As promised, my two reviews. I don't know when these will run in the paper, but here they are pre-paper. Anna Grace also reviewed two of the OSF shows, I believe for this week's paper as well.
Anthony Heald has won some plum parts in recent years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — Shag/Shakespeare in Equivocation and Shylock in last year’s Merchant of Venice. The actor finds himself once again at the center of a thickly layered, ambiguous play, this one about the nature of power and religious belief.
Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, the festival’s Illuminations guide explains, just before he began writing the four major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear).
Certainly the script flirts with both comedy and tragedy as Heald’s Duke of Vienna (“an American town,” the description reads in the playbill) pretends to leave town just to find out what his deputy, Angelo (René Millán), will do with his power.
Turns out Angelo doesn’t know much about mercy. The town’s full of pimps, whores and kids who sleep together before they’re married, and Angelo’s determined to clean it up.
Here, you might want to know that the setting for the play is 1975, and the city of Vienna sits near the Mexico/U.S. border. The plot includes the Duke disguised as a friar; the attempts of Isabela, a novice nun (Stephanie Beatriz, quite good in a role tremendously different from last year’s Maggie the Cat), to free her brother Claudio (Frankie J. Alvarez) from the death sentence Angelo gives him for getting his girlfriend (Alejandra Escalante) pregnant; and a bunch of side plots involving Lucio (Kenajuan Bentley, who’s sublimely masterful in the comic role), Mistress Overdone (Cristofer Jean) and Pompey (Ramiz Monsef, also quite good).
The self-proclaimed incorruptible Angelo finds himself intensely attracted to Isabela, and he tells her if she gives him her body, he may save her brother’s life. Can the Duke save everyone? Should he? And what about his own weaknesses? Go to the messy, multi-layered, complex production and let Las Colibri — a mariachi band – and Clint Ramos’ set transport you to the halls and brothels of power, and discover the answer for yourself.
George (Rex Young) implores Emma (Susannah Flood) to return to the language archive. Photo: David Cooper.
What Can’t Be Said, What Must Be Said
Dead languages pile up and spill over the set of The Language Archive, each towering stack of boxes threatening to bury their archivist in the tapes and transcripts of loss.
In Julia Cho’s recent play, men and women can’t communicate and can’t quite figure out why. The script mixes funny, touching, realistic, heartstring-tugging, clichéd, whimsical and absurd in a two-act package that uses irony as a blunt weapon (language archivist George, played with a smart sweetness by Rex Young, speaks many language but can’t communicate with his wife — get it?) but that often redeems itself through painfully, awkwardly tender moments.
The plot as such consists of yearning from George, his wife Mary (Kate Mulligan, who’s marvelous) and his besotted assistant Emma (Susannah Flood, whose gawky/cute mannerisms work well for this character). Add a bit of the “our elders from faraway villages aren’t perfect but impart wisdom to us” trope, as the last two speakers of Elloway (Richard Elmore and Judith Delgado) find meaning at the end of their lives and the life of their language; mix in a few set pieces in train stations, bakeries and language classes and let rise.
Delgado, a newcomer to the festival, stands out as the language teacher, but the entire cast compels a surprisingly strong warmth, wringing it from their characterizations rather than the script itself. Still, what with the occasional poetic flight of fancy from George, a marvelous smell (how did you cue that, OSF?) at just the right time, jokes about the Dutch facility with languages and the palpable sadness underlying every bit of the show, The Language Archive satisfies for a couple of hours in the immediacy of the New Theatre.
It's morning in the New Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and in a few minutes, Artistic Director Bill Rauch and Executive Director Paul Nicholson will hit the scene (I think, though I also see Lue Morgan Douthit, director of literary development and dramaturgy here. So I'll launch the live blog and pop in a few photos from time to time ...
Well, there's no room in print this week for my reviews of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's last two plays of the season (seven others are still running; I'll link to reviews below), so I'm throwing up a quick post about both of them.
We left Eugene around 9:45 on Saturday morning and still had enough time in Ashland to eat the genius salad bar from the Ashland Food Co-op (I always forget that Ashland has a local sales tax on food — shocking! Me to the cashier: "You can tell the Oregonians from the Californians by who freaks out about tax, right?" Cashier: "Unh hunh, for sure."), snag the tix, run into Bonnie Bettman-McCornack and her husband Kevin (also going to the Bowmer), throw back some caffeine and get to my seat before the 1:30 pm start of Throne of Blood.
Throne of Blood has so many visually breaktaking moments, I'm not sure I can begin to describe them. So I'm sprinkling photos throughout.
Lisa (Terri McMahon) tries to explain the status of her play to the audience. Photo by Jenny Graham
A Quasi-Hit and a Miss
Two more openers at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
by Suzi Steffen and Anna Grace
Sometimes, It’s Hard to Get Well
by Suzi Steffen
“It’s not even a first draft!” huffed a 60-something man in a cowboy hat as we filed out of the 95-minute New Theatre production of Lisa Kron’s Well. “MAYBE there's enough material for one or two one-acts! With lots of drafts!”
To my other side, a middle-aged woman said to her friend, “Wasn’t that wonderful? Wasn’t that moving? Tears were streaming down my cheeks.”
Ann (Dee Maaske) finds herself onstage as "an example" in her daughter's play. Photo by David Cooper
All righty, then. What is Well? Is the Tony-award-winning play a solo performance piece (with a few other actors) as Lisa (originally played by the playwright; at OSF, played by Terri McMahon) and her mother (Dee Maaske) discuss? Is it about her life, her mother’s life, sickness in the form of many allergies, integration in a formerly white neighborhood, Lisa’s selective memory, her mother’s ability to charm her friends and make her insane? Maybe. Certainly it concerns the bonds that tie Lisa to her mother and the shorthand she’s conceived in her N.Y. life for describing her childhood home in East Lansing, Mich. “I got well,” she says, explaining that she also suffered from allergies but was somehow able to move on.
Any now-coastal folk who have moved from the Midwest or urbanites who left the concerns of their parents and grandparents behind will recognize the shifting, and rather shifty, way Lisa describes her mother and her mother’s house. The set, by Richard L. Hay, beautifully presents a cluttered but extremely organized living room, complete with the mother’s recliner and well-organized files about her work to integrate the neighborhood when Lisa was little.
Lisa’s frustration and anger with her mother’s inability to get better, her blithe statements about getting in touch with her body through yoga and her fear of her mother’s vulnerability, make the piece uncomfortably real, as do the moments when inhabitants of the allergy clinic talk about being tired of being sick and wanting to get better, but not having that chance.
Alarmingly, characters make the same analogy about health and sickness — people who are healthy imagine sickness as something laid on top of their health — that Lisa’s mother makes about her white self imagining what it’s like to be black. Much of the play interrogates the playwright’s memory, and some of that interrogation works wonders. But the final scene, in which Lisa reads a note that supposedly will reveal some of the true nature of her mother, doesn’t work at all Both McMahon, who’s otherwise decent in the role, and the script (the note/speech is less than insighful) fall flat, leaving the ending surprisingly dull after a fabulous, energetic beginning and an engaging middle portion. Who’s the play's intended audience, I wonder, especially after hearing the post-show comments. I suspect that daughters of any adult age may find this play moving. Well deals with huge issues, in too short a time, and it’s a mostly one-woman show without the woman who premiered it a few years ago. But it's chewy, touching on challenging relationships and how we decide we've grown up.
More Charm School, Please
By Anna Grace
The Jane Austen bandwagon has been full to overflowing within these last few years with poorly wrought sequels, modern interpretations and even vampires. While Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s streamlined stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice saves us from the gross imaginings of some of those efforts, it lacks the charm and richness that make the book so satisfying.
The pace is dizzying, skimming through the story by hitting on mere snippets of its most important scenes. The quick succession of action and characters made it necessary for audience members to be familiar with the plot; it would have been difficult to understand the story if they didn’t.
Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Hurster) rejects Mr. Darcy's (Elijah Alexander) proposal.
Photo by David Cooper
But as someone intimately familiar with the book, I found the breakneck speed of this play lacking. The play feels less like the wonderful, charcter-driven romance and more like a conglomeration of the book’s greatest lines.
Despite this atmosphere of extreme haste, the romantic scenes are swoon-worthy, due largely to Elijah Alexander’s soulfully conflicted Mr. Darcy. Alexander’s presence seems able to slow time as action swirls around him and the audience watch him fall in love with Elizabeth (Kate Hurster.) Of the other characters I can only say they didn’t have enough time, the worst case being Mark Murphey as Mr. Bennet, who was only allowed to walk on stage, deliver a famous line and exit thereafter.
The set, an empty ballroom occasionally enlivened by a few chairs or a piano bench, and the beautiful costumes were not enough to hold the production together. I did not find myself delighted by Austen’s wit and social satire, nor did I enter her world; in this production, I was merely reminded of it.
These reviews will appear in the March 4 Eugene Weekly. Suzi, not surprisingly, has more to say than we had room for and will be posting some extra blog bits about 'em. Also, look for reviews of Well and Pride and Prejudice later today on the blog, and in the paper March 11.
Brick (Danforth Comins) rebuffs Maggie's (Stephanie Beatriz) attempts to draw him into conversation. Photo by David Cooper
OSF’s Opening Salvos Resonate
Get tickets now for these two classic, strong plays
By Anna Grace and Suzi Steffen
We attended four plays during the opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 75th annivesary year. The two reviewed here were not only the best of the weekend but some of the best plays the two of us have ever seen. We’d urge you to get tickets soon (off-season tickets are 25 percent cheaper than summer tickets … hint, hint).
Sizzlingly Striking Cat
by Anna Grace
“Bravo! Bravo!” yelled the man to my left as he leapt to his feet, and that was only when the curtain swiveled around for intermission. OSF’s near perfect production of Tennessee Williams’ iconic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deserves his praise.
