Oregon Shakespeare Festival draws to a close


When I want to see theater that defines who I am and where I am going, I travel to Ashland Oregon and indulge myself in one spellbinding production after another. If I need to put my world in perspective and figure out what is real and what is sham, I book as many shows as I can at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and indulge myself in works on stage. . In over twenty years, their program has never disappointed me.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival was born on July 2, 1935 with a production of TWELFTH NIGHT and was an instant hit. The program has grown and changed with the years but excellence and innovation have always been its hallmark. In 2003, OSF was named one of America’s top five regional theaters by Time Magazine and I assure you, there is no theater company anywhere in the world that deserves more honors than this magnificent company dedicated to bringing the finest drama to the stage and introducing all of us to the multitude of ways good theater enhances our understanding of ourselves. “Whatever one’s political perspective, it’s hard to deny that there is a new optimism in our country,” says Artistic Director Bill Rauch. “We have worked hard to offer a repertory of productions as thrilling, entertaining, dangerous and moving as these tumultuous times demand.”
And this season, they certainly succeeded.
The three shows I saw to close this spectacular season all dealt with the difference between appearance and reality. THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS was adapted from the original Goldoni version by Oded Gross and Tracy Young who also directed this production. This piece is a prime example of commedia dell’arte, an art form that began with troupes of actors traveling from town to town setting up a stage in the local marketplace and performing for whomever they could persuade to stop and look. “It is rough theatre in the extreme,” says Young. “It is singing for your supper. “
These plays were often improvised and played with minimal props and costumes. The actors relied on their wits alone to grab and hold their audiences. “The stock characters of the commedia express our human folly and our primal instincts,” says Young. “Commedia deals with the things we need right now – things like food, money, shelter and love.”
As always, the acting in this production is astoundingly good and Truffaldino’s interaction with the audience choice. The original play was unscripted. Each character seems to be one thing while in reality he is another, even though the dialogue is his alone. Truffaldino is torn between his need to serve his master and the desire to satisfy is own appetites. Every character finds his true amore but the one who stole the show for me was Eileen DeSandre as Brighella who waxes eloquent about the food he will prepare and finds love and proper appreciation with the porter. In the finale, everyone‘s appetite is sated amidst laughter, pratfalls and mistaken identities. The differences between men and women are addressed throughout the play but the main theme remains our search for love in all its many forms and the confusion, heartbreak and longing that search brings. It is said that love has no rules…and that is a perfect description of the delightful chaos and the charm of this production.
Bill Cain’s EQUIVOCATION also addresses what is real and what is assumed in the lives we lead. “It is a play about family, warning that if we injure those who should be dearest to us, we do so at great personal loss and often with perilous consequences for the larger society,” says director and OSF Artisitic Director Bill Rauch. “I hope our world premiere of this absorbing new work makes your head spin and your heart stir. . .”
And it certainly did for me.
I love Richard Elmore. I have watched his extraordinary talent on the OSF stage for at least 20 of his 25 seasons at OSF and he has always excelled. I do not believe I will ever forget his UNCLE VANYA. I cannot imagine a better portrayal and his George in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. His performance as Richard in this moving historical drama was equally thrilling. The dialogue centers on artistic integrity and our need for approval and love. The title refers to how we get around the hazy boundaries of truth and fantasy and tell ourselves we are honorable when we obfuscate truth to save someone we care about or our own image. Elmore, when he plays the priest who is imprisoned and on trial in the production maintains that the trick to communication and survival is to answer the question underlying the one that is asked. Elmore’s character attempts to convince his persecutors that to survive and keep our own integrity, we must address the consequences of our statements and protect ourselves. The word equivocation has been defined as the doctrine that a man suspected of a crime is justified in answering doubtfully under oath in order to avoid incriminating himself and others. Is this not the road we all must follow if we are to survive with our hearts appeased and our pride intact? Bill Cain points out that ”If you’re the minority voice in the country, you can’t trust what the majority voice is saying….”
How true that was 400 years ago in the time frame of the production and how true it is today.
I love any play by Clifford Odets because he paints such an accurate picture of human suffering, endurance and survival. PARADISE LOST did not disappoint me. The action begins in 1932 during the Great Depression when there was 25% unemployment, banks failed and homelessness was almost a way of American life. . Paradise Lost explores the terrible misfortunes brought about by the unexpected poverty of the middle class. We watch the Gordons and their friends lose everything they have and yet the principal character, Leo Gordon (Michael J. Hume) never loses his firm belief that things will get better. “The world is beautiful,” he says as he surveys a home empty of furniture, his eviction imminent and his sonly surviving son about to die. “No fruit tree wears a lock and key….Ohhh darling, the world is in its morning…”
And indeed as we look at the economic chaos of today’s world we can well take heart from Leo Gordons promise. Time and determination will heal society at its own pace and our job is to hold on to our hope and live every day the best we can.
It is time now to plan ahead for the spectacular 1010 season, OSF’s 75th anniversary year. The season opening is February 19, 2010 and continues until October 10th. On the Angus Bowmer stage, we will see HAMLET, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SHE LOVES ME & THRONE OF BLOOD, a world premier adapted from the film by Akira Kurosawa. In the New Theatre, we will see WELL, by Lisa Kron, RUINED, by Lynn Nottage & AMERICAN NIGHT, another world premier. The Elizabethan Stage gives us three of Shakespeare’s most beloved: TWELFTH NIGHT, HENRY IV PART ONE and my personal all-time favorite, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.
For tickets and more information: www. osfashland.org; or call toll free: 800 219 8161