Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Category: Oregon Shakespeare Festival Reviews

My Fair Lady (2013)

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

As many of you know, I’m not a fan of musicals. I don’t loathe them, but the ones I like are few and far between (Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages, both movies). I went into My Fair Lady with an open mind, knowing only the bare outlines of the plot, and hoped for the best.

The singing was wonderful — Rachel Warren plays Eliza Doolittle with strength and joy. Her singing is glorious, her timing impeccable, and her phrasing simply a joy to listen to. The rest of the cast is uplifted by her, many of them doing far better than I’ve heard them do in past performances. Jonathan Haugen is not known for his singing talents (although you know he’s been a long-time favorite of mine), nor is Anthony Heald (ditto), but each was wonderful, surprising and delighting me with their performances. I want to particularly call out Ken Robinson for his daftly perfect performance of Freddy Eynsford-Hill and David Kelly’s perfectly proper and quite self-centered Colonel Pickering was a perfect counterpoint to Henry Higgins’ rudeness. The cast was, simply put, just great — well done, all of you.

The Taming of the Shrew (2013)

Left waiting at the alter, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is not a happy woman. Photo by Jenny Graham

Left waiting at the alter, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is not a happy woman. Photo by Jenny Graham

The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for modern audiences. There are scenes where it is clear that Petruchio is literally torturing Kate to make her submit (sleep deprivation and starvation). He clearly says that this is necessary, he does it for love of her, and he will continue until she submit and agree to whatever he says, completely.
“Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverend care of her;
…This is a way to kill a wife with kindness;
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.”
Act IV, Scene 1

Kate is reviled and belittled, even by her father. She suffers not fools, and being intelligent and knowing how poor her lot in the world (being a woman), she has become — as they say — shrewish. Modern audiences are deeply in sympathy with her position. So it is a tricky play to try to ‘pull off’.

Cymbeline (2013)

Imogen (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) goes to sleep with thoughts of her banished husband, Posthumus.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Imogen (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) goes to sleep with thoughts of her banished husband, Posthumus.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Variously called a problem play, a romance, a tragedy and a comedy, Cymbeline is a rarely performed play from the end of Shakespeare’s career. And there are good reasons for that. The plot contains many of his favorite tropes and themes: a man’s noble character is clear, even when he is raised basely; a change of clothes makes a woman into a man and transforms one man into another; lost children are returned to their family; evil ambition is thwarted. As well, the supernatural — particularly a seeress and dead relatives — plays a role in tying all of the plot elements together. These are familiar themes for Shakespeare — what is unusual is how he changes your expectations.


The Heart of Robin Hood (2013)

Marion (Kate Hurster), disguised as Martin, finds life in the woods exhilarating. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

This play, which opened Saturday night at the Elizabethan, is a huge crowd-pleaser. Somewhat like a summer ‘tent-pole’ movie, it’s got a little bit of many things, calculated to delight the largest number of people. A revision of the old Robin Hood tale, which debuted at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon a few years ago, is stuffed full of Shakespearean memes which probably accounts for a great deal of the audience’s enjoyment.

Joel Sass directs this tale, centered on Marion (the talented Kate Hurster) a woman with no interest in following her guardian (Michael J. Hume)’s plan to marry her to the powerful, and power-mad, Prince John (Michael Elich, doing a fantastic job). Fleeing to the forest, she hopes to join Robin Hood (the ever-excellent John Tufts) and his band, only to discover that he is no shining example of nobility — he steals from the rich, yes but keeps it all for himself and his men. Moreover, he will allow no women in his band — they make men ‘messy’. Thwarted, she returns home, only to sneak out again, this time disguised as a youth — Martin of Sherwood — and with a plan to set herself up as the noble bandit. She steals from the rich, and gives it all away to the poor. She does it so well, that they come to her for help when Prince John threatens to hang a man and his family for not paying his taxes. Teaming up with Robin they fail to rescue the father, but save the children, creating a long involved sub-plot and a reason for the two bands to unite.


Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella

Along with Tracy Young, Artistic Director Bill Rauch, M/M/C (as it is called by nearly everyone) combines three mythologically grounded works: Euripides’ “Medea,” Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version of “Cinderella.” One the face of it, a deeply weird combination, but Rauch and Young felt that all three tales share common themes of magic, love, murder, obsession, and the struggle between generations.


Troilus and Cressida

War is brutal and strange and Troilus & Cressida, one of Shakepeare’s later plays, is a triumph of layered drama. As with many of his so-called ‘problem plays’ there is a large amount of humor in the first acts, which makes for a dramatic contrast to the later ones in which there is nearly no humor at all.


Henry V

What would you do if you were an unruly prince who suddenly discovers that he wants to be king? We’ve enjoyed watching Shakespeare’s version of this tale in the two Henry IV plays, and it culminates in the ever-popular Henry V. A life of dissipation would not seem to prepare one to be king, but when John Tufts’ Henry turns his back on his barfly friends, it is a seminal moment of growing up.

Now, he is king. But France does not take him seriously. The Dauphin certainly does not, sending him a box of tennis balls to play with, abjuring him from ever coming to France. And so the tale is set and spun. We watch in joy as the young man grows in power, developing a canny political side, inspiring his troops in the face of seeming failure, and (in the end) softening to become an ardent wooer.


The White Snake (2012)

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of Mary Zimmerman’s productions in the past; both of which blew me away. (If you get a chance to see Metamorphosis or The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, go. Immediately. You’ll be glad you did.) So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I purchased tickets to her newest production, The White Snake.

Billed as a beloved Oriental legend, this is the tale of a 1,700-year-old snake demon who spends a day as a woman and falls in love with a simple pharmacist’s assistant. With the help of her maid, another snake demon, she marries her love and helps him become a great success. But true love must undergo trials, and snake demons more than others.

Let me tell you now that this production joins my top ten plays from the sixteen years I’ve been attending OSF. I urge you to move it to the top of your ‘to see’ list immediately. It’s only playing through early July, and tickets will sell out soon. (I’m strongly considering traveling back in early June just to see it again.)

Director/author Mary Zimmerman excels at taking ancient stories and re-visioning them into modern terms. At the Preface I learned that Ms. Zimmerman casts the production without having a script in hand. The script was developed on the first days of rehearsal, and tailored to the skills and abilities of the actors. A tremendous burden for both the author and actors, but one fraught with tremendous potential. And the actors live up to the potential, beautifully. OSF regulars Emily Sophia Knapp and Christof Jean are particularly wonderful in their varied roles (and Jean’s heartfelt closing words will rip the tears from your eyes, matching the ones in his). Newcomers Amy Kim Waschke and Tanya McBride are truly excellent as the White Snake and Green Snake, respectively. The production is elegantly simple and I must offer loud kudos to Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling for doing such a good job of realizing Ms. Zimmerman’s vision.

Can you fall in love at first sight? Have all true lovers met in previous lifetimes? Can love survive doubt and the machinations of outside forces? With some fairly clear references to current politics, Zimmerman offers up a perspective in which love transcends physical limitations, like being human and being a snake.

Bring a hankie, or two, and go watch one of the best plays OSF has ever produced.


Julius Caesar (2011)

I thought I knew this play, having played Portia in a school production as a child; and of course it’s deeply steeped in our culture in one way or another. But OSF revamped it, stuck to a nearly literal line reading, and transformed it into one of the top ten plays I’ve seen in more than 16 years at OSF.

The play begins outside the New theater – the first brilliant decision made was to hold this play in their most versatile and interactive space. They went for a completely stripped down set – a series of boxes create the occasionally needed stage, table, chair or bed. Many of the actors play multiple parts, and rest in the wings, rarely leaving the audience’s visual awareness. As you approach the New Theater, the walkway is lined with tall white banners which, in stark language, describe leaders from many ages and backgrounds . . . all of whom have been assassinated. The banners continue inside and upstairs, bringing you into history. I didn’t realize it the first time I saw the production (I saw it twice, and would see it again in a minute), but Cassisus (Gregory Linnington) was wandering the lobby, occasionally chatting with people in a delightfully friendly manner. As the time to begin draws near, all of the actors stand in front of one of the four seating areas,casually chatting with the people in the front row. Vilma Silvia strides out, dashing in boots and a military-style leather jacket.

“Good evening, everyone” she called out, “I’m Vilma Silvia and tonight I will be playing Julius Caesar.”  (Surprise and consternation and then a strong sense of anticipation works its way through the audience.) “I’m going to need your help tonight throughout the play. Whenever I make this motion –” and here she threw her arms up into a V over her head — “I’m going to need to you to yell and clap and shout.” Can you do that? Let’s try it.”