Maggie the Cat’s desperate play for self preservation and Brick’s angst about a deep male friendship may belong to the Mississippi Delta of 1955, but the struggles of power, sex and unrequited love that permeate a family are timeless. In this slightly revised 1974 version of the play, Williams is relentless, exposing anguish, shame and fear until audiences are acutely uncomfortable but powerless to look away.
Danforth Comins is extraordinary as Brick, able to move, speak and even sweat along his brow and upper lip like an alcoholic on a binge. Stephanie Beatriz is equally satisfying in the role of Maggie the Cat. Big Daddy (Michael Winters) echoes Maggie’s scrapping, passionate nature. Further cementing this exceptional show are Kate Mulligan and Rex Young as Mae and Gooper.
Big Daddy (Michael Winters) and Brick (Danforth Comins) finally have the conversation they've never had. Photo by David Cooper
All action is intentionally set in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom on the Pollitt plantation, symbolizing the absence of boundary between private and public in a family. Brilliant designer Christopher Acebo further plays on this by pushing a circular thrust out into the seating, and surrounding it by two layers of sheer white curtains in which characters can eavesdrop or escape. Thus is director Christopher Liam Moore aided in his endeavor to haul his audience along with his characters into the tense bedroom and onto the “hot tin roof” where pain and frustration are laid raw.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs only through July 4 at the Bowmer Theatre.
Hamlet (Dan Donohue) contemplates the ghostly vision of his father. Photo by David Cooper
by Suzi Steffen
Playing Hamlet must be one of the the most challenging and the most glorious opportunities for a Shakespearean actor. Dan Donohue’s skinny-jeaned, tight-T-shirted Hamlet exhibits a sense of humor and a distanced self-awareness that doesn’t quite let him anticipate the consequences of his actions. He’s fallible, snarky, wounded and full of contradictions; he’s an urban man brought reluctantly home from the city to deal with family issues he’d rather not face at the ancestral castle.
OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, also the director of Hamlet, and Donohue worked together closely to create this modern version, where the King of Denmark’s castle guards wear SECURITY on their uniforms and shine powerful flashlights from their automatic weapons. Christopher Acebo’s multi-door and movable-wall set creates the sense that Hamlet feels trapped despite the many means of escape.
Donohue inhabits Hamlet so fully, breathes the lines so well, that even those solilioquies filled with famous aphorisms and quotes seem natural, proceeding from character. He’s such a graceful actor too that he beautifully dances the American Sign Language he employs to talk to his father, Old Hamlet (Howie Seago, the Deaf actor who was in Music Man last year).
Richard Elmore’s normal spluttery ways fit spluttery old Polonius well, and it’s easy to see his kids, hippie gardener Ophelia (Susannah Flood) and bearded indie rock dude Laertes (David DeSantos), needing their space. On the other hand, Jeffrey King doesn’t give Claudius creditable motive; the usurper king seems vicious and vengeful, true, but without affection for Gertrude (Greta Oglesby, a wonderful actor directed to be too passive in this role). Armando Durán is miscast and badly costumed as Horatio; we don’t see his loyalty to and love for his friend until far too late.
The Player King (Ramiz Monsef) and his band, especially the Player Queen (Khatt Taylor), give the play within a play a lyrical, driving performance, the beat of iambic pentameter and the beats of hip hop melding into a new, intense sound. Donohue’s incandescent performance deserves repeat viewing, as does this flawed but gorgeously stunning Hamlet.
Hamlet runs through Oct. 30 at the Bowmer Theatre.
The dudes who will be delivering the news on Sunday morning:
Paul Nicholson, OSF's exec director, left, and Bill Rauch, OSF's artistic director
This live blog will go, er, live (assuming that I can get OSF wireless access this year) at about 11 am on Sunday, Feb. 28.
Last year's update took place in a depressed economic climate, with cutbacks at every turn and expectations for low ticket sales.
After the incredibly good news of last year's attendance, what will they say this year? It IS the 75th Anniversary of the OSF (take the Backstage Tour to find out more about that), which, well, it's amazing. Yesterday freelancer Anna Grace and my partner and I were discussing what a well-oiled machine the OSF is. "The artistic director doesn't have to do much of anything, and the machine would keep going for a while," we decided.
But that's not the style of an artistic director, and I think we see the imprint of Bill Rauch in a variety of ways (some of which we'll talk about during the live blog, I'm sure). Please feel free to comment on and ask questions about the OSF during the live blog! I'll try to convey those questions to Rauch or Nicholson.
You can log in below using Twitter or Facebook, or you can just use your name.I am unlikely to pass on any anonymous questions.
Elizabeth Bennet (Kate Hurster) takes refuge in her book while visiting the Bingley estate. Photo by David Cooper
Mr. Bennet (Mark Murphey) brings news to his daughters, from left, Elizabeth (Kate Hurster), Kitty (Kimbre Lancaster), Mary (Christine) and Jane (Nell Geisslinger). Photo by Jenny Graham
More here, following the jump!
Hey, haven't I been saying for years that people should take the backstage tour at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival?
The Oregonian's classical music critic (NO, I don't know why he came down with theater critic Marty Hughley, whