Under the Big Top in Ashland

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“Break a leg!” That’s what actors traditionally wish each other as a contrarian mantra against stage fright.

But when the main roof beam of Ashland’s 700-seat Bowmer Theater cracked a couple of weeks ago, the fracture frighted not just the individual actors onstage but the whole Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and surrounding communities here in Jefferson State.

Mercifully, no one was hurt. The break occurred during an understudy rehearsal and the theater was promptly evacuated. But the timing couldn’t have been worse: it was just as the OSF was ramping up to the peak of its 2011 season.

The Bowmer, flagship of the festival’s three performance venues and linchpin of its intricate backstage costume and scenery logistics, had to close for a 4-6 week repair. Bowmer performances were hastily shifted, first to the Ashland town armory and then to a 600-seat temporary tent theater in a park adjacent to the festival campus.

With its 12-play yearly roster and its 400,000+ ticket sales, the OSF is by far the leading theater company on the West Coast – indeed, the top repertory troupe nationwide – with an estimated economic contribution to the region last year of nearly $180 million.

So it should come as a relief to all of us hereabouts that, in true “show-must-go-on” spirit, the OSF has forged ahead with its season. To do so has entailed a lot of heroic ingenuity and flexibility, fully deserving the loyal support of all Jeffersonians.

Which is hardly a painful duty for us. After all, we can drive there in a matter of hours (versus the multi-day journeys incurred by the downstate Californians and upstate Oregonians who make up most of the festival’s audience). And Ashland town is full of incidental delights – other stuff to eat or see or do, apart from the OSF.

But, most of all, the repertory productions themselves seem to have survived the Bowmer’s trauma remarkably unscathed, at least judging from the two shows I took in on a recent visit. Both were personally directed by the festival’s artistic helmsman, Bill Rauch. And one of them was a maiden performance at the ad hoc tent theater. A couple of mini-reviews:

Sex, Lies and Zero-Sum Justice

Although it does offer up an occasional laugh line, Measure for Measure counts as a comedy mainly on the technical definition: a play that ends in marriages. Lots of marriages – four at a stroke, all more or less under duress. The play is a regular perp walk of sexual hypocrisy and coercion by religious and political “leaders” – sound familiar?

Just to hammer home the contemporary parallels, Rauch recasts the action to 20th century urban America, which super-charges the city’s religio-political nexus with overtones of U.S.-style race and class tension. In costume and accent, the whole production is liberally spiced with ethnic flavor. There’s even an all-female mariachi trio, Las Colibri, to lend lilting musical piquancy.

Hub of the plot is The Duke, a kind of ward-heeling mayor who comes off, in Anthony Heald’s portrayal, as very Anglo. Most of The Duke’s underlings and constituents, though, are Persons of Color, from his topmost deputy, a puritan zealot of smoldering Latino intensity (Rene Milan), right down to the lowliest whore-mongering, jive-talking town wastrel (Kenajuan Bentley).

The Duke, without fanfare, skips town for parts unknown, leaving his deputy to implement a long-overdue vice crackdown. First victim of the clean-up is a local gallant, sentenced to death for sex out of wedlock. The condemned man’s sister, Isabella (Stephanie Beatriz), goes to plead for a stay of execution. She’s a novice nun, whose virginal charms so move the deputy that he offers a pardon in exchange for sex.

She angrily refuses and relates her dilemma to her brother on death row, overheard by the prison chaplain. The padre urges her to feign compliance, set an assignation and, at the appointed hour, swap in a substitute: the deputy’s spurned ex-fiancée, who has been driven mad by the broken engagement.

This chaplain turns out to be none other than The Duke himself, who has returned to town disguised as a friar. In a grand denouement, he sheds his incognito, takes testimony from both the ex-fiancée and Isabella, and condemns the deputy to death for fornication. He also condemns the town wastrel for the capital crime of lèse majesté.

But, before execution, he orders the deputy to marry his ex and the wastrel to marry a local bawd that he’s impregnated. Isabella’s brother, too, is to marry his inamorata. And, for good measure, The Duke himself proposes to the novice nun (we don’t get to hear her reply).

Well, if this is supposed to be a comedic happy ending, it sure raises more questions than it resolves. Like, how can we, as fallible humans, presume to sit in judgment on each other? Yet how else to establish the binding norms we need as a society? All the play’s protagonists twist on the horns of this dilemma. Worst skewered is the deputy; in Milan’s introspective portrayal, his innate priggery is genuinely appalled by his own compulsive perfidy. He’s met his priggish match in Isabella, but Beatriz softens the character in the course of her performance to the extent that, by the climactic scene, she can plausibly plead clemency on the deputy’s behalf. Heald’s Duke also evolves from a feckless meddler in the affairs of mere underlings to a love-smitten swain risking some skin in the game.

