Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 9.13.07

Catch some shows for a spectacular end to the summer

Ashland’s starting to cool off. The Californians are leaving, going back to school and work. And oh yeah, the season’s about to get a little bit cheaper, too.

What does that mean, Eugene? It means: Get thee to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival! The two of us went to eight plays in four days (plus a backstage tour — which we recommend highly), and one of us made another trip down for the ninth play — so we have all kinds of info for you. If you can buy only one ticket, make it Gem of the Ocean or Tartuffe. The outdoor theater not to miss is Taming of the Shrew, thanks to Michael Elich, and of the two contemporary pieces at the New Theatre, we recommend the rough but interesting Tracy’s Tiger. Value season begins Oct. 2, but for comfort at the outdoor shows, which close the first weekend in October, we’d recommend going a bit sooner and saving money for those full-price tix by staying at the Ashland Hostel, a nice price ($25 or $59 for a private room) and a quick three-block walk from the theaters.


In alphabetical order, then, here are our reviews:

As You Like It

(Angus Bowmer Theatre, through Oct. 28)

Audrey (Teri Watts) and Touchstone (David Kelly). JENNY GRAHAM

A miscast Rosalind and clunky set design mar an otherwise delightful excursion into the twisted, pastoral romp of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, As You Like It. The story, if you can follow its twists and turns, goes something like this: Oliver (Jeff Cummings) wants his brother, Orlando (Danforth Comins), dead. So he tells Charles the wrestler to break Orlando’s bones in a match. Rosalind (Miriam Laube) attends the fight, and she soon falls for the victorious Orlando. Rosalind’s uncle banishes her, sending her and Roz’s cousin Celia (Julie Oda) into the Forest of Arden, where Rosalind’s father dwells. They take along Touchstone (David Kelly, in a role he slam dunks), the court clown, for protection and amusement.

For more protection, Roz slips into the male guise and calls herself Ganymede. She twists Orlando, who has entered the Forest of Arden seeking her, into knots when she, as Ganymede, plays the part of herself — for Orlando’s benefit. Maybe Laube was suffering allergies during this production, but she gave the impression that she was always crying. Are they tears of joy? I couldn’t tell; I was too distracted by Laube’s always-squinted eyes and hoarse voice.

Director J.R. Sullivan’s attempt to set AYLI in the Great Depression era partly misfires. His description of the era, that “there was no such thing … as security,” could well suit any era. But the big problem with this time period is the set, which starts off on a good foot in Act I’s bootlegging warehouse. When the action moves to the Forest of Arden, the set looks as if it were designed and implemented at a high school production of AYLI, complete with motorized plaster-cast greenery. Progressive audience members won’t swallow the ending too easily. When Phebe steadfastly refuses to wed Rosalind (a woman, imagine!) and chooses Silvius because he offers “a good man’s love,” the collective eyes will roll. CA




(New Theatre, through Oct. 28)

Mama (Robynn Rodriguez), Dad (U. Jonathan Toppo) and Natalie (Kjerstine Anderson). JENNY GRAHAM

Distracted is a play about searching for the end-all cure for societal ills and always coming up short. Whom do we seek for answers? Our partner after the football game but before the weekly sex act? The friends we meet on the street? Therapists who can’t even keep their own lives together? Teachers who mistake tenure for wisdom? In faith? In drugs?

Mama (as played to distressed semi-perfection by Robynn Rodriguez) is the kind of soccer mom who has way too much time on her hands. Living in a suburban Target-furnished house, Mama wants peace and quiet, but she also wants to be the best person she can be. Unsurprisingly, these two ideals clash, constantly, in a world where staying on task won’t cut it anymore and one must multitask to survive. As Mama struggles to rear her misbehaving son, Jesse (James Edson, heard in voiceover throughout the play until finally coming onstage at the end), and resists the urge to dope him up on Ritalin, her marriage to Dad (U. Jonathan Toppo, in a slightly TV commercial version of a “Dad”) is stressed to the breaking point.

The key word here, and overall theme, is stress. Large flat-screen monitors project images of chaos or calm (a faucet pouring hot water in a sink or Monet’s Water Lilies), depending on Mama’s state of being. Using the theater-in-the-round staging allows for quick on/off appearances of characters through four entrances, creating a flurry of movement that never totally ceases, not even when Mama meditates. The intimacy of the New Theatre also complements the Brechtian style employed by playwright Lisa Loomer. As just about every character tells the audience what they really think, the artificial nature of their every action is revealed.

Special kudos go to Kjerstine Anderson, playing the wrist-cutting, neglected teen Natalie with spot-on mannerisms and agonizing frailty, and Thom Rivera, playing three wildly different “health care professionals” and even an actor on Ritalin playing a doctor. With its small cast, intimate setting, contemporary themes and interactive set design, Distracted is unlike any other play in production at OSF this season. For that reason alone, it’s worth a viewing, especially for parents with kids in tow. — CA



Gem of the Ocean

(Angus Bowmer Theatre, through Oct. 27)


Going into Gem, one of us had read it ahead of time and the other hadn’t. Neither of us (embarrassingly) had seen an August Wilson play before. We left silent, moved and utterly captured by the script, acting and staging of this smart, fine, truly meaningful play.

The only problem with Gem is that everything else at the OSF pales (yes, that’s figurative and literal) in comparison: The subject matter — workers’ rights, the Civil War and slavery, the impact of Reconstruction on African American communities in the North and South at the dawn of the 20th century, the courage it takes simply to rise out of bed in a world gone so mad — gives it broad reach. Greta Oglesby, who originated the role of Aunt Ester in this remarkable play, brings experience and depth to the part, and everyone else in the cast lives up to her intensity. Even Derrick Lee Weeden — so wooden in The Tempest — comes alive here as Caesar, a cop with a vengeance.

Perhaps because of the cast’s work with “movement guru” Patdro Harris — and intelligent lighting design from Robert Peterson — even a potentially problematic “magic” scene works its true magic and leaves the audience shaken and weeping.

Gem is performed with appropriate skill on a perfect set with smart lighting. While the music feels a bit off — did they borrow the theme from Fried Green Tomatoes? — the production easily overcomes it. This is the major play of the OSF season, a play that hits at the vital heart of our self-definition as a country. Go see it. — CA/SS



On the Razzle

Christopher (Tasso Feldman) and Weinberl (Rex Young) take it all in. JENNY GRAHAM

(Angus Bowmer Theatre, through Oct. 28)

The perfect blend of goofy movie marquee, arch-ironic vaudevillian slapstick and translated-from-19th-century-Vienna farce, On the Razzle delights and dazzles from its opening moments on. The play is Tom Stoppard’s adaptation and interpretation of Johann Nestroy’s Einen jux will er sich machen, which was also adapted by Thornton Wilder as The Merchant of Yonkers and The Matchmaker, which eventually became Hello, Dolly!

Is that confusing? Well, it’s only theater history; audiences don’t really need to know it to enjoy this farce. And be clear: This play is almost the definition of farce. Do not go to On the Razzle if you don’t enjoy a good dose of comedy leavened with mistaken identities, outrageous lies and dares, zipping in and out of windows and doors and incredible wordplay. Because it’s Stoppard, this is all combined with nods and winks to metajokes about language and the way German sounds to English speakers (specifically to the British, which means Americans miss some of the jokes). The garish set and the costumes of everyone including the two mostly wonderful leads, Weinberl (a brilliant Rex Young) and Christopher (Tasso Feldman), could keep a health care worker awake after a 36-hour shift. The only sour notes come from OSF regulars who essentially play their personas in every show, and that’s a casting problem Bill Rauch should solve. But in general, this powerful, unstoppable farce gathers momentum for its dazzling, many-balls-in-the-air scenes of hilarity, and though it ends with a whimper, the show is a nice antidote to the more serious fare on offer. — SS



Romeo and Juliet

Romeo (John Tufts) and Juliet (Christine Albright). JENNY GRAHAM

(Elizabethan Stage, through Oct. 5)

(With apologies for the non-iambs … )

Was ever a hackneyed tale more well known than that

Of this fiery Montague and his young Capulet?

