Shakespeare Festival Leads With Common Theme, Diversely Portrayed

Ashland, 2012: Misalliances

Under the Sadie Hawkins rules of Leap Year, romantic initiative becomes a wide-open free-for-all. No wonder if the course of true love gets even more roiled than usual. Apt, then, that in the current leap year the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) should lead its 2012 Ashland season with four very different plays, all on the theme of thwarted love.

  • The spring season’s banner OSF production, “The White Snake,” relates a Chinese folk tale of miscegenation between a spiritually evolved serpent and a hapless earthly scholar. Their love is foiled by a bigoted Buddhist abbot.
  • OSF’s latest incarnation of “Romeo and Juliet” transposes the story to the newly Americanized milieu of mid-19th century California. There the lovers are “death-marked” not just by their feuding clans but also by the culture clash between aristocratic Iberian machismo and the martial law diktat of the U.S. Army garrison.
  • Chekhov’s “Seagull” presents a daisy chain of unrequited love. We meet (in order of appearance): a hard-pressed schoolteacher who loves a dipsomaniac housekeeper who loves a wannabe writer who loves an aspiring actress who loves a celebrity author who loves (intermittently) a has-been stage starlet. Not to mention a jaded country doctor who is hopelessly adored by an ageing concierge. All this in a lapidary “black box” staging with understated dialogue.
  • Nothing understated about this year’s musical crowd-pleaser, a timely OSF revival of “Animal Crackers,” the Marx Brothers’ classic farce from the last Great Depression 70+ years ago. Not exactly a love story, but it’s all about couplings: the characters collide and ricochet like clangorous pinballs. Plenty of raunchy puns and sight gags, but nobody makes much “whoopee” in the end as the anarchic, upstart Brothers befool the one-percenters of the Jazz Age gentry.

All four shows display the production values we’ve come to expect at the OSF – dazzling stagecraft, impeccable timing, bravura performances. Encouragingly, the 2012 Playbill includes a high proportion of Ashland neophytes in high-profile roles, such as the title characters of “Romeo and Juliet” (Daniel Jose Molina and Alejandra Escalante) and “The White Snake” (Amy Kim Waschke). OSF’s directorial newbies this season: Allison Narver of “Animal Crackers” and – a coup for the Festival – Tony Award winner/MacArthur Fellow Mary Zimmerman of “The White Snake.”

Ashland’s at its best this time of year. Lithia Park’s about to burst into flower, yet the panhandlers and boutiques remain blessedly dormant. Altogether an ideal time for an early-season theater binge. Some mini-reviews to help plan your foray:

Snake-Charming, Chinese Style

In China, this story is universally known. It’s a core staple in every medium, from comic books to tea-house raconteurs to TV serials to classic Peking Opera. Nobody bats an eye at its highly stylized performance conventions or its magical cosmology. The dramatic momentum arises not from surprise plot twists, but rather narrative and interpretive niceties, much the way Western audiences appreciate Shakespeare.

But for most of the Ashland audience, “The White Snake” is unfamiliar exotica. To make it accessible to us, Zimmerman and her production designers (the real co-stars of the show) have invented their own audio-visual grammar that draws only loosely on traditional Chinese techniques.

So we get an on-stage wind, string and percussion ensemble of mixed Chinese and Western instruments; snake puppets ranging from palm-top to room-sized; bolts of streaming or billowing silk to represent rain, fire, waves and clouds; delicate cycloramas or propped parasols in lieu of solid stage sets; a continuous flow of action, with no scene changes or intermissions; narrative asides directly to the audience; and balletic kungfu battles.

Occasionally the production slyly highlights its own stylization. Ensemble players on the sidelines (usually Richard Howard or Christopher Jean) point out alternative plot turns or karmic back-stories. Sometimes they even recite whole verbatim passages from Chinese opera manuals while the play’s protagonists mechanically mime the prescribed entries, exits and gesticulations.

Kim Wasche’s star turn is ably supported by Christopher Livingston as her clueless scholar/husband and Tanya McBride as her feisty supernatural sidekick, the Green Snake. Ashland veteran Jack Willis plays a wonderfully snarky abbot, kind of a shaved-pate Limbaugh, growling “this is Buddha’s country!” as he flaps his saffron robe like a sinister bat wing.

Such verbal Americanisms may be an artifact of Zimmerman’s scripting process. She and her cast improvise their way through the story, scene-by-scene, before they finalize any dialogue. This may have worked better on her previous ventures – the Odyssey, Arabian Nights or Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” – based on canonical texts well-known to Western audiences. But for unfamiliar material like “The White Snake” it makes for an odd mismatch between the visual poetry of the production and the prosaic spoken lines.

