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In case you thought of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland as just a summer extravaganza, you could be missing out on some of the prime (but relatively unsung) joys of life here in Jefferson State. Even though they never appear on the festival’s playbill, a few of Ashland’s best “shows” are already “playing” right now, including:
— An explosion of spring flowers and foliage in the iconic downtown Lithia Park, a 93-acre creekside gem that was landscaped by the same architect who designed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
— Pristine snowscapes (which will be long gone by summer) as you drive past Mount Shasta, Scott Summit and Siskiyou Summit en route to Ashland from NorCal.
— Readily available theater seating, restaurant tables, room booking and campsites — all of which are likely to be jam-packed by Ashland’s “high season,” starting in June.
But, apart from these offstage early-bird attractions, the festival has also now unveiled the first of its onstage offerings for 2010. I took in three of them on a hectic, one-day theatrical getaway. Mini-reviews:
The Ghost, in a chalk white camo jumpsuit, silently gesticulates his plea for revenge in ASL HandSpeak. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s nebbishy schoolfellows, are trans-gendered into foxy sorority babes. Ophelia wears a wire to electronically bug her swain’s soliloquy.
The Traveling Players shizzolate a hip-hop version of their regicidal play-within-a-play. Conscience-stricken, the usurping King Claudius first pukes, then prays, in the Royal Toilet. There Hamlet stalks him, but stays his vengeful hand. After the final fateful duel scene, young Fortinbras of Norway (here tricked out in desert fatigues and vaguely Arabic phonemes) wades into Elsinore to pick up the pieces.
Altogether a lot edgier than the “Hamlet” I was taught in high school, back in the Late Pleistocene.
But director Bill Rauch (now in his second season at Ashland’s artistic helm) isn’t just trying to be trendy with this contemporarily costumed, American-accented production. He brings us a post-modern Hamlet, full of irony and angst and interiority. This prince, we can well believe, is every bit of 30 years old (as clearly stated in the text but all-too-seldom plausibly depicted onstage). He’s a worldly “perpetual student,” a jaded slacker, abruptly plucked from the hip, collegiate milieu of Wittenberg and plunged into the dark intrigues of feudal Elsinore. “Something is rotten,” and he has to grow up fast.
In a master-stroke of casting, Rauch has tapped, for the title role, OSF veteran Dan Donohue. No Olivieresque matinee idol, he; no wilting, vacillating “sweet prince.” Donohue’s previous Ashland billings have included such heavies as Iago, Caliban or Edgar. He brings off rapier sarcasm and bleakest introspection with equal aplomb. His diction and impeccable timing mark him, in every scene, as the smartest character onstage — way too smart for his own good.
To sustain this multi-layered performance, Rauch (with able assists from scenic designer Christopher Acebo and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind) sets up an elaborate stage grammar to distinguish public utterances from private thoughts. So, apart from the iconic old chestnuts (“To be or not to be…” et al), we are offered many new “soliloquies” — lines that have been re-branded as internal ruminations rather than spoken dialogue — embedded within some familiar passages. This casts an intriguing, fresh light on old texts.
Nor is Donohue the sole beneficiary of these tropes. Some of the most striking soliloquies are parcelled out among the bravura supporting cast. Jeffery King, as Claudius, stands out for his tortured unctuosity, while Susannah Flood’s Ophelia manages to elevate gum-chewing ditziness into a strikingly poignant vulnerability. Armando Duran, as Horatio, is the very picture of boon companionship, the sort of friend we’d all wish to have.
Such performances make it all the easier for audiences to identify with the onstage action and take it to heart — the ultimate standard of theatrical success. For all its technical ingenuity, this year’s “Hamlet” is lavishly endowed with “that within which passes show.”
If the 2010 Rauch-Donohue “Hamlet” hints at OSF’s possible future directions, the current production of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” hearkens back to the Festival’s past. It’s a lustrous past, studded with brilliant veterans like
director Libby Appel (Rauch’s predecessor as OSF’s artistic director), Judith-Marie Bergan (here cast as Mrs. Bennet, the busybody mother of five problematically marriageable girls) and Mike Murphey (who plays Mr. Bennet and headlined as Hamlet in his Ashland debut 27 years ago).
But somehow all that cumulative talent doesn’t quite gel in this show. Appel overloads the stage with ribbons and lace, gavottes and gallopades. The veddy British intonation rankles, especially when whinnied by Murphey. And Bergan never quite transcends humdrum motherly neurosis to attain the truly manic dottiness of Austen’s original portrayal.
Part of the problem may be in the stage medium itself. Any theatrical presentation inevitably lacks one key ingredient of the novel’s panache: its unique narrative voice. As a proxy for Austen’s wry perspective, the OSF adaptation turns to the two romantic leads, Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Hurster) and Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander), whose rocky courtship is the mainspring of the plot.
