The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is off to a running start once more, celebrating seventy-five years of fine productions with an ambitious program that promises to challenge and delight us, as it always does. The 2010 season opened February 26, in the Angus Bowmer Theatre with William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet, directed by Bill Rauch. On February 27 in the same theatre, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened. This production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore, who directed last season’s hugely popular Dead Man’s Cell Phone.

For those who have never seen this moving and still timely play, the story portrays a completely dysfunctional Southern family on the brink of falling apart. The Pollitt family gathers to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday on their plantation in Mississippi on a hot August evening in 1955. Big Daddy is dying and no one is telling him, and that isn’t the only secret that hasn’t been told. Last produced at OSF in 1984, Christopher Liam Moore directs this production, and has chosen to use Williams’ 1974 version of the play. The cast of 13 features Stephanie Beatriz as Maggie, Danforth Comins as Brick, Michael Winters as Big Daddy, Catherine E. Coulson as Big Mama, Rex Young as Gooper and Kate Mulligan as Mae.

Tennessee Williams’ prose is pure poetry and this cast spits it out like exquisite machine gun fire. Not a word is lost, not an emotion spared; the entire three hour production is a non-stop rat-a-tat-tat of vicious, cruel, furious barbs at one another spewing over the audience. Stephanie Beatriz is a Maggie like no other, vindictive, scheming and yet so very human that one must admire her courage and her determination to save her future at any cost. It is very difficult to portray Maggie in a sympathetic light, but Beatriz manages to make us love her character even as we recoil at her merciless, amoral and unscrupulous behavior. Michael Winters creates a Big Daddy bigger than life in an amazingly hard-hitting performance. There is not a false note in his persona and indeed he dominates every scene he is in. He is mesmerizing and has the audience in the palm of his hand the moment he walks on stage.

This is a complex, challenging play to make real to today’s audiences. Few women in the twenty-first century would stand for the kind of verbal abuse that both Maggie and Big Mama (Catherine Coulson) receive. They do not have to fawn over relatives they detest or allow their men folk to diminish them to survive.

In this production, the shame of homosexuality and the shadow of guilt it has cast on Brick Politt is the driving force of the play. To Brick, the only pure love he has ever given or received was from his best friend Skipper, a man so torn by his own conflicted loyalties that he killed himself with alcohol. Brick is well on the way to ending his own life the same way. As I listened to the hatred, the anger and the merciless jabs the characters thrust at one another, I was reminded of the time when men dominated their families and women relied on them for every advantage, from the food they ate and the roof over their heads to the money they could spend. I remembered the way men used women and abused them because they believed that was their right. Women had no legal recourse and no avenue of appeal. We often wonder whether women have achieved real equality with men or if they have only taken on more tasks for less compensation, emotionally and physically. If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does nothing else, it convinces us that we have come a very long way, no matter how far we still have to go.

On February 27, an adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J. R. Sullivan of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, directed by OSF artistic director emerita Libby Appel also premiered on the Angus Bowmer stage. Appel’s production was staged in a minimalist way with an emphasis on dancing and music. The cast of 24 features Elijah Alexander as Mr. Darcy, Kate Hurster as Elizabeth Bennet, Judith-Marie Bergan as Mrs. Bennet, Mark Murphey as Mr. Bennet, Nell Geisslinger as Jane Bennet, Susannah Flood as Lydia Bennet, Christine Albright as Mary Bennet, Kimbre Lancaster as Kitty Bennet, Christian Barillas as Mr. Bingley, John Tufts as Mr. Wickham, James Newcomb as Mr. Collins and Demetra Pittman as Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

If you loved the book as I did, you will find that this production reduces the complexities of Jane Austen’s plot into a simplistic soap opera filled with misconceptions and cardboard heroes and heroines frosted with a predictable and comforting happily-ever-after ending. As in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I wonder at this play’s ability to connect with a modern day audience where women do not need men to protect them and where all of us know that each human being is a phantasmagoria of good, bad and sort–of. Today we have no Galahads, no Juliet’s, no Cinderella’s or Rhett Butlers. We live in a world populated by flawed human beings with no easy answers and no certain endings. In this production, we are expected to buy plastic people going through the motions of love and disillusionment. The music and dancing are lovely. The costumes are divine. However, the script has sanded Austen’s grit and lost her bite. I would doubt that we would ever find a Darcy or an Elizabeth in real life, so quick to judge, or so easily convinced that they have erred.

Other plays in the OSF season include Lisa Kron’s comedy Well in the New Theatre, directed by OSF veteran James Edmondson and opening on March 27 is Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined, directed by Liesl Tommy. On July 3, the world premiere of American Night will open. The play, written by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash and directed by Jo Bonney, is the inaugural production of OSF’s American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle.

In the Bowmer, She Loves Me, directed by Rebecca Taichman will open April 24, and the world premiere stage adaptation by Ping Chong of the film by Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood will premier July 24. Ping Chong also directs.

The outdoor theater will open June 11 with Shakespeare’s ever popular comedy Twelfth Night, directed by guest artist Darko Tresnjak, and The Merchant of Venice, directed by Bill Rauch. Also playing on the outdoor stage is Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, directed by another OSF veteran, Penny Metropulos performed until October 10.

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