July 18, 2002


OSF's Off Season

There's no shortage of blood or guts in Ashland this year, but auguries are mixed.


by Rob Kendt


Freddy, the fretful actor in Noises Off so comically averse to violence and blood, would have a rough time if he attended this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. On top of that Michael Frayn backstage gem, which in Kenneth Albers' just-fine production has the requisite bumps and scraping pratfalls, there's cruelty and gore galore on the three stages of sunny Ashland--from the hacked flesh of Titus Andronicus to the multiple perforations of Macbeth and Julius Caesar, from the gathering world war of Idiot's Delight to the guns and snakes of Handler. And certainly the psychological body blows of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are as unsettling, maybe moreso, than any real bloodletting. If only the grisly bear attack of Winter's Tale didn't happen offstage, and there weren't such a nice production of As You Like It tucked in the program, this season would be poor Freddy's worst nightmare.


For the rest of us it's pretty rough going, too. Not because we don't like the peerless OSF company to go grim--it can do so brilliantly, as in last year's biting Troilus and Cressida, a harrowing Trojan Women the year before, a definitive Othello in 1999. Indeed, a season in the key of destruction might seem especially timely (though these plays were selected well before Sept. 11), even welcome from artists working at the top of their form. However, this year doesn't find the company at its best, on the whole; there's plenty of bleeding but not enough heart, a surfeit of guts and intelligence but a relative shortage of imagination and soul. It's hard to point to any single culprit in an enterprise so large and complicated. Great sports teams have their down seasons, too.


Bad Match

The obvious single person to blame, as in sports, is the head coach--or in this case, artistic director Libby Appel. That's not entirely fair, perhaps, to her pioneering leadership of this great organization, but Appel doesn't help matters by doing some of the festival's less inspired directing. Case in point: her unfortunate Macbeth. You've got to admire the chutzpah of opening OSF's brand new 300-seater (minus a naming gift, still the "New Theatre") with the notoriously unlucky Scottish play, but apart from one eerie story that's making the rounds--that the theatre's electrician, named John Macbeth, was shot and killed by his wife's lover before building was completed--the only ill fortune to befall this Macbeth is the very un-supernatural fact that it's terrible.


Correspondent Jean Schiffman already covered the show (BSW, 3/28/02), so I'll only add that it points up not only a failure in concept--stripping the play down to two hours and six characters to get at its archetypal psychology, thus leeching its every drop of urgency--but the perils of repertory casting. G. Valmont Thomas, one of the company's great clowns and character players, proves a weak and puzzled Macbeth. What could have been a coup of bold casting-against-type is here just a bad match.


On the expansive outdoor Elizabethan Stage, another of OSF's brilliant comic chameleons, John Pribyl, is similarly out of his depth as Leontes in Winter's Tale, giving that tough, maddening role a superficial treatment in a production that could use more heart and soul. Director Michael Donald Edwards, whose Henry IV, Part One and Merchant of Venice (also on the Elizabethan Stage) were passionate, full-bodied modern-dress affairs, disappoints here, with a tamped-down first act and a second act cloyingly decked in '60s flower child drag. This crowd-pleasing conceit works well for Ray Porter's cutpurse Autolychus, who crawls out of a trapdoor to the tune of Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand," but it works not at all to festoon the play's blank young ingenues, Florizel and Perdita, with pookah shells and floral prints while the actors, Jos Viramontes and Tyler Layton, give standard-Shakespeare line readings.


The Bard fares better in Penny Metropulos' lean, bucolic As You Like It, also on the outdoor stage, which has the director's usual flawless taste and wistful wit, and which, more crucially, has a sharp, sweet, entirely loveable Rosalind in the person of Deidrie Henry. At times Metropulos' spare design--Michael Ganio's two-tone set, Deborah M. Dryden's muted costumes, Alaric Jans' melancholy clarinet score--feels overly ascetic, a killjoy; the early forest-of-Arden scenes are particularly lifeless. But this laidback tone perfectly sets up the show's unlikely high point: the casual comic summit between a poor shepherd (Josiah Phillips) and Touchstone (Dan Donohue), which unwinds effortlessly as a small, exquisitely observed play unto itself.


