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Ashland or Bust

Photo by Jennifer Reiley

I will accept anything in the theater . . . provided it amuses or moves me. But if it does neither, I want to go home.

—Noel Coward

The above, posted in a Coward exhibit at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is as good and simple a standard as any I’ve heard. But what if home is 800 miles away and the motel room is costing you $150 a night? And you’ve brought your kids to the great little town of Ashland for a bit of Shakespeare, and chosen a comedy and a romance (of sorts) specifically to appeal to them? These were among the questions I was pondering while trying to stay awake, er, sitting in OSF’s outdoor Elizabethan Stage on an extremely warm summer evening, one that seemed perfect for a lively production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a troupe considered to be among the best repertory companies in America.

Another thing I was thinking: The actor playing the important dual roles of Theseus, duke of Athens, and Oberon, king of the fairies, has a rather unfortunate resemblance — both visual and aural — to a somewhat macho Richard Simmons. And another: Repertory casting is an inherently difficult task. Evidently. What to do with that slouchy balding guy? Throw him into Dream as Lysander, the one the young women are supposed to be crazy for. Never mind that he stands there onstage like a vertical sock until his turn to speak, then suddenly leaps into action like Johnny Pneumatic. (Dude, think basketball — it isn’t just how you shoot but what you do when you’re away from the ball.) And the Asian actress? Hermia — of course, she’s supposed to be short. Never mind that Julie Oda lifts her arms every time she speaks, like a child in her first play.

One got the distinct impression that the actors, almost uniformly, would really rather be performing in their other play in repertory. Their Dream had the feeling of standard Shakespearean fare for the standard Ashland visitor (white upper-middle post-50s in shorts and Subarus), and the less said about the scenic and costume design the better. (I’m not sure whether Queer Eye for the Straight Play was needed, or Straight Eye for the Queer Play.) In short, this production was not quite the “memorable journey through a universe of love and magic” suggested by director Kenneth Albers in his program notes: “We hope to expand our vision beyond the mundane and the banal. And, above all, we hope to soar above the terror that seems to surround us, above the greed that seems to govern us, above the ego that seems to control us and so to reach a brighter and more courageous world in which the very best that is within us will not be the exception, but, rather, the rule.” Well, hope springs eternal in Ashland!

To be fair, there were bright spots: William Langan as Nick Bottom was funny as an ass, and Kim Rhodes, a breath of fresh air as Helena, spoke the Bard’s language well. I couldn’t hear a word Sandy McCallum was saying as Puck, but he looked amusing, and that turned out to be helpful. The night’s real highlight came in the brief moment following intermission when all the lights were turned off, and the night sky appeared in the frame of the open Globe-style roof. Finally, some magic. But by then, methinks, Mr. Coward would have been back at the motel, drinking by the pool.

 

We had much better luck the next day with Romeo and Juliet. One immediately felt in the presence of talent, of cohesive, interesting design (by Robert Brill) and direction (Loretta Greco). Here were the strong, charismatic young men — well, three or four of them at any rate — who would make good, believable Lysanders and Demetriuses. I don’t quite get what the oft-employed contemporary dress and setting bring to an otherwise straight reading of Shakespeare — you lose the context for all this Sturm und Drang, for one thing — but perhaps it was that, and the new script fashioned by Greco and collaborators from three versions of the play, which brought the language itself into keen focus.

Nancy Rodriguez was a sincere, affecting Juliet, the pretty girl next door you might just fall for. (But hopelessly, to the point of suicide? Not quite.) Kevin Kenerly’s Romeo, all dreadlocked virility, was an uninspired casting choice. Though a strong presence to be sure, Kenerly has a limited range (a rather pretty bull comes to mind), and he’s not the actor either he, or the festival, thinks he is. More interesting, more real, would have been Danforth Comins, who played Benvolio with fresh honesty. The supporting cast was uniformly strong, notably Andrea Frye as Nurse, Jeffrey King as Capulet and especially Duane Boutté as Mercutio. UCLA-trained, Boutté is a physical, exciting young actor who single-handedly provided more punch than all the previous Midsummer Night’s lovers, pucksters and fairies combined.

 

Clearly, OSF is a venerable company, and although you’d think you ought to be able to judge it by its Shakespearean standards, maybe that’s not entirely fair. After all, there are 11 full productions in repertory this summer (the season actually starts in February, extending to November), only four of which are by Shakespeare. Although I had scheduled a third — Richard II — the two in two days proved plenty, especially for the kids. I left town with that discomfiting feeling you get in a foreign place, realizing you’ve chosen the wrong club or restaurant. A truer, and more memorable, visit would likely include a mix of plays, old and new. There is plenty to choose from.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2003 season — Romeo and Juliet, Present Laughter, Daughters of the Revolution (Continental Divide), Hedda Gabler, The Piano Lesson, Antony and Cleopatra, Lorca in a Green Dress, Richard II, Wild Oats, A Midsummer Night’s Dream — continues into October or November, depending upon the production. The 2004 season, beginning next February, is scheduled to include The Comedy of Errors, The Royal Family, The Visit, A Raisin in the Sun, Frank Galati’s Oedipus Complex, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, Henry VI (Part One), Humble Boy, King Lear, Henry VI (Parts Two and Three), and Much Ado About Nothing. (541) 482-2111, www.osfashland.org.


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