May 31, 2001  



The Quality of Mercy


Oregon Shakes' early-season offerings spin tales of forgiveness--and set a few to music.



by Rob Kendt


Forgiveness is the dominant theme of the six plays mounted thus far in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, but there is little to forgive in their execution. As usual, they are produced, designed, interpreted, and performed at a consistently state-of-the-art level that bests any theatre company I've ever seen. I had to check my schedule to remind myself which plays had recently opened (Oo-Bla-Dee, in the inviting 600-seat indoor thrust Angus Bowmer Theatre, and Fuddy Meers, at the 138-seat in-the-round box Black Swan) and which had been running since the start of the season (The Tempest, Life Is a Dream, and Enter the Guardsman in the Bowmer, and The Trip to Bountiful in the Swan), in mid-February. All have the sort of theatrical surety and suppleness of shows that have been thoroughly cogitated and well rehearsed but are still breathing. And they all start on time.


With 75 actors in 11 plays over 10 months, that's quite a feat. Not that it's some impersonal play factory. There is heft, as well as sheen, onstage at OSF. While artistic director Libby Appel doesn't necessarily pick unifying themes for each season, there are inevitably leitmotivs among even the most disparate programming, and exploring these is one of the unique pleasures of the repertory model--both for the audience and for the artists. That shared exploration partly explains the festival's other distinct pleasure, which is to watch a tight-knit ensemble of world-beating actors play an astonishing range of roles; over the years, the skills and sensitivity of even the most veteran performers seem to deepen and grow.


Island Menagerie

The emphasis on the theme of forgiveness and mercy gives the season thus far a less tragic or heroic cast than in previous years, in which plays like Othello, Hamlet, Seven Guitars, or The Night of the Iguana cast the tragic mold and a three-year Prince Hal trilogy set a triumphal tone. From an ethereal Tempest to the freaked-out Fuddy Meers, the lead characters of these plays ultimately find the rewards--often at great personal cost--of making peace with the past and letting its lessons be a blessing rather than a curse.


At the center of the season is Penny Metropulos' haunting production of The Tempest, Shakespeare's rich, strange valedictory fable--and at the center of this Tempest is a female Prospero, played by the grounded and graceful Demetra Pittman. It's true, as some have said, that this sex change (as well as the re-gendering of Prospero's scheming sibling to Antonia, to whom Linda Alper lends a Lady Macbeth relish) is not necessarily "justified" by Shakespeare's text, and certainly centuries of scholarship about the play's father/daughter archetypes are useless here (dramaturg Barry Kraft had the task of switching all the pronouns and "father"s to "mother"s). But, for me, the production works on its own merits, in part simply as a chance for one of OSF's most towering talents, Pittman, to assay a great role and render those final speeches with her own brand of gravitas and dignity.


The mother/daughter spin seems to awaken in both Pittman and her Miranda, Linda K. Morris, a special kind of exile's bond--sort of a desert island Amanda/Laura Wingfield dynamic, only with a happier outcome. Metropulos and Pittman even seem to suggest that this female Prospero may have been exiled for a shame of her own; there's special emphasis placed on Prospero's warning to Ferdinand (the engaging, Aidan Quinn-like Gregory A. Linington) about fooling around before marriage. And Pittman's final renunciation of revenge has about it the liberated air of one who embraces forgiveness in part because she craves it herself.


William Bloodgood's set is a spare, rocky diorama with luminous, shifting billows of clouds above, lit with cool clarity by Robert Peterson, and Christina Poddubiuk's costumes are likewise lean, clean, and primal. John Pribyl's chalk-white Caliban evokes a sad-sack crab and Cristofer Jean's Ariel a sly, epicene lama, while Ralph Towner's music is appropriately more of the air than the earth. Having built such a delicate microcosm, Metropulos still manages--as she did years ago with her jazzy, transcendent A Midsummer Night's Dream--to integrate the groundlings-baiting comic scenes, here enlivened by G. Valmont Thomas and U. Jonathan Toppo, without disrupting the show's serene tone. Admittedly The Tempest is a notoriously undramatic conundrum of a play, and ultimately I'm not convinced that casting Prospero as a woman helps crack it open any more than any male-dominated production does. But much like the crew of sea-strewn nobles on Prospero's shore, I felt pulled along by a steady tide of strong intentions, however inscrutable.


Less all-of-a-piece but more satisfying, in the manner of a ripping good yarn, is Laird Williamson's adaptation of Calderon's Life Is a Dream. It doesn't compare favorably to his brilliant Greco-Roman Pericles of two years ago, and it's guilty of some design excess--Robert Blackman's translucent puzzle-piece screens and Taymor-esque set pieces, as well as Deborah M. Dryden's cartoonishly storybook costumes, veer dangerously close to vintage Star Trek--but it's forcefully and convincingly performed, and it moves. Kevin Kenerly's growth as Segismundo is a study in character arc, and he illuminates the play's philosophical quandaries with a keen, exhilarating sense of discovery; Vilma Silva, Jeffrey King, and Richard Howard lend weight and juice to relatively stock characters. In the jester's role of Bocazas, understudy David A. Lewis was dryly funny and sneakily sympathetic.


Time Pieces

The two contemporary plays on the mid-size Bowmer stage are musicals of a sort: Enter the Guardsman in the more traditional operetta mold, Oo-Bla-Dee in a more deconstructed, docu-drama performance style. Guardsman is the 1994 adaptation (by composer Craig Bohmler, librettist Scott Wentworth, and lyricist Marion Adler) of Molnar's frothy 1924 backstage farce, The Guardsman, which deftly dramatizes the challenge of assaying marital roles over a "long run." If the OSF acting company at times resembles a vintage studio roster a la MGM or Warners, the Swiss-watch perfection of director Peter Amster's production clinches the analogy: From the leads--Michael Elich and Suzanne Irving as a self-involved husband-and-wife acting team, Richard Farrell as a voyeuristic playwright--to the supporting cast--Linda Alper, David Kelly, Christine Williams, and Charlie Kimball as a gossipy but pliant backstage staff--this is a cast worthy of Lubitsch or Sturges. Bohmler's and Adler's score is an often inspired facsimile of Herbert via Rodgers, and it's delivered with surpassing aplomb and skill by these singing actors and six onstage musicians.


Regina Taylor's Oo-Bla-Dee is at least as well produced and cast, by director Tim Bond, with Richard L. Hay's multileveled set evoking a tenement, a club, a recording studio, and the open road all at once, and the cast etching fresh portrayals of a female jazz band in 1946. The first act promisingly lays out the classic backstage premise: Country-girl sax player (the beatific BW Gonzalez) comes to play with big city jazz band and overcomes the bandleader's skepticism (Andrea Frye, edges so sharp you could cut yourself). And the tense rapport between them and the other musicians (Deidrie Henry, Maya Thomas) and a glad-handing manager (G. Valmont Thomas) suggests Ma Rainey's Black Bottom with a feminist twist. But in the second act the characters disappear behind a litany of portentous aphorisms and un-illuminating musings on time in all its forms--musical, sociological, historical--and on the intertwining heritage of jazz and the African-American experience. The characters briefly re-emerge to act out a forced, unbelievable tragic denouement, but too little too late.


Elegy and Romp

In the Odyssey Theatre-style Black Swan is a pair of American plays that almost couldn't contrast more. First, there's Horton Foote's elegiac masterwork The Trip to Bountiful, given a luxurious, finely nuanced production under director Libby Appel, with a beautifully contemplative but unsentimental lead performance by Dee Maaske as the old woman who wants one last look at her childhood home--and a chance to recover her better self--and Michael J. Hume and Robin Goodrin Nordli as the frustrated, frustrating couple who make her life in a Houston flat a bleak purgatory.


And there's Fuddy Meers, David Lindsay-Abaire's irreverent Off-Broadway romp, in which an amnesiac spends her day in a disjointed picaresque of discovery; it's like one long black-comic riff on recovered memory, and the memories aren't pretty. As the amnesiac Claire, Judith Marie Bergan has too knowing a glint in her eye to be convincingly naive, but this does make Claire's turning of the tables on her tormentors quite delicious, and the supporting cast--Richard Elmore as a crippled biker, John Pribyl as a well-meaning nudnik, Gregory A. Linington as a surly pothead, Catherine Coulson as Claire's sweetly exasperated and unintelligible mother, Ray M. Porter as a pathetic, puppet-wielding loon, and the riotous Eileen DeSandre as a dumbly jealous biker chick--is as weirdly, disarmingly sympathetic as a John Waters cast. If James Edmondson's direction occasionally veers toward the cutesy, at its best the production nails Lindsay-Abaire's gift for front-loading dramatic punch lines with comic setups, and vice versa.


And this season's showings thus far demonstrate OSF artists' gift for giving both the comic and dramatic dimensions of human behavior their full theatrical due. Ashland's stages are one place where, as Portia will say in this summer's production of Merchant of Venice, the quality of mercy is not strained.