ASHLAND, Ore. — First, let’s lay it out in economic terms. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing something right. Even as the recession continues to squeeze the U.S. like a penny-pinching matron, our small-town neighbor to the north has seen two consecutive record-breaking seasons in ticket sales.
This trend-bucking artful triumph speaks to the quality of entertainment theatergoers know they can expect from this repertory company that employs more than 500 professionals. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2010, making it one of the oldest — as well as largest — companies of its kind in the country.
For many north state theater fans, expeditions to Ashland (a little more than two hours from Redding) are an annual tradition. The town itself is ideal for an overnight or weekend getaway, with Main Street lodging choices that offer the appealing option of walking everywhere — to plays, numerous restaurants and shops, and beautiful Lithia Park. (Also in the heart of downtown: the historic Varsity Theatre, home of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which celebrates its 10th year in April.)
The 2011 festival season kicked off this month, with four plays showing in the two indoor theaters: Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Molière’s “The Imaginary Invalid,” and “The Language Archive,” a modern-day play by Julia Cho (A News Café will provide reviews of each soon).
The season will feature 12 plays total — including “Pirates of Penzance” and “Julius Caesar” with a female lead — with openings each month until August. (Visit osfashland.org for a video preview of the season and of individual plays.)
Take ‘Measure’ of this production
The first of this year’s four Shakespeare productions is “Measure for Measure,” directed by Bill Rauch, who took over from Libby Appel as artistic director of OSF in 2007.
Those who saw last year’s “Hamlet” or “The Music Man” in 2009 have experienced the colorful and memorable elements that characterize a Rauch production, including casting twists that challenge stereotypes. “Measure” is no exception.
In addition to casting a black woman (Isabell Monk O’Connor) as a traditionally male chief of staff and portraying a female brothel owner as a transvestite, Rauch also spiced up this Shakespearean comedy with a Latin flair. The L.A.-based, all-woman mariachi trio Las Colibri opens the play and performs between acts; the 17th century dialogue is peppered with Spanish phrases (“Dios me,” “no es posible,” “es el diablo”); and one character delivers her lines entirely en español, with an interpreter feeding the audience the English translation.
As OSF likes to do with its Shakespeare, the setting is modernized — in this case, it’s a 1970s American city. “You go from power to prostitutes to prison — this is such an urban play,” Rauch said. “I wanted a setting that allowed for race and ethnicity to be part of the fabric of the story.”
The result is a captivating mix of Spanish costumes and ballads, business suits, ’70s casual wear, sideburns and ‘fros. Contrast that with a demurely clad nun-in-training and a burlapped friar, and you’ve got a blend of old and new, religious and secular, pastoral and urban, that somehow works just right in this nearly three-hour production.
“Measure for Measure” is not on the top 10 list of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. (I had never seen it performed before last month, though Appel did direct it at OSF in 1998). Believed to be the last of Shakespeare’s comedies before he focused on other genres, its weighty subject matter and somewhat unsatisfying ending have also earned it the label of a “problem” play.
Rauch’s production turns this “problem” into opportunity. It is energetically played as a light-hearted comedy — and the audience trusts that experience — but during the play’s darker, more introspective moments, the pained drama invites viewers to stop and consider the deep dilemmas that haunt these men and women.
As moral corruption increases in his city, the Duke of Vienna (played by the magnificent Anthony Heald, whose prodigious acting skills also have earned him multiple TV and movie roles), relinquishes duties temporarily to his straight-laced deputy, Angelo, telling him “to enforce or qualify the laws as to your soul seems good.” The Duke then disguises himself as a friar and travels about the city, eavesdropping and observing.
The curly-locked Angelo (who looks more like a Spanish lover than an uptight lawman), adhering strictly to the letter of the law, wastes no time in sentencing to death Claudio, who has impregnated his fiancée, Juliet (a legal no-no, as they are not officially married).
Claudio’s friend Lucio (a cocky scoundrel who flashes bits of gold and goodness) begs Claudio’s sister, Isabela, a young novitiate, to plead with Angelo on his behalf. Angelo finds himself stirred by Isabela’s passion and tells her he will free her brother if she will sleep with him.
A comedic side-story involves the raunchy, buffoonish Pompey (played by Ramiz Monsef). Pompey, along with other participants in Vienna’s thriving brothel business (including the lanky, cross-dressing Mistress Overdone, played by Cristofer Jean), also finds himself in court — and then jail — thanks to Angelo’s puritanical crackdown.
Set and music notes
The set (designed by Clint Ramos) deserves comment for its unique effectiveness. A single generic room with metal-barred double doors serves — with minor prop changes — as courtroom, office, jail visiting room, bordello, monastery, nunnery, execution chamber and mental hospital. Two large windows and some projection magic allow for colorful scenery, silent background acting, and even falling rain.
The Las Colibri trio adds a powerful dimension to the overall presentation. During some monologues, a single musician stands in the wings, plucking strings. Their songs (for work, justice, Death Row, and lost love) are beautiful, yearning and haunting (and, alas, incomprehensible if, like me, you’ve forgotten much of the Spanish you learned in school).
“Measure” is rich in questions and extremes, making it a compelling — and still highly relevant journey. Do we practice what we preach? Should the penal system embrace mercy as part of justice, and what does that look like? The play contrasts sexuality at its basest and purest. We see power used to fight corruption; we also see it corrupt some who hold it. We’re reminded that what we despise in others might be found within ourselves.
Isabela’s plight comes across as grippingly poignant in the almost halting way actress Stephanie Beatriz (who reportedly tore up the set as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” last year and will play Rosaline in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” later this season) portrays the young novice. Though her resolve to hold onto her virginity even at the cost of her brother’s life won’t resonate so easily with today’s audiences, it symbolizes so much more than an act of deflowering. Her chastity is the essence of Isabela — her personhood, her calling, and her strength as a young woman in a society dominated by powerful men and marked by sexual debauchery. It represents her voice.
And she must struggle to be heard. When Angelo tries to entice her to commit the same crime for which he just condemned her brother, she stands up to him. “Sign me a present pardon for my brother, or with an outstretch’d throat I’ll tell the world aloud what man thou art,” she says.
But Angelo, secure in the power of his station, scoffs. “Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil’d name, the austereness of my life … will so your accusation overweigh, that you shall stifle in your own report.”
Before the themes of betrayal, hypocrisy, death and sacrifice become too heavy, the disguised Duke intervenes with an elaborate plan to save the day. And Isabela must face her own hypocrisy — what “wrongs” will she justify in the name of “right”? (Does the end ever justify the means?)
In a visually jarring moment, Isabela and the friar smoke cigarettes as they plot for the “greater good.” Though perhaps meant as a comedic device, it also seemed to link the spiritual ingénue with the more crass, often substance-abusing society outside her cloister.
Indeed, human complexity is at the heart of this tale, made easier to swallow with liberal doses of physical and verbal humor (a shout-out to actor Kenajuan Bentley, who nearly steals the show several times as the irreverent Lucio).
The play’s title is commonly thought to come from the words of Jesus in the New Testament book of Matthew: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
As befits a comedy, “Measure” wraps up with big doses of judicial generosity. True to its “problem” label, the play’s pat happy ending does not fit comfortably with the striking depth of the issues raised.
Final verdict? Viewers will judge in favor of this immeasurably memorable production.
Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper reporter and editor since 1992. A longtime theater fan who studied Shakespeare in college, she sees up to four plays annually at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You can find her in the lobby at intermission eating a pre-ordered, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Candace lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival