Oregon Shakespeare Festival

When I returned to the office after a week’s vacation, in the standard office small talk lots of people asked me where I went. “I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.” For some people I had to explain that the festival is not a weekend-long amateur production. Others needed to be told that Ashland was in the south of the State – near the California border. Still others (in their defense, mostly my non-US colleagues) had to be told where Oregon was. But not a single person had heard of the festival.

This is tragic. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) should be internationally known and lauded. As their “About us” states:

Founded in 1935, the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is among the oldest and largest professional non-profit theatres in the nation. Each year OSF presents an eight-and-a-half-month season of eleven plays in three theatres plus numerous ancillary activities, and undertakes an extensive theatre education program. Operating on a budget exceeding $26 million, OSF presents more than 780 performances annually with attendance of approximately 400,000.

In other words, this is not a rinky-dink theater in the middle of nowhere. This is a theatrical powerhouse nestled between sea and ocean in one of the loveliest small towns I’ve ever seen. In my youth, I went to Ashland most summer’s with my Godfather. I learned an abiding love of Stoppard with Arcadia in 1996. I fell in love with Ted Deasy in “As You Like It” in 1997. I met Bobby McFerrin, barefoot and whistling, on the street the night after watching him rehearse an orchestra at the nearby Britt Festival. I have warm and lovely memories tied up there.

So this summer, when I heard they were doing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance on the open-air Elizabethan stage, I decided that this is where we were going to spend our summer’s leisure. And it was a very, very good choice!

We had tickets originally for four plays, but “rushed” a matinee play on our middle day. This is an excellent plan, if I may opine. Also, that rush play was the very best of our viewing there, leading me to be relieved and delighted we picked it up!

Tuesday – King Henry IV Part II
This was the last of the Henry’s I had not seen. I’m quite fond of Shakespeare’s histories. I liked Henry IV part I and I loved Henry V, so I was glad to see this bridge play between the boy and the man who stood on that French battlefield. But Henry IV Part II is really Full of Falstaff. It must be a difficult play to stage because, in truth, it is not one of Shakespeare’s best. The two concurrent plots seem very far from each other – suppressing the rebellion and Falstaff’s foolings. It seems as though one or the other could easily be edited out without affecting the counterpart. The production was an excellent one. My favorite interpretation element was having one of the characters deaf/mute, who communicated with Hal through this expressive and easily understood sign language. The flicker of hands and the unexpected element of interpretation was a delight to me. Still, the theater was half full and the play faded fast from memory. If you can see only one play at Ashland… not this one. (Although if you are seeing several, it should be on your list!)

Wednesday afternoon – Ghost Light
This was our accidental play. The promo text did not sound promising. Few experience the death of a parent against the backdrop of history. In Taccone’s evocative new play, Jon is a theatre director haunted for years by the assassination of his father, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. When asked to stage a production of Hamlet, the ghost of the king stalks the battlement of Jon’s mind and heart, and he is summoned to confront his long buried feelings. Smartly laced with poetry and wit, this world premiere is rooted in a crime that shocked a nation and changed a city—and a young boy—forever.

In fact, it didn’t sound promising at all. But I really really didn’t want to see Measure for Measure and it was half priced so….

People. It was fantastic. The dialogue sparkled. The fourth wall was breached in a most fascinating manner. The boundaries between reality, perception and dream were powerfully crossed and braided. The acting was superb. The characters were people you wanted to know and to sit with. There was one of the best awkward scenes I’ve ever seen acted. (Of course, that it included my long-time heartthrob Ted Deasy was just a bonus.) From first scene to closing, it was superb. I would strongly recommend that should you find yourself passing by Ashland, you stop and see this play.

Wednesday night – Pirates of Penzance
My family has a long, long history with Gilbert and Sullivan, and with Pirates in particular. At about Thane’s age, my brother watched a video version of Pirates (with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronsadt and Angela Lansbury … truly worth seeing some sad night when you need cheering up). But this blessed video was played every single day in my household for over two years. Sometimes twice a day. We can, collectively, sing the whole thing together. I know every line of this operetta.

Ashland was one of the few places I could count upon to improve, not disappoint. And I was not disappointed! The staging was a delight. There was a live orchestra (of course) and the conductor played a visible role in the play. There were periodic lapses into other musical idioms – all amusing – before snapping back to Sullivan’s original-as-written text. Through it all, the cast moved and flew and lunged and trotted (often with the assistance of tuxedo’d, white gloved assistants) across the Elizabethan. The production was full of fun and energy and enthusiasm – as it should be. There were just enough departures to keep me on my toes, but enough time spent on the original that I didn’t feel cheated. Perfect. I would recommend you see it – but good luck getting tickets!

Thursday afternoon – The African Company presents Richard III
I had originally thought this was actually Richard III. But no, it was about a freed black troupe attempting to put on a production of Richard III at the same time as a white company nearby. There were a few promising moments – a few speeches, a few exchanges, a few plot threads… but on the whole it disappointed. The drama of the black/white conflict was diluted. The love-plot seemed abandoned halfway. Instead of a tight interweaving of multiple plot threads, it seemed just disjointed. This was the first week the play was open, so there’s hope that it will somehow tighten. It was also produced in the temporary tent necessitated by the cracking of a structural beam in the Bowmer, so that couldn’t have helped.

Thursday night – Love’s Labours Lost
We closed our theatrical week with a bit of cotton candy. Love’s Labours Lost is one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays, with a group of boys and a group of girls playing with each other’s expectations, well mixed with a troupe of fools wandering through. This production was fun, light and did an excellent job of making the almost entirely verse play easy to follow for modern audiences. It was lovely to look upon and very funny when the text permitted it. It was a wonderful play to disprove the idea that Shakespeare is boring to a young person. It was a lovely way to end our stay.

There were two plays that, having talked with our fellow theater-goers, I really WISH I had been able to see. I was told by a fellow patron that August: Osage County might well be one of the best plays written in the last 100 years. Even putting aside such hyperbole, it came so highly recommended that I was sad I couldn’t fit it into our schedule. We also really wanted to see The Imaginary Invalid, mostly because Moliere is fun.

It was a superb way to spend a week of vacation.