*noise*

“That wasn’t really loud enough, can we do it again?”

*louder noise*

“Hmmm…  One more time.”

This time, we thundered, trying to be as loud as possible and just as the noise peaked the actor’s ran onstage, shouting the opening lines, and we were transported to Rome, watching the triumphant entrance of Julius Caesar, another member of the vox populi. It was extraordinary, as was the production. Vilma Silvia was magnificent — hard as nails, casually owning her power as a leader, and content with her popularity. Jonathan Haugen’s Brutus is fair-minded, but falls a bit too easily into his brother Cassius’ plotting, all the while giving one of the best performances I’ve seen from him over the years. We see clearly how envy can bring a good man down. Linnington’s Cassius is certainly “lean and hungry” and he wears his ambition like a shield, elegantly and passionately decrying the rise of a monarch who will displace the republic.

Seeing a woman stabbed to death — brutally — brought an extra dimension to the horror of her assassination, another interesting plot twist created by a strong woman as Caesar. With a simple shift in gender Cassius’ diatribe against Caesar as he makes the case for overthrow comes across as a sexist rant. I found Caesar’s cold reasoning a clever counterpoint to the impetuous and often unrealistic political scenarios of the other characters. When Mark Anthony (performed superbly by Danforth Comins) grieves, it is all the more poignant.

The 2011 Julius Caesar is one of the best OSF has produced in the past two decades.


Measure for Measure (2011)

I had the privilege of seeing Measure for Measure at OSF in 1998 at the Black Swan. Many elements of that production blew me away. I remember being surprised when audience members stood up and joined the play (being actors, not watchers) and the essential moment when the ironically named Angelo lays out his awful choice to the Isabella, sleep with me or your beloved brother will die, literally shocked me.

So it was with anticipatory pleasure that I waited all year for the new production; I was intrigued by the idea of a 70s setting, and Bill Rauch always does good work. This is a difficult play for modern audiences – the choice between the chastity required by one’s religion and the life of a brother doesn’t seem like a difficult one; but I trusted OSF to make me feel it, once again.

Sadly, this production did not wow me.

It opens beautifully, with three women cleaning a board room, singing softly. When they pull out guitars from the refuse cart and transform into mariachis, I smiled with happiness and settled in for another fascinating take on Shakespeare’s timeless scenarios. A few things felt a bit gimmicky – elegant Cristofer Jean’s transvestite Mistress Overdone was just on the edge, but several audience members were completely fooled by his transformation. And I particularly did not like the scene when the friar (Anthony Heald) and Isabella smoke cigarettes together and plan for the “greater good”; I felt it diminished her purity, which perhaps was the point. While I’m talking about the things I didn’t like, Stephanie Beatriz’s performance was stiff and awkward. I felt like I was watching a new actress, a tween even, and she never found her rhythm.

However, Kenajuan Bentley’s Lucio was prime excellence, a jive-talking stud who *owned* his part. Ramiz Monsef’s Pompey was smoothly snarky, hitting the comedic notes like a jazz musician. Rene Milan’s Angelo is tightly-wrapped passion and oily evil. I loved the 70’s counterculture, urban vibe, and the set design by Clint Ramos was excellent.

All in all, I’m glad I saw this play, but it doesn’t come close to the power of the earlier version that lives within my memory.

~review by Lisa Mc Sherry for Ashland Link


The Imaginary Invalid (2011)

The Imaginary Invalid has a hell of a pedigree to live up to. The play, originally by Moliere, has been adapted for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year by Oded Gross and Tracy Young, the same pair that adpated Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters in 2009. Likewise the play is directed by Tracy Young, as in ’09. And as the director points out in the program notes, she has drawn heavily on her own expertise (once again) in commedia dell’arte to guide this production. With so many similarities, and with Servant being such a fond memory for this reviewer, the question becomes inescapable: is Invalid just as good?

To answer, I must crib from another ’09 production and “equivocate” just a bit (ha ha ho ho, I am a wit…): yes and no. Moliere’s original work has far more of a point to it than Goldoni’s does, and likewise this adaptation finds itself more grounded, perhaps more nuanced… which is a fine quality in and of itself but not exactly in sync with the farcical tone that permeates the show for most of its duration.