ASHLAND, Ore. – In all the scrambling done this summer by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when a beam cracked in its largest indoor venue, one of the productions unaffected was a darkly intimate portrayal of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
The 400-year-old classic is staged inside the New Theatre, a versatile setup that can accommodate 300 viewers. This version, however, is anything but traditional. The role of Caesar, Roman ruler from 49 to 45 B.C., is played by actress Vilma Silva.
Silva’s selection for the role came after a gender-blind casting process, Bill Rauch, the festival’s artistic director, explained to reporters earlier this year.
“Shakespeare used some facts in Julius Caesar’s life to create a play about power dynamics,” he said. “The director (Amanda Dehnert) wanted the leader to be unique, someone who would create envy among peers. It was decided during casting that having Caesar be a woman would work – it’s a play about people in politics.”
He noted then – about a month before the play opened in late March – that some were excited and some were opposed to the reconception of the title role. “The proof will be in the pudding,” Rauch said.
Some five months later, “the pudding” has proven extremely palatable to audiences. Ticket sales are at 96 percent of capacity, media and communications manager Amy Richard said, making it the second best-selling play this season after “The Pirates of Penzance.”
(Read A News Café writer Lincoln Kaye’s review of “Julius Caesar” here. Silva was absent from the production July 24-31 as she participated in an elite acting fellowship in Wisconsin with Olympia Dukakis; Silva was one of 10 U.S. stage actors selected.)
Veering from the original setting or casting is not new to the festival’s Shakespearean plays. A theater critic at a spring press conference in Ashland noted that many of the recent OSF productions have been reimaginings, citing 2008’s lusty “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a more extreme example. Are audiences getting it, he wondered?
“I think it’s an ongoing dialogue with the audience always,” Rauch said. “For the people who want the dresses to touch the floor, who want historical costumes, I want to do contemporary productions that move them because they’re so well-acted. For people who like Shakespeare with more edge, more bite, for them I want to do period productions.”
Bottom-line, he said, “I just want to do great work.”
Mallory Pierce, OSF’s director of marketing and communication, said the festival surveys its audiences “incessantly” and receives positive feedback about how Shakespeare’s works are presented.
“We’ve got a very sophisticated audience,” she said. “They really want productions that work.
The overall proof in the pudding can be found in OSF’s ticket sales, which broke records in 2009 and 2010. Clearly, audiences are embracing the bold creativity inherent in such “reimaginings.”
Other Shakespearean plays performed this season at OSF include “Measure for Measure,” “Henry IV, Part Two,” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost.”
Of those, “Measure” was one of five productions that suddenly found itself homeless in mid-June, when a large crack in the main support beam of the Angus Bowmer Theatre forced a six-week closure of the venue.
The festival initially offered 31 free restaged versions of those plays in other locations in Ashland. In early July, a 66-by-120-foot tent — able to seat 600 – was erected in Lithia Park below the Elizabethan Theatre. Dubbed Bowmer in the Park, it housed productions until the theater reopened on Aug. 2.
Thirty-one performances were held in the tent and averaged 82 percent of capacity, generating about $650,000 in revenue, OSF officials said. The Angus Bowmer Theatre’s closure cost the festival about $1 million in ticket returns and $330,000 in repairs.
In 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); “Measure for Measure” and “The Imaginary Invalid” (through Nov. 6); “August: Osage County,” “The African Company Presents Richard III” and “Ghost Light” (through Nov. 5); “WillFul” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost” (through Oct. 9); “Henry IV, Part Two” (through Oct. 7).
Through Oct. 9, Ashland also stages “The Green Show,” free performances in the festival courtyard before evening performances, every night except Mondays.
For tickets and more information, visit www.osfashland.org.
For more Oregon Shakespeare Festival reviews on A News Cafe, click here.
Candace L. has been a magazine and newspaper journalist since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. Born in the Land of Lincoln, she lived in the Sunshine State, the Bluegrass State, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Cape Town, South Africa, before moving to the northern end of the Golden State. She can be reached at email@example.com.