I refuse to recount the plot of R&J; check out the gazillion movies, musicals and plays for more info. Onward: Much has been made, both in Ashland and for anyone who reads about the OSF, of incoming artistic director Bill Rauch’s supposed boldness in keeping the adults of R&J in Elizabethan costume while showing the “generation gap” between adults and youth by dressing the youth in “modern” outfits (a kind of Hogwarts lite, combined with some sweet soccer kits for the boys in later acts). Fine. Nice idea! No problem, especially for those who have read the script to West Side Story and know its emphasis on how adults just don’t understand teens. But costumes, wonderful as they may be (and they are lovely), do not a production make. How is the acting?

The young lovers are played by John Tufts and Christine Albright; Benvolio is Juan Rivera LeBron, and Mercutio the excellent Dan Donohue (who, I’m happy to hear, is playing Iago next year). I’m not clear on why Tufts instead of LeBron played Romeo — to my mind, LeBron is the better actor. Nevertheless, Tufts does a decent job. So does Albright who, while young, looks far too mature for this role. Jonathan Haugen chews the scenery as Lord Capulet; Mark Murphey gets his props as Friar Laurence; and, of course, Demetra Pittman as the Nurse puts in a good night’s work. But, even if you enjoy this oft-produced tale of star-crossed lovers, the reason to see it is Donohue. As is often the case with R&J, Mercutio’s brilliance (almost) makes up for the self-centered blather of the teenage lovers. — SS



Taming of the Shrew

(Elizabethan Stage, through Oct. 7)


Rereading Taming before the trip, I thought about how clearly the language shows this was an early play. Over time, Shakespeare refined his use of blank verse; in plays like Taming and Richard II, the language is pristinely beautiful, but the couplet reigns supreme, and inconvenient things like character development can be disposed of with a well-turned phrase. How would the OSF deal with the language and the final submissive speech of Kate (Vilma Silva)?

To the first, the answer is well, well, well. To the second? Sometimes, there’s not much you can do. Later, I heard opinions ranging from “At least [director] Kate Buckley played it straight and didn’t try to subvert it” to “Oh, that was a total subversion!” Neither seems quite accurate; in the glorious combative wordplay between Kate and the incredibly energetic Petruchio (Michael Elich, who racks up the I-5 miles as a Portland State prof and an OSF mainstage actor), one can read a certain amount of winking and nodding, but despite a bit of amusing stage business at the very end, Kate’s speech remains a blot that takes modern audiences right out of the play.

Luckily, Buckley didn’t remove the comedic bits with Bianca (Sarah Rutan) and her suitors Gremio (James Edmondson), Hortensio (Shad Willingham) and the lucky Lucentio (Danforth Comins). These classic Shakespearean interplays of dialogue, physical comedy and clever deception delight the audience. The actors obviously enjoy themselves in this production, which is gorgeously costumed and lit; thanks to Elich’s mania and the sweet staging, it’s the outdoor production not to miss. — SS




(Angus Bowmer Theatre, through Oct. 27)


Religion: A truthful game played by liars, believed only by fools. At least that’s what French playwright Molière might be trying to say with his Tartuffe, penned in 1664, a comedy about religious hypocrisy at a time when religious fervor was at its apex in France. Fittingly, the play was immediately banned from the stage by dévots (the devout faithful), many of whom turned out to be (big surprise!) religious imposters themselves.

For those unfamiliar with Tartuffe, the storyline is straightforward. Rich aristocrat Orgon (Richard Elmore, in scenery chewing mode) has taken in the charlatan Tartuffe (Anthony Heald, in full sleaze mode) as a spiritual advisor to his household. The only problem is that while Orgon sees piety, the others smell a scoundrel. Orgon’s children, Mariane (Laura Morache) and Damis (Gregory Linington), his wife, Elmire (Suzanne Irving), her maid Dorine (Linda Alper, fiery as ever) and her brother Cleante (Richard Howard) all wish to open Orgon’s eyes to Tartuffe’s trickery, but this task is difficult when, in fact, Tartuffe never lies. Orgon rebuffs his family and orders Mariane to marry Tartuffe instead of her true love, Valère (Kevin Kenerly). Mortified, Mariane pleads with the others to set a trap for Tartuffe; they do, and the imposter is, literally, caught with his pants down. But it’s too late, and only a deus ex machina can save the day.

Through all of this, Cleante continues to plead for “moderation,” bemoaning Orgon’s flying “back and forth between extremes.” This respect for perspective, for a middle way, would be the predominating factor in the following century and a half-long Age of Reason (and is beautifully represented in Richard Hay’s lush, vanishing point perspective set). Vile figures like Tartuffe, who attempt to distort truth for personal gain, would be the enemy in times like those, yet fools like Orgon existed, and will continue to exist, even in times like these. Fine ensemble work from the cast and deliciously delivered Molière couplets will leave you in stitches and pleading for some “moderation” in your own life. — CA



The Tempest

(Elizabethan Stage, through Oct. 6)


The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself, contains the famous valedictory speech beginning “Our revels now are ended.” Because Libby Appel is retiring as artistic director of the OSF after 12 seasons (though she is directing a play next year), she chose this tale of revenge, magic and forgiveness as her farewell play (as she also did years ago at the Indiana Repertory Theatre when she left for the OSF). That’s a timeworn tradition for Shakespearean directors, and one expects a marvelous, inventive production to cap off a splendid career.

This is not that production. Some parts stand out: The humorous bits of The Tempest — where Caliban (Dan Donohue) believes that the drunken Trinculo (Christopher DuVal) and Stefano (Michael J. Hume) will free him from his servitude to Prospero (Derrick Lee Weeden) — come off beautifully, with energy and synergy lacking in the more serious scenes.

Why did Appel cast Weeden as her stand-in, the magician who calls off his magic and breaks his staff? He may have the deep voice she thinks necessary for Prospero, but he can’t carry off the role; he’s much too aware of himself as a serious ac-TOR. And if the Prospero isn’t good, it matters little if Ariel (Nancy Rodriguez) flits around with joyful wit or if her cloud-clad sprites speak lines from various sonnets to mark the love of Miranda (Nell Geisslinger) and Ferdinand (John Tufts).

Though the script’s exploration of slavery is cursory, some productions manage to investigate it much further, given all that happened between the time the play was written and today. This one balances an African American Prospero with a white, and white-painted, Caliban, but that is as far as the investigation goes. And scenes where Ariel seems to flirt with Prospero detract from an understanding of Ariel’s own subjugation. I hear that Appel’s Cherry Orchard was excellent; unfortunately, it closed in July, and so we’re left with this smooth but less than stellar production. — SS



Tracy’s Tiger

(New Theatre, through Oct. 28)

What to say about Tiger? It’s fun and funny, with some depth — but one can tell the musical isn’t quite finished. This is its first season: OSFers Linda Alper, Douglas Langworthy and Penny Metropoulos worked with playwright Sterling Tinsley to bring a novella by William Saroyan (author of The Human Comedy) to the stage. There’s a live band, which means that even in tiny New Theatre, performers must wear microphones (a bizarre sight at the OSF). The songs sound like the smoothest combination of Serious Broadway and commercial pop, and the setting — San Francisco, with songs like “Daly City” — is clearly meant to appeal to the festival’s huge Cali audience. But the storyline is muddled, which detracts from the several moments of deeper connection.

Thomas Tracy (Jeremy Peter Johnson) grows up with a sort of soul-embodying tiger (a slinkily excellent Beat-inflected René Millan). When he meets Laura Luthy (Laura Morache), he falls for her because, well, she has a tiger (Nell Geisslinger) too. Laura Luthy otherwise has little to do and presents no kind of real love interest (nor does the bland Tracy, for that matter).

But there’s a scene with Laura’s mother (Miriam Laube) that hurts Tracy’s chances with Laura, and he keeps ignoring his tiger, and … he is put in jail, where the best scene takes place. Officer Earl Huzinga (David Kelly) sings of a childhood experience with a tiger-tamer (Linda Alper); somehow the one song suspends time and takes the audience into a land of tenuous connections, strong emotions and the desires of youth. Some of the extraneous stuff needs to go — and the actors say they’ve been working with changes all season, so perhaps Tiger will become tighter and more meaningful. For now, it gestures at Big Ideas and Big Thoughts but doesn’t quite reach them. Still, it’s courageous and worth some investment from audience and performers alike. — SS