Great Theater continues in Ashland


Whenever I drive up to Ashland to indulge myself in their magnificent productions, I realize how inadequate most of the theater in the Bay Area can be. The plays produced by this amazing company never cease to delight me. They are professionally done, beautifully acted and presented with infinite taste. This is one of the few regional theater companies in the country that consistently operate in the black and once you have seen their productions you will understand why.

HAMLET is a particularly difficult play to make fresh and new because it has been done so many times and its lines repeated over and over again. To be able to make this play seem real on stage is a daunting challenge and director Bill Rauch used modern techniques and dress in an attempt to make it more timely. In many ways, he succeeded and in just as many, he did not. I fear I am an “old school person,” and have always loved the tragedies presented just the way Shakespeare meant them to be staged. Rauch sums up his challenges in this production beautifully: “As interpreters of any Shakespeare text, we are always challenged with how to unpack up to four settings at once: the story’s historical time and place, Elizabethan London (in which the original production was experienced), our audience’s contemporary and local context, and finally, whatever time and place the director and designers select to present the story. ….Taking our cue from Shakespeare’s desire to make direct connections with his own audience, we have chosen a cotemporary setting.”

However the “contemporary setting” seems just a bit inconsistent, and as a result, the characters are not as clearly defined as they are in the original version. Ophelia (Susannah Flood) is a modern, very liberated Ophelia and is actually wired in her speech to Hamlet (Dan Donohue) in the famous eavesdropping scene. Polonius is Richard Elmore who can play any character in any setting with complete veracity. Unfortunately the other cast members did not convince me that they were real people. If Ophelia is a “modern woman” she really would not care if Hamlet was out to “get” his stepfather…indeed she would “give him space.” However, she redeems herself in her death scene which is lovely, poignant and very true.

The play within a play totally lost me. It is done in rap which is very entertaining, but it sacrifices the dramatic impact of exposing Claudius (Jeffrey King) as the murderer. If I hadn’t seen the play before, I would never have figured out why Claudius got so riled up at the skit he was watching. Dan Donohue is an interesting Hamlet, angry, confused and obviously upset but the source of his malaise was unclear to me. His mother, Gertrude (Greta Oglesby) creates little sympathy and doesn’t seem very loyal to either her son or her husband. Jeffrey King in a post show discussion says that in this version, she has no idea that her new husband murdered her old one and cannot understand why Hamlet is so upset by their marriage.

“Ultimately, though, Hamlet mocks us for daring to pluck out the heart of his mystery,” says Rauch.

Indeed Hamlet is a disturbing character but in trying to update emotions that are timeless, we lost the sense that this is a human tragedy on every level. It read more like a dark and shocking horror story. Hamlet plays until October 30 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre

She Loves Me is the diamond of this season. It is a fluffy, frivolous and very sweet love story, perfectly staged, and beautifully paced, a bon-bon to savor long after the final note is sung. “What is it about this intimate story of the now-vanished Old World 1930’s Budapest Parfumerie and its beloved, lovelorn employees, Amalia (Lisa McCormick) and Georg (Mark Bedard) that inspires such constant reinvention? Why do these two social misfits enchant us so completely?” asks director Rebecca Taichman and she answers:”For me, the secret lies in how sublimely real the characters are. This is a group of very real, very lonely working-class shop employees looking for real love. ….My task as a director is to capture the story’s timeless incandescent charm. I know that my heart has opened to its trembling magic.”

And she does her job just right. The singing, the dancing the poignancy of these two wonderful characters, pen pals who love each other in their letters and hate each other in real life is so very human…a not to be missed production on every level. A highlight is the choice satirical restaurant scene with Dan Donohue as the headwaiter and Eddie Lopez as the busboy that defies description. It is no more than ten minutes of this 3 hour production, but it is unforgettable…as is every performance in this gorgeous, spot on production of a time long gone and heartaches as modern and new as tomorrow. She Loves Me plays at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through October 30.

The outdoor Elizabethan Theatre opened June 1 with Twelfth Night, which I missed this year so that I could see Hamlet. I did see Henry the IV, Part One and I loved every minute of it. I am not a fan of the history plays, but this one pulled at my heart strings like no other. “Although Henry IV, Part One takes place in 15th century England, it stands as proof that human nature does not change all that much,” says director Penny Metropulos. “We could find a Hal today, a young man of great promise who parties all night, shuns responsibility and is teetering dangerously on the precipice of dissolution.”

The theme of this play is timeless. It is about family fights and a father and son relationship that solidifies as Henry and Hal join together to defend their country. The play is beautifully staged, fast paced and filled with the very conflicts fathers and sons face today in their effort to bond to one another and appreciate each other’s values and needs. Henry IV, Part One continues until October 9 in The Elizabethan Theatre.

I have always loved The Merchant of Venice. Way back in 1958, I saw Katherine Hepburn as Portia and I still thrill at the memory of the way she infused justice into law. I cannot hear “the quality of mercy is not strained….” without remembering the magic of that evening in Stratford, Connecticut so very long ago. The OSF production is an interesting one and the Shylock (Anthony Heald) is right on the mark. “Is Shylock a comic villain over whom the good Christians triumph…or is he a noble and long-suffering victim at the mercy of evil tormenters?” asks director Bill Rauch. “In a play in which money drives every relationship, we are warned of the consequences of demonizing the “other” and commodifying those we love. “

This production is good but not great, meaningful, but not moving. However it must be said Armando Duran manages to steal the entire show as The Prince of Arragon, Portia’s suitor. The Merchant of Venice is an important play to see because of its plot and because it makes us all question our preconceived notions about race. It is well done and its themes are as important to day as they were in Elizabethan times. This production continues until October 10 in the Elizabethan Theatre.

I loved Well by Lisa Kron partly because it is so very Jewish in its mother/daughter conflicts (and I am all too familiar with those family wars) and partly because the acting is the best I have seen on any stage in a very long time. It has always been my theory that if the cast is excellent, even Mary Had A Little Lamb would be a thrilling experience. Terri McMahon is one of my favorite actresses and she did not disappoint me in this provocative drama. She plays the author, Lisa Kron and she elevates her character from a complaining and shallow human being into a person like every one of us: conflicted, disturbed and trying to understand the forces that made her who she is today. Her mother is Ann (Dee Maaske), and the character Maaske creates is so true to what all daughters see in the woman who bore them that you do not doubt her for a moment. “Well is obviously about issues of illness and wellness,” says director James Edmondson.

Lisa says the play is not about her mother. “It’s not about how she has been sick for years and years and years….”

And Ann says, “This is not about you and me talking. It’s about a bigger sense of making things make sense and finding a pattern that will make things make sense.”


The plotline is weak and the message unclear, but these magnificent actresses paint every moment on stage in such vibrant colors that you only realize these script problems after you leave the theater. What you do feel is that you have seen a real mother-daughter relationship just like the one you could have had with your mom with all the love, hate, frustration, resolution, laughter and tears that involves. It is all there and under Edmondson’s direction, it touches every member of the audience. “So. A love song, a mystery play,” says Edmondson. “A play within a play. Maybe that’s what Well is about. Maybe.”

Who knows? Maybe it is just a delicious, amusing and provocative slice of real life. Whatever the play is supposed to be, the treat of seeing these two superb actresses bring it to life, ably supported by Brent Hinkley, G. Valmont Thomas, Gina Daniels and K.T. Vogt is unforgettable theater done with unexpected and delightful panache. Sorry to say Well ended June 18, but I have no doubt it will reappear in local theaters soon so that you to see it and evaluate it yourself. Perhaps you can tell us what it is really about.