Hurster’s evident intelligence and spunk may evoke Austen’s authorial tone, but her character is too bound up in the action to serve as a truly objective chronicler. Alexander, for his part, gets to toss off some of Austen’s choicest narrative bon mots in the form of dialogue, but his Darcy is too much of a stiff to plausibly coin such witticisms.
And, epigrams aside, some of the book’s best passages are not one-line zingers, but rather subtle prose dissections of the protagonists’ feelings or lengthy exchanges of correspondence. None of this translates readily to the stage.
“Pride and Prejudice” adaptations in other media are better at handling such material. Movies can explore subjectivity with camera effects; TV serials can luxuriate in expansive episodic formats. Even an onstage operetta, like the 1959 Broadway musical “First Impressions,” can use polyphony to suggest the characters’ mental states and group dynamics.
Lacking these advantages, the OSF version makes do with what’s available. Scene shifts are fluidly suggestive, almost kabuki-style, on the open-plan set — an avant-garde effect oddly incongruous with the fussy period costumes, ornate diction and stilted body language.
The character who wrings the most mileage out of these quaint conventions is the sycophantic prelate Mr. Collins (wickedly skewered here in James Newcomb’s portrayal). Even Darcy and Lizzy get some laughs when they clinch their most sexually and emotionally charged scenes with little more than an understated exchange of curtseys and flourishes.
Only at the very end do they allow themselves a full-on, cinematic smooch. At this, Jane Austen would have probably fainted, but it draws a standing ovation from the busloads of high school kids who comprise the bulk of Ashland’s off-season audience.
Anyone who’s ever experienced stage fright knows that, in any arena, the scariest boundary is the invisible “fourth wall” between actor and audience. No matter how well you control stage right, left, and rear, your biggest challenge is to
face that void of unseen eyes in front of you and still remain unfazed and in character. Yet, tough as it is, this is the dramatic tension that makes a performance come alive.
In this year’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” director Christopher Liam Moore and set designer Christopher Acebo have found a way to heighten the tension — and the power — of Tennessee Williams’ play: turn the “fourth wall” into a mirror.
In the very first scene, the title character, Maggie “the Cat” (Stephanie Beatriz), makes her entrance, strips off her dress, heads straight downstage, smooths her satin slip over her voluptuous curves and drawls her opening monologue directly at the audience. Right away we realize that she’s preening in front of an imaginary mirror.
She’s talking to her reflection because she can’t get the person she’s trying to address — her husband, Brick (Danforth Comins) — to pay her any attention. Throughout the three acts of the play (all set in the couple’s bedroom in their ancestral mansion), the mirror continues to be a focus for much of the action. It’s a handy stage device, to be sure, allowing dialogue to be pitched head-on into the audience.
But there’s more to it than that. The mirror also serves as a metaphor for Brick’s disconnect with both his wife and his hillbilly millionaire father (Michael Winters). Hard-pressed to relate forthrightly to each other or even themselves, these characters instead address themselves to a world of shadows — often literal reflections in the invisible downstage mirror.
As though to underscore the Roshomon-like mutability of this reflected world, Acebo even goes so far as to reverse the axial orientation of the set between each of the acts, swapping stage left for stage right and then back again. It’s a subtle change, almost subliminal, but it achieves a through-the-looking-glass effect that leaves us uncertain of what — if anything — is “real.”
Which primes us perfectly for the lush unreality of Williams’ poetry. Nobody in the “real” world ever spontaneously speaks like that, with such sustained vernacular eloquence. It’s how we all wish we could talk in emotionally charged moments, the kind of speech we might ruefully deliver (if we happened to be literary geniuses) into a mirror upon after-the-fact reflection.
But each of the three stars of OSF’s “Cat” manages to get away with the unnaturalism of the language. Beatriz’s Maggie is wonderfully feline, by turns playful and feral, full of dazzling verbal leaps and feigned nonchalance. Winters plays Big Daddy like a swamp bear at bay — doomed and shambling, but still deadly powerful in his last desperate swipes. Comins deadpans Brick with a truly chilling anomie, like a tragic Buster Keaton.
These brilliant performances, each in its own way, succeeds in living up to the all-but-impossible stage direction that Williams wrote into Act Two, where he instructs his actors to “catch…that cloudy, flickering, evanescent — fiercely charged! — interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.” Don’t miss the Mississippi heat-lightning at Ashland this season.
“Cat” plays at the OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theater through July 4th. “Hamlet” and “Pride and Prejudice” run through the end of the Ashland season, October 31.