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Oregon Shakespeare Festival: A Critic's Notebook

Reports on Henry IV, Part Two, Love's Labor's Lost, and The Pirates of Penzance, and the establishment of the tent theater, Bowmer in the Park.

Michael Winters in Henry IV, Part Two
(© T Charles Erickson)
The city of Ashland, Oregon is such a picturesque town with breathtaking scenic views that it would make a terrific vacation spot for anyone. But it has particular appeal for the avid theatergoer, as it is the home of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is among the oldest and largest professional repertory theater companies in the United States.

During a recent visit, I saw two productions written by Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part Two, directed by Lisa Peterson, provides an approach to the text that strives for clarity while also being terrifically entertaining. But it also has the disadvantage of being the middle part of a trilogy (inclusive of Henry IV, Part One, presented at OSF last season, and Henry V, which the festival will present in 2012). While Peterson wisely includes a prologue to catch the audience up with events as her production begins, certain scenes still require a bit more context about the characters and their relationships to one another to maximize their impact.

Nevertheless, Michael Winters, in the central role of Sir John Falstaff, enlivens all of the scenes that he is in. John Tufts, as Prince Hal, cuts a dashing figure, and handles nicely the character's conflicted desires and eventual emergence into the ruler he is meant to be.

Less successful is Shana Cooper's production of Love's Labor's Lost which tries too hard to impose physical comedy -- including a boy band sequence and a pie fight -- onto what is one of Shakespeare's most poetic texts. The play -- which tells of the king of Navarre (Mark Bedard) and several male companions who take vows of celibacy to focus on their studies but get lovestruck by the arrival of the princess of France (Kate Hurster) and her ladies -- can be funny without all of the added bells and whistles. And a few performers (most notably Gregory Linington as Berowne) still manage to deliver memorable turns, even when the staging itself feels strained.

Eddie Lopez and Khori Dastoor
in The Pirates of Penzance
(© Jenny Graham)
OSF's artistic director Bill Rauch also makes a bold gamble with his production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, which updates the classic score with musical influences that range from gospel to pop to contemporary musical theater. While purists may cringe, the production is a lot of fun -- even if it occasionally goes a little too far. For example, the incorporation of strains of West Side Story into the song "A Paradox" feels superfluous, although the sampling of "One" from A Chorus Line in "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" is surprisingly effective.

The production also benefits from Khori Dastoor's performance as Mabel. Not only does the talented actress have a glorious operatic soprano, she also has a wonderful comic sensibility. Strong turns are also given by the show's other leads including Eddie Lopez as Frederic, Michael Elich as the Pirate King, and David Kelly as Major-General Stanley.

All three of these productions perform in OSF's Elizabethan Stage, which is a large, open-air theater that seats close to 1200 patrons. It is subject to the vagaries of the weather, and it did indeed rain for several minutes the night I attended Henry IV, Part Two, although the cast gamely played on even as audience members huddled down or fled from their seats.

Another unexpected situation took place during my stay at the festival, as a power outage affecting the city of Ashland forced the cancellation of The Imaginary Invalid, on the night I was supposed to see the show. The festival's three theaters all have backup generators, so under normal circumstances a blackout would not have necessitated a canceled performance. But this year, productions such as this one that were scheduled to take place in the Angus Bowmer Theatre have been anything but normal.

Earlier this summer, structural damage to the Bowmer's main support beam was discovered, resulting in the establishment of a large tent structure in nearby Lithia Park, christened Bowmer in the Park. "It's one of those things where the company and the community came together and pitched in in really miraculous ways," says OSF's associate artistic director, Christopher Acebo, in regards to the swiftness of getting the temporary venue up and running.

Bowmer in the Park
(© Jenny Graham)
Acebo's personal contribution included designing the unit set that most of the relocated productions are using. "I had conversations with directors and designers to let them know what was happening, and how I would be reimagining or distilling their designs for this new space," he says. "But the costumes, props, and furniture transferred for the most part from the Bowmer productions to the Bowmer in the Park productions."

In addition to The Imaginary Invalid, the shows now performing in the space include Measure for Measure, August: Osage County, and The African Company Presents Richard III. OSF plans to return to the repaired Angus Bowmer Theatre on August 2, barring any more unforeseen circumstances.

The festival also currently has two shows alternating in the New Theatre, which seats 270-360, depending on how the space is configured: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar -- with actress Vilma Silver cast in the title role -- and the world premiere of Ghost Light, written by Tony Taccone and conceived and directed by Jonathan Moscone. (For my review of that production, click here.)

Additionally, OSF features a series of free performances as part of its Green Show programming, which during my time at the festival included Momo Smitt, who fuses hip hop with Argentine tango, and Rathskellar, a troupe that combines the art of Sign Language with sketch comedy and dancing. Both acts were a little rough around the edges, but the enthusiasm of both performers and spectators was clear to see.

To supplement their festival experience, audience members should also be encouraged to take advantage of the wonderful wealth of activities Ashland has to offer. These include terrific local restaurants, cute shops, and a well preserved historic tradition within the town, all of which contribute to a memorable stay.


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