The festival's third outdoor production, Titus Andronicus, more or less succeeds on its own modest terms--which, under traditionalist resident director James Edmondson, are the reassuring paces of straight-faced B-movie horror. Indeed, to see Shakespeare's youthful blood-feast, which has lost none of its shock value since 1594, rendered without winks or stylization is something of a relief; we might not be as able to shake off the real horror of a more high-minded production. William Langan's Titus bucks up and delivers the goods without fuss--he's especially effective in his feigned-madness sequence--and Judith-Marie Bergan's Tamora is a delicious slice of glamorous Old-Hollywood witchery. And while Derrick Lee Weeden wrings every drop of complexity from Aaron the Moor's perversely principled villainy, there's not much room in this production for ambivalence.


Of Laird Williamson's Julius Caesar, indoors on the Angus Bowmer thrust stage, there is little to add to Jean Schiffman's glowing review (BSW, 3/28/02) except to marvel at Williamson's stage sorcery, in particular his ability to make bold, even foolhardy theatrical gestures--Brechtian commentary, cinematic slo-mo, modern-dress pop references, ghostly death scenes--come off brilliantly, with a pointed lyricism that makes Shakespeare sing.


Snake Dance

Another visionary guest director, Bill Rauch of L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater Company, worked a more soulful, earthy brand of magic on Robert Schenkkan's lopsided new play Handler, recently closed in the New Theatre. Set among believers in a Pentecostal church where the spirit moves worshippers to dance and whirl, lay on hands, speak in tongues, and handle poisonous snakes, Handler plays theme-and-variations on the prodigal son story: First it's Geordi's (Jonathan Haugen) literal return from prison, then his miraculous resurrection, and at last a more shadowy internal reckoning after a wilderness sojourn. None of these goes smoothly, not for Geordi or for his embittered wife Terri (Robynn Rodriguez) or their pastor Bob (Ken Albers), and Schenkkan's raw, rough-hewn play burrows deep into their soul sickness.


Inscrutably deep, finally. For when Geordi goes missing in the second act, the play goes with him, disintegrating into monologues and dubious symbolism. More's the pity after a first act warmed by a palpable sense of hardscrabble lives and the respite of community; in Rauch's production the Pentecostal worship sequences in the theatre's avenue staging reached a pitch of authentic spiritual ecstasy that was more than moving, it was transporting, with Albers' pastor leading the congregants and Robert "Hawkeye" Herman's onstage band into a frenzied gospel hoedown. And the indelible, searing performances of the three leads carried us safely through the jagged second act; actors so absolutely fused to characters, so rich in backstory and subtext, can make us feel the texture of a play's world even when the play has evaporated, and so it was with the elusive, haunting Handler.


The actors in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, on the Bowmer stage, are just as deeply invested in Albee's bipolar after-hours world, in which real-time naturalism and schematic, absurdist role-playing coexist in a tenuous continuum; William Bloodgood's disheveled set is both a realistic portrait of domestic disarray and a timeless theatre of psychological war. Under director Timothy Bond, it's the most satisfying and consistently surprising production of the season. Just when I worried that Andrea Frye's blowsy, statuesque Martha was veering too close to Tennessee Williams territory, in waltzed Richard Elmore's crabbed, impish George with a clutch of snapdragons to the tune of Albee's wicked Streetcar reference ("FloresÉ flores para los muertos"). Christine Williams offers a stronger, stranger Honey than we're used to seeing, and though Jeff Cummings is a bit petulant and self-conscious as Nick, his and Bond's conception of this cocky young sycophant clicks perfectly.


Also clicking perfectly are the festival's other two Bowmer shows, Noises Off and Idiot's Delight. Jean Schiffman already crowed about these crowd pleasers; I would only add my reservations about the pacifist naivete of Robert E. Sherwood's 1936 world-war warning, which director Peter Amster mounted beautifully if all too faithfully.


Opening later this summer are two productions in a lighter vein: Eduardo De Filippo's Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Mustapha Matura's Playboy of the West Indies. These will inevitably change the festival's balance sheet of gloom and sunshine. Here's hoping they also provide a soft landing for this uncharacteristically off season at the country's best repertory theatre.