Reviewer Extraordinaire, Lincoln Kaye: Ashland Mash-ups

“Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella,” at the Angus Bowmer Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Ashland.

Here’s one specially tailored for hard-core theater geeks. They were out in force and wildly appreciative at the show’s opening night in Ashland. Much of the audience seemed to be made up of OSF insiders, crowding around the Festival’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, who (together with his long-time collaborator Tracy Young) adapted and co-directed the production.

Any Ashland luminaries who did not show up in the opening night audience were quite likely to be seen onstage. No fewer than 24 of the repertory company’s best and brightest actors comprised the cast, not to mention a couple of child-stars and a half dozen live musicians. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck had to create a multi-level zigzag ramp of a set to accommodate them all.

The paramount piece of theater geekery, though, was not in the stagecraft but in the scripting. To really “get” M/M/C, you’d have to know by heart the complete texts of Euripides’ “Medea,” Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” That’s because Rauch decided (when he first mulled the project back 30 years ago as a Harvard undergrad) to stage all three stories simultaneously.

At its best, this makes for striking juxtapositions – some funny, some chilling – as when Medea’s drawn shiv becomes Macbeth’s hallucinatory dagger, or when Banquo’s ghost zombie-dances a quadrille at Cinderella’s ball. But a lot of the time, the effect is disorienting cross-talk, which just makes it hard to follow . Even the Playbill needs to lay out a sort of Venn diagram of the interlocking plots – hardly much help when you’ve got a Greek chorus bewailing bloody murder to the strains of Broadway show tunes.

Such incongruities, though, seem to be the whole point of the exercise, and M/M/C piles them on thick and fast. The production willfully scrambles eras, genres and genders (all the players in “Macbeth” are male; all in “Medea” are female). With so much scene-by-scene slicing and dicing, the three story lines tend to cancel out each others’ emotional thrust, whether tragic, comic or romantic. The result seems studiedly affectless, a bit like Bertholt Brecht’s “epic theater.”

Except Brecht adopts this approach for clear-cut agitprop ends, with scant reference to anything offstage. It requires a lot more geekishly exogenous grounding (and interest) in theater history to decipher the rather more rarified objective of M/M/C.

According to Rauch and Young’s Playbill notes, it’s something about “the three great populist movements in Western drama – Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama and the American musical comedy.” All three movements, they write, shared common “rhythms” and themes – “royal ambition, magic, transformation, parent/child relations and the role of women.” The idea seems to be that these notions are so archetypal that they transcend mere details of comedy or tragedy or period décor.

Not that M/M/C stints on décor. Mobilizing all of the Festival’s ample resources, Hauck and costume designer Deborah Dryden turn in a spectacle that is utterly dazzling, even if you don’t know or care what the show may be about.

But, for me, the most affecting moments came in the final minutes of the three-hour production, when the actors cast off their lavish (and often cross-gendered) costumes, stripping down to basic black slacks and tees. The starkness of the staging then stands out all the more in contrast to the lavishness of the foregoing scenes. Yet the show’s themes and memes come through in heightened relief – maybe this stuff really is hard-wired in the human psyche, as Rauch and Young suggest.

Interchanging roles and lines, the cast brings all three stories to a climactic conclusion. We wind up with the title-character protagonists standing back-to-back in a ring intoning (a la Macbeth’s Weird Sisters) “when shall we three meet again?”

All performances were first rate, but special kudos to Miriam Laube as Medea and Laura Griffith as Cinderella. I’d have loved to see Derrick Lee Weeden in his designated role as Macbeth, but he was indisposed on opening night and understudy Jeffrey King more-than-ably stepped in. Other stand-out performances: K.T. Vogt as the Fairy Godmother, Mark Bedard as an omnipresent Usher and Christopher Liam Moore as Lady Macbeth.

“The Big Bang” at the Oregon Cabaret Theater

If M/M/C seems wildly ambitious in mounting three epic dramas simultaneously in a three-hour extravaganza, it’s hardly a patch on the hubris of “The Big Bang,” just down the block at the Cabaret.

Fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution, followed by six millennia of Biblical chronology and about 40 centuries of world historical highlights. It’s all crammed into 90 minutes on the thrust-stage of a converted church building, with a grab-bag of thrift store props and a cast of only two actors.

But what a frenetic duo they are! In sheer energy output, Cabaret veterans Chris Carwithen and Greg Ladd more than compensate for their lack of supporting cast.

That, in fact, is the central gag of the whole show. We are supposedly watching a bare-bones preview of a preposterously vast Broadway show (300+ performers! 12-hour running time!) covering everything from the birth of the universe to the present. The two guys onstage are the purported authors, pitching the show to us in the audience as potential investors.

Once we’ve stumped up the requisite $83 million, the “Big Bang” can unfold in all its glory. Meanwhile, though, we’ll just have to use our imaginations, contenting ourselves with highlights, staged with whatever flotsam the “authors” can find around the upscale apartment where they’re house-sitting.

So everything’s got to be reduced to shorthand – ethnic stereotypes, fast-forward jump cuts and hilarious costume improvisations. We get a calypso rendering of life in the Garden of Eden , a kvetschy klezmer version of Exodus, a braying Jersey Shore-accented dialogue between Julius Caesar and his Sybil, Queen Isabella dancing a fandango around Columbus. And so on, right up to a patter song that rattles off a mishmash of 20th century headlines.

The laughs come non-stop, but the hucksterish investor/audition premise of the show left me feeling a slightly drained by the final bows, as though I’d just endured 90 minutes with a pair of Fuller Brushmen. Still, the lyrics and libretto (by author Boyd Graham) and the stage blocking (by director Kymberli Colbourne) are consistently witty – almost too airy for us to catch on the fly, given the frantic pace of the production.

The musical score (by composer Jed Feuer) is a bit trite, but a brisk tempo is maintained, largely thanks to the indefatigable efforts of accompanist Erik Daniells, hidden behind a grand piano downstage left. Costume designer Kerri Lea Robbins is the unsung heroine of the production; amazing what can be done with a few hundred dollars at Goodwill Industries and a lot of lateral thinking.

But the mainstays of the whole show are clearly the onstage stars, Carwithen and Ladd. Buddies since their student days (a mere six years ago) at the Ashland campus of Southern Oregon University, the pair “click” together like an impeccably tuned joke machine.

They take full comic advantage of their physical mismatch – Carwithen is a diminutive, baby-faced, creamy-complected TinTin type, while Ladd is a swarthy, lanky Gumby figure. In the intimate confines of the Cabaret theater, where they literally schvitz right onto the audience, the whole house crackles with their energy.

After “The Big Bang” ends its Ashland run on May 27th, Ladd wil be move to Los Angeles for further acting and writing adventures. Carwithen, too, seems surely destined for wider horizons, given his conspicuous talent. So be sure to take in their star turn at the Cabaret while we’ve still got them here in Jefferson State.

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.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments