Joy, Greed, Colonialism and Trombones
Oregon Shakespeare Festival slings itself into a new season
by Suzi Steffen & Chuck Adams
|Death and the King’s Horseman|
|Dead Man’s Cell Phone|
|Death and the King’s Horseman|
The sun shone on opening weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and the new artistic director’s vision swept energy and excitement into the festival even in a time of economic uncertainty.
Bill Rauch started his tenure last year, but 2009’s season is the first to show the full stamp of his ideas. Though of course we don’t know what happens behind the scenes, we’ve seen Rauch attending plays at all points in the season, warmly greeting everyone in his vicinity and offering words of encouragement to playwrights and actors.
In a media conference (which we live-blogged here and live-Tweeted here and here), both Rauch and longtime OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson gave open answers about budget woes, Rauch’s dreams and the stresses of preparing for next season in the midst of shaky monetary terrain.
We think that Rauch’s attitude came through in the productions. Dazzling colors, strong acting, complex scripts and passionate ideas adorned the opening four plays. Though we weren’t fans of everything, we can say that we’d spend money on OSF tickets, especially for The Music Man.
Our rankings follow the reviews, but we’d say that all four plays are worth the trip. We invite those who have seen the plays to give capsule reviews in the comments section on the review blog post. We’re eager to hear your responses to these productions! Tix here or call 800-219-8161.
The Music Man
Meredith Willson’s 1957 The Music Man has a rep as the province of poorly produced middle school or high school experiences. So I was doubtful about the OSF’s venture into Wells Fargo-landia, and the harmonica overture didn’t bode well. But by the middle of the masterfully handled “Rock Island,” this former Iowan had fallen helplessly under the spell of director Bill Rauch’s multicultural River City. True, Willson’s book and songs hit their “sell-by” date long ago, and audience members will have to put up with uneven singing and dancing (not everyone is a triple threat). But the large, joyful cast and standouts Michael Elich as Harold Hill and Howie Seago as Marcellus, along with sneaky-cool costume design, make this G-rated musical the ticket this spring. Just, please, remember not to sing along — though clapping in time seems quite welcome. — Suzi Steffen (Ranking: #1 for CA & SS)
Dead Man’s Cell Phone
A woman answers a dead man’s cell phone and her world is turned upside down in Sarah Ruhl’s hilarious and heartbreaking examination of death and embodiment in a disconnected, digital world. A strong ensemble (with extra props to Jeffrey King playing the dead man, Gordon) breathes life into Ruhl’s rain-slicked trench coat environment in the New Theatre. In tableaux ranging from an awkward dinner scene with the family of the deceased to guzzling martinis at a ritzy nightclub with the drunken widow, Jean (Sarah Agnew) holds the gravity of the play in the palm of her hand, spinning truths, half-truths and outright lies of Gordon’s final hours to comfort those who loved him. Transitioning smoothly between reality and satire, between life and afterlife, Ruhl’s postmodern diatribe gets the royal treatment at OSF. — Chuck Adams (#2 for CA, #3 for SS)
Death and the King’s Horseman
Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play brings out the absolute best in Derrick Lee Weeden, who plays Elesin, the main character and the horseman of the title. And the look of the piece, researched smartly and gorgeously designed to reflect Yoruba art and textiles, rings true. This year’s non-Western classic also shows off the talents of two women: Perri Gaffney, who plays the magnetic and somewhat unsavory role of Iyaloja, “Mother” of the market, and Emily Sophia Knapp, who makes the half-innocent, half-ignorant Jane Pilkings a complicated character. This is by far the most talky of the four opening plays, and audience members who don’t know the script should read the Illuminations guide for more info so they can stay,focused. Truly an amazing work that runs only through July 5, so get tickets soon. — Suzi Steffen (#4 for CA, #2 for SS)
Barbaric decapitations bookend this violent, graphic and downright spooky tragedy, in which Macbeth and his wife murder their way to the kingship but soon descend into madness. First-time OSF director Gale Edwards takes a maximalist approach to Shakespeare’s text, illustrating every scene in rich, inventive ways, but leaves little to the imagination. (OSF’s minimalist 2002 production of Macbeth was psychologically richer and bloodier but less gruesome.) Visual feasts abound, but little energy is spent on the love between Macbeth (Peter Macon, in a one-note performance) and Lady Macbeth (Robin Goodrin Nordli). The result is pleasing to the eyes and ears, but confounding to the heart and mind. — Chuck Adams (#3 for CA, #4 for SS)