August 30, 2001
Autumnal seasonings and shaded casting color this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
by Rob Kendt
Ashland, Ore., is just a two-hour non-stop flight away from Los Angeles, but it might as well be in Maine for all its relation or resemblance to the entertainment industry capital. Its town-square downtown, bisected by a long main road and ringed by residential areas in a small, sleepy valley in the Siskiyou Mountain plain, reminds me of small towns like Prescott or Flagstaff, in Northern Arizona, where a rootsy regional character coexists peacefully with a healthy tourist trade that's neither particularly tacky nor insufferably chi-chi.
The attraction for me, and for hundreds of thousands of other tourists from up and down the coast and points east, is the three-theatre complex of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which runs like a well-oiled theatre machine, with 70 actors or so employed for 10 months a year, often for years at a time, doing rep in as many as three shows at a time, from musicals to edgy contemporary plays, from warhorse classics to little-seen relics. But, while any actor who takes himself out of the job market for 10 months at a stretch is clearly putting his art first, OSF's actors are as practical-minded as any. Many participate in a dues-paying program called Shares, into which they voluntarily pool resources to fly in film and TV casting directors and artistic staff from other regional theatres to see their work and take general meetings with actors. Past years have brought in such L.A. casting heavyweights as Jeff Greenberg, Mali Finn, and John Levey; this year industry casting guests have included Cathy Reinking (Frasier), Richard Hicks (of Hicks/Yeskel Casting), and Warner Bros. TV's Tony Sepulveda (now taking the helm of The West Wing). One actress told me that more L.A. casting folk had seen her work in a few seasons in Ashland than in her years pounding the pavement in L.A. Ray Porter, currently appearing as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is among a handful of OSF regulars who have had their share of film and TV gigs; Porter's appeared on ER, Murphy Brown, and Frasier, and in a coveted but truncated role in Almost Famous.
For casting directors looking for the next film or TV star, this may not have been the best year at OSF--actors like Anthony Heald, Dan Donohue, Jonathan Adams, and Robynn Rodriguez found work elsewhere. But for those looking to fill dramatic guest spots, the programming might have been tailor-made, as this year's plays have by and large provided thornier, more nuanced, less showy roles than in previous years, which were dominated by such cultural touchstones as Hamlet, Hecuba, Othello, Kate and Petruchio, and Prince Hal. This year's casting and interpretations have a measured approach, as well, from a female Prospero, played with cool, inward torment by Demetra Pittman, to an elegiac Mrs. Carrie in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, etched with heartbreaking restraint by Dee Maaske. Even the icons invoked in OSF's Swiss-watch production of the backstage musical Enter the Guardsman--the Lunts--are icons once removed, reflected in a diverting hall of theatrical mirrors.
And this year's outdoor shows--typically crowd pleasers, Ashland's equivalent of summer blockbusters--paint a gallery of rogues, scoundrels, and knaves with The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Troilus and Cressida, while recently opened indoor offerings, Three Sisters and Two Sisters and a Piano (check the box office for the special "Five Sisters" fare), are pointedly anti-heroic and human-scaled. Indeed, apart from Laird Williamson's ripping staging of Life Is a Dream, this season has been conspicuously understocked with the sort of mythic heroes and villains you can root for and dread, respectively.
This is not altogether a bad thing. In fact, in the season's strongest plays--Penny Metropulos' serene, brooding Tempest, Michael Donald Edwards' prickly, Edwardian/Kubrickian Merchant of Venice, Kenneth Albers' rip-roaringly cynical Troilus and Cressida, and the aforementioned Bountiful and Guardsman--and in its more mixed productions (the Chekhov, Oo-Bla-Dee, Fuddy Meers), the finer shading and scale of the performances perfectly match the moods of these plays: jaundiced, oblique, ironic, Olympian, elegiac, or outright sour.
It was a hot, dry summer in Ashland, but onstage it's been a changing-color autumn all year long.
The outdoor season, which runs in June through September, features a pair of rousing downers and an exhausting romp. The surprise is Troilus, Shakespeare's irreverent stab at the Trojan War, which, in director Albers' nimble, savvy production, plays like the sort of revisionist take on classical heroes and themes you'd expect from Brecht or Anouilh. Central to the show's success is its bitter fool and chorus, Thersites, to whom James Newcomb gives exactly the right mean, grubby, nihilistic urgency. Facing the apocalyptic stakes of the Trojan/Greek conflict, and parsing its venal roots in sex and envy, this Thersites spews the venom of a man with nothing to lose.
