Ashland Season Off to a Steamy Start

Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” and Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire” at the Angus Bowmer Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Ashland.

Nell Geisslinger, an eight year OSF veteran who virtually grew up in Ashland, is hotter than ever at  this year’s Festival. Professionally hot, having landed star-billing in two season-long productions as Kate in “Shrew” and Stella in “Streetcar.” And sexy hot, playing an erotically sensitized woman in both roles.

Nor is that all her two characters have in common. Both are in thrall to boorish husbands. And both stand in the shadow of girlishly coy sisters who even share the same name — “Snow White” — in their respective languages: Bianca in “Shrew” and Blanche in “Desire.”

But, in mood and tone, the two stories play out very differently — a bawdy Shakespearean comedy of dueling wits versus Williams’ Southern Gothic tragedy. And that generic breadth gives ample scope to the talents of Geisslinger and her co-stars, plus a brilliant line-up of directors, set designers and composers. Taken together, these two productions make for a rewarding repertory weekend.

Shrew Tames her Tamer

Humiliation, starvation, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, dinning racket. Sounds about as lightsome as Gitmo, doesn’t it? Yet such are the ingredients of one of Shakespeare’s earliest and wittiest comedies.

Kate (Geislinger), the play’s eponymous “Shrew,” is so “froward” that, despite her wealth and beauty, none of Padua’s eligible swains want to marry her. Instead, they’re all in hot pursuit of her demure younger sister, Bianca. But their rich father puts Bianca’s suitors on hold until he’s first offloaded his harridan elder daughter.

A gold-digging freebooter, Petruchio (Ted Deasy), steps up to the plate. For the right dowry, he’ll happily take on Kate, sight unseen, confident he can “tame” her. His plan (in modern terms): to “render” her off to the “black site” of his country estate for “enhanced interrogation” —  total dependence on a capriciously moody jailer and forced assent to blatant falsehoods.

It works. By the play’s multi-marriage finale, Kate has morphed into the most submissive newlywed in a bevy of brides. She stuns her father, sister and a stage-full of in-laws with  a breathtaking display of Stockholm syndrome: a peroration on how a husband is a woman’s rightful “lord…life…keeper…head…[and] sovereign.”

That might have seemed self-evident to Shakespeare’s 16th century audience, but it’s less so today. Still, the banter’s too clever and the characters too vivid to just chuck the play out of the canon. So what’s a PC repertory company to do?

Director David Ivers has come up with an ingenious solution in this year’s Ashland production. He glosses script’s wordplay with an overlay of S&M-inflected physical comedy. In Kate and Petruchio’s apache-style mating dance we’re never quite sure just who’s dominating whom.

Even as he blusters, he’s mesmerized by her flounces; even as she snarls, she’s transfixed by the utter novelty of actually being wooed for the first time in her spitfire life. When, in the finale, Petruchio commands his ex-shrew to “kiss me, Kate,” her compliance is anything but meek or “tame” — rather, it’s so teasingly protracted as to practically set him mewling. To bring off such a clinch requires some powerful chemistry between the two co-stars. Deasy and Geislinger have it to spare.

Physically they couldn’t be more unlike. He’s big and rangy (all the more so with his elevator shoes and bouffant pompadour); she’s little and prickly. It’s like penning a mastiff alongside a snappish terrier. But. after a lot of circling and sniffing, they learn to run together as a pack.

To lighten up the kinky intensity of their dogfights, Ivers sets his production in a nostalgic holiday milieu. He’s turned his Padua into an Eisenhower-era Coney Island-style resort. Set designer Jo Winiarski has created a boardwalk replete with fun house, thrill rides and junk food kiosk. Costume designer Meg Neville has tricked out the cast in campy period finery.

And sound designer Paul James Prendergast has set it all to a rockabilly score. With an onstage trio for back-up, Deasy channels Buddy Holly to croon Petruchio’s bombastic “Have I not heard…” speech — one of the many surprise delights in this not-to-be-missed production.

Desire Derailed

There’s no curtain on the thrust stage of OSF’s Bowmer theater, so the first thing the “Streetcar” audience sees, even before any actors appear, is designer Christopher Acebo’s graceful and ingenious set.  It’s well worth a few minutes contemplation its own right, as it plays an important role in the story that’s about to unfold.

With a mosaic of iron scrollwork, lucite panels and spiral staircases, Acebo sketches in a New Orleans tenement. The ground floor apartment — a bed-sit whose sleeping alcove is separated from the kitchen by only a folding screen — is open to our view. The upstairs neighbors’ bedroom is plainly visible through their wide French window and translucent walls.

The ornate filigree of the set suggests a brittle exoskeleton that can barely shield and support the soft bits — the vulnerable human lives within. Slum life swirls through and around the building: peddlers, beggars, bowling leagues, poker parties, drinking binges, wife-beatings, tearful reconciliations, torrid couplings — all conducted semi-publicly.

The bed-sit provides a congenial love nest for Stella (Geisslinger) and Stanley Kowalski (Danforth Comins), newlyweds with a first child on the way. As a daughter of down-at-the-heels Mississippi plantation grandees, Stella has “married down” to a blue collar immigrant scion. But the sexual sizzle between them is enough to sustain them — at least until a house guest arrives for an open-ended stay.

Stella’s spinster sister, Blanche (Kate Mulligan) blows in from the ancestral homestead (now foreclosed) with a trunk-full of frilly frocks, costume jewelry and sentimental billets-doux from her adored teenaged husband, who killed himself after she outed him as a closeted gay. In the decades since his suicide, she’s evolved into a dreamy, superannuated Southern belle, a poetry-spouting ex-English teacher, a creature of long tub-soaks and covert mid-day nips at the liquor cabinet.

To Kowalski, Blanche’s genteel pretensions are an affront, a class warfare challenge. But her airs and graces fascinate Kowalski’s poker buddy, Mitch (Jeffrey King), a middle-aged Momma’s-boy bachelor.

He and Blanche strike up an awkward courtship, but he’s balked by her mixed signals.

No wonder he’s confused. As Mulligan so brilliantly conveys, there’s something over-the-top, almost campy, about Blanche’s hyper-femininity — more like a drag queen than a femme fatale. It’s a constructed identity. Kowalski devastatingly sets out to deconstruct her, peeling away layers of pretense  until she’s forced (in the play’s most iconic line) to the pathetic recognition that she’s “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

In the process of demolishing Blanche, though, he also shreds the most basic fabric of his own world, and Stella’s and Mitch’s. They all end up depending on strangers — estranged from each other and even themselves, with no assurance of kindness from any quarter.

This is Williams’ recurring theme in all his plays. He keeps cycling back to the tragic masquerade of identity, particularly gender identity. So does director Christopher Liam Moore, who staged OSF’s last Williams production (2010’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof“) and, as an actor, has played both gay roles and drag roles at Ashland. He gets us past the sometimes florid diction to bring out the pathos and lyricism of the lines — an ideal hand to keep “Streetcar” on track.

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.