Although Rauch and his designers could hardly have predicted it, the urban American milieu of their Measure for Measure transposes rather well to the ad hoc tent stage. Most of the locales are starkly institutional: a nunnery, a prison, a mental hospital, City Hall.

Clint Ramos’ barebones set – blank walls with stolid doors, stage left and right, flanking a broad picture window, upstage center, backed by a cyclorama — can stand in for any of these places just by switching the projected images on the rear screen.

The prison scenes are particularly effective, making full use of the dehumanizing paraphernalia of modern American penology – buzzers and squawk-boxes, pat-downs and strip-searches, mug-shots and surveillance cameras. When it comes to the technology of humiliation, we’re light years ahead of Elizabethan England.

But the underlying zero-sum, “measure for measure” cruelty of what passes for justice and deterrence remains the same. As Isabella sums up in her (futile) initial plea for clemency: “ … man, proud man/Drest in a little brief authority,/ … like an angry ape/Plays such fantastic tricks…/As make the angels weep.”

For an alternative take on “Measure for Measure,” read Candace Brown’s review here.

G&S @ OSF: Hummable Curmudgeonry

Every year, as though to atone for subjecting audiences to the rigors of classical repertoire and experimental new plays, the OSF makes a point of staging at least one frothy crowd-pleaser, often a hit musical. For the current season, though, the festival has reached back far beyond the “golden age” of Broadway to revive a piece of high Victoriana, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.”

The result is more kinetic, more tuneful and funnier than many a song-and-dance extravaganza of later vintage. To achieve this, part of director Bill Rauch’s recipe is to liberally splice in contemporary musical and choreographic quotations – everything from Beatles’ tunes to hip-hop to conga lines. G&S purists might wince, but the references are usually apt and grabby.

Rauch’s casting helps, too. He pitches veteran Ashland players into startling new roles – all the more impressive as they’re mostly trained in “serious” Shakespearean acting, not song-and-dance. Like Michael Elich, whom long-time festival goers will remember in roles ranging from Hotspur to King John; here he plays the Pirate King with a swash-buckling flamboyance that would make Johnny Depp’s ringlets curl with envy.

Or David Kelly (erstwhile Benedick in “Much Ado”); now he tongue-twists his way through the patter of the Modern Major General. Or Robin Goodrin Nordli (who’s been Lady Macbeth and Hedda Gabler in her time at OSF), here reincarnated as Ruth, the aging Cockney coquette. Or Christopher Jean (Ariel in The Tempest and the title role in Henry VI), who now morphs into the lily-livered Sergeant of Police.

About the only expressly operatic diva in the cast is Ashland neophyte Khori Dastoor as Mabel. True to the spirit of this production, she manages to parody her own overblown coloratura tropes even as she dazzles us with trilling virtuosity. Her leading man, Eddie Lopez in the role of Frederic, turns in a pretty virtuosic tenor tour de force in his own right, considering the paucity of singing roles in his prior resume.

Past musicals at Ashland have mostly been performed karaoke style, to a recorded score without a live orchestra. This makes sense, economically and logistically (since none of the OSF stages comes equipped with an orchestra pit), but it considerably thins out the experience.

Pirates ingeniously gets around this constraint by cramming a 12-member ensemble way up in the top gallery of the outdoor Elizabethan Theater, high above the main stage. Opposite them, downstage center, music director Daniel Gary Busby, wields his conducting baton. Thrust as he is practically into the audience, with most of the stage action unfolding between himself and the ensemble, Busby seems to be conducting the actors and the spectators as much as the musicians.

In their tuxedoed gravity, Busby and his ensemble juxtapose a note of fussy Victoriana against the zaniness onstage. The effect is underscored by a sextet of “puppeteers” – deadpan prop handlers in tux-and-tails, who silently weave through the scenes waggling life-size mock-ups of dolphins and seagulls to set the nautical milieu.

This counterpoise of primness versus madcap exuberance neatly captures the essence of Gilbert and Sullivan’s enduring charm. The librettist-cum-composer duo famously detested each other. The curmudgeonly wordsmith Gilbert could never reconcile himself to the broader popular appeal of Sullivan’s saccharine scores.

But, in fact, the sappy sentimentality of the music creates the perfect foil for the acerbic rhymes. You walk out of the theater humming the guileless tunes and then doing a mental double-take on some throwaway line of libretto. The effect is like a very British sort of shandy – ginger beer and bitters, say; curiously refreshing for these hot summer nights.

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

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Lincoln Kaye
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.
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1 Response

  1. August 25, 2011

    […] addition to “Caesar,” current performances at OSF include the wildly popular “Pirates” (the first musical to be staged in the outdoor Elizabethan theater runs through Oct. 8); […]