The casting of other key roles is dead on, from Jeff Cummings' sleazily arrogant Paris to Jeffrey King's vainly martial Achilles, from James J. Peck's dim circus-strongman Ajax to Richard Elmore's nails-for-breakfast Agamemnon. In the absurdly na•ve title roles, Kevin Kenerly and Tyler Layton manage the difficult trick of believing their swooning first-love pledges, even as we can see the punishing wheels grinding toward them inexorably. Their trysts are managed by William Leach's flawless, sycophantic busybody Pandarus. Troilus ends abruptly, like the first installment of a series, leaving us with a moral as bleak as a moonscape, but Albers and company give this discursive, expository text so much wit, grit, and pulse that its effect is more satisfying, in its own chilly way, than many a play with a falsely tidy denouement.
Subverting the tidy wrap-up of The Merchant of Venice is almost required these days; what contemporary audience could stomach its lovers' ignorant bliss, when it has come at the expense of Shylock's property, dignity, indeed his very soul? But director Edwards' quiet, shabby-genteel ending, with the couples dancing contentedly as a rumpled servant stands glumly at attention, is stronger for the subtlety of its question mark: For this they humiliated and robbed the Jew?
Elsewhere, Edwards is not subtle, rendering the play's mutual calculations with the bold strokes of a heist plot (set to a searing, film-style score by Robby McLean) and giving the Jew-baiting an overlay of lurid Clockwork Orange thuggery. Tony DeBruno's black-clad, Yiddishy Shylock is never cheap, nor cheaply funny; and Robin Goodrin Nordli makes a razor-sharp, wised-up Portia, without straining to apologize for the terrible limits of her wisdom, or trying to explain why her Christian concept of mercy is so unforgiving to non-Christians. It certainly wasn't Shakespeare's point--that otherwise good, smart people have big, deadly blind spots--but it's a valid one, and one that Merchant unavoidably, if inadvertently, raises today. Like Shrew, this is an essential, problematic text that, in the right hands, can confront us provocatively and movingly with an unflattering reflection--a feast of food for thought.
I found Lillian Garrett Groag's Merry Wives to be one of those tiring comic workouts that seems to hand the reins over to seasoned comedians--in this case Ray Porter, Judith-Marie Bergan, Suzanne Irving, and Catherine E. Coulson, among others--and let them run away with the show, while all the time working strenuously to illustrate a winking, too-clever directorial concept. The frantic, preciously whimsical result is hard on everyone: actors, audience, and above all Shakespeare. Groag's conceit, scored to excerpts from Don Giovanni, is to imagine a Falstaff spurred on to amour by an absurdly dashing self-image, literally embodied in his dressing mirror by young, blond Charlie Kimball. It makes less sense with each repetition, and along with a synthetically frenzied pace, it's gilding on this lightest of Shakespearean lilies. (The best gag of the night came pre-show, outside the theatre, where a man held the unpunctuated sign, "Need two Merry Wives tonight.")
As for the most recent indoor shows, Libby Appel's Three Sisters is stronger than her Vanya of a few years back but, like that show, contains many brilliant, sympathetic individual moments that don't quite find the harmony of an ensemble. And while I'm all for a more stylized, less naturalistic approach to Chekhov, the danger of a heavier directorial hand is that it may tip the scales of sympathy toward some characters and away from others, which does Chekhov's breathtakingly democratic humanism and evenhanded emotional distance no favors. Meanwhile, the final show in the small Black Swan (to be replaced next year by a new 350-seater), Nilo Cruz's tame, Stockholm syndrome-tinged bodice-ripper Two Sisters and a Piano, is notable mainly for William Bloodgood's set, Ann G. Wrightson's lighting, and Armando Duran's insinuating performance as a Cuban militia functionary.
Duran, incidentally, is one of those actors who has taken himself out of the L.A. market for OSF's nearly full-time theatre employment, and the aesthetic benefits have been evident in his performances over the last three seasons. Duran's other main gig this season is not for public consumption: He's part of a unique play-in-development that playwright Octavio Solis is creating in ongoing workshops with eight OSF actors. The results may or may not see the light of day, but for the artists of Ashland, as for any truly committed actors anywhere, every day they get to act--in rep, in workshop, or on a TV sitcom--is its own reward.