LGBT audiences. Many LGBT theater fans build an Ashland visit around the all-day fundraiser, which concludes with a spirited evening variety show. Once billed as a 'talentless talent show' by some wags, it has evolved into a more traditional talent offering, with many campy elements. A special play reading on Monday afternoon always features a work with specific LGBT interest.
Complete box office details on all OSF events is available at (541) 482-4331 or, for out-of-area patrons, 1-800-219-8161, or www.osfashland.org. Watch SGN for various updates and summer show reviews.
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