Star-Cross’d

Period productions of Shakespeare are hardly novel anymore, but director Laird Williamson’s Alta California backdrop for his new “Romeo and Juliet” seems especially inspired. Not only is the historical allusion apt and close to home, but the choice allows for a Spanish-inflected idiom of costume, music, gesture and speech that well suit the play’s text and themes. Vaquero mummery and body language enliven the street brawling, raunchy clown scenes and the masked ball where Romeo and Juliet first meet.

The eponymous stars, as well as such supporting players as Elijah Alexander (Don Capulet), Vilma Silva (his wife) and Jason Rojas (Mercutio), spice their lines with Spanish interjections, which they reel off with native fluency. Even Isabell Monk O’Connor, as the voluble nurse, fusses and prattles in Spanish-accented cadences. These stand-out performances, as well as Tony DeBruno’s wise and humane Friar Lawrence, lend a new freshness to the well-known lines.

School groups make up a high proportion of the audience this early in the season, while the academic year is still in session. The kids seemed to know their Shakespeare a lot better than I did at their age. They sighed or laughed in all the right places, despite the archaic and sometimes bawdy allusions. At the interval, klatches of teenage girls were overheard gushing about the dreaminess of Molina’s Romeo.

Loves Me/ Loves Me Not

“Seagull” begins with a screed from an unknown young playwright of avant garde pretentions. He inveighs against the mainstream theaters where, “in a room with three walls and artificial light,…those priests of high art…show me how people eat, drink, love, walk about and wear their jackets…[and] from those banal scenes and phrases…try to fish out a moral.”

Yet this is precisely the improbable miracle that Chekhov achieves in “Seagull” and his later plays. Except it’s not a tidy “moral” that he fishes out of his onstage banalities, but rather a poetic mood, a bittersweet sense of life’s pathos and drollery and ultimate dignity.

All the “dramatic” action of the story – a wedding, an illicit love affair, the birth and death of a child, a couple of nervous break-downs and a suicide – happens offstage. We only get to know of these events by overhearing the protagonists react to them as they go about their quotidian business of eating and drinking, flirting and quarreling.

This oblique approach so shocked Moscow theater-goers at the play’s premiere in 1896 that Chekhov was booed off the stage and resolved never again to write a drama. But the play found its voice when radical director Konstantin Stanislavsky, a founding luminary of the “naturalistic” school, restaged it two years later, coaching his actors to “merge” with their roles so as to bring out the “subtexts” of the lines.

Libby Appel, who was OSF’s artistic director from 1995 to 2007, makes the most of these Stanislavskian resonances. But what was radical in the 1890s may seem a little dated now; the play’s characters seem to utter an inordinate amount of exposition, emotional confession and philosophical musings.

Then again, they are Russians and Ukrainians, famously introspective. And the themes of their brooding sound curiously congruent with our own preoccupations today: family disintegration, runaway celebrity culture, addiction, generation gaps and a vague sense of eschatological dread. Plus class resentments and inescapable money worries.

Two of the characters seem to speak directly to different aspects of Chekhov’s own personality. First we there’s the maddeningly objective doctor (Armando Duran; Chekhov was medically trained and continued to practice throughout his literary career). And then – most tormented of all – there’s the mature author (Al Espinosa), bored with his own fame but compulsively parlaying his whole life into prose.

Irrational Exuberance

For performances of “Animal Crackers” they ought to fit out the seating in OSF’s Bowmer Theater with airbags and headrests. After two acts of this stuff you could get whiplash from all the double-takes – “Did he actually just say that? Did she really do what I thought I just saw?”

It’s the pixilated pacing that makes for this effect. Gotta keep moving in a production like this; if we lingered long enough for any single shtik to sink in, it wouldn’t make any sense at all. So director Allison Narver maintains the crackling tempo without let up. The only time it flags is during a studiedly stagnant piano riff by the Chico character.

“Chico” (John Tufts) and “Harpo” (Brent Hinkley) are plenty funny, but never quite attain to the over-the-top zaniness of their original role models. How could they, given the inherent paradox of trying to recreate the freshly uncorked froth of unprecedented improvisation? Groucho’s OSF avatar (Mark Bedard) almost brings it off, given his advantage of more verbal gag lines.

Other show-stealing performances come from K.T. Vogt as the soignée hostess of the Long Island estate where the play is set, and Jonathan Haugen in the dual role of her unflappable butler and a parvenu Ponzi schemer. They get their due come-uppance when the Marxian Occupiers take over their MacChateau.

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.

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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3 Responses

  1. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    "Animal Crackers"?

    I'm there!

  2. Avatar Vickie says:

    Thank you, Lincoln,

    So this is what forest fire lookouts do in the "off" season.

    • Lincoln Lincoln says:

      Hi, Vickie. Lookouts never have an off season, as you would know better than almost anyone. Semper vigilans! Right now, we're on the lookout in Canada, but back to NorCal next month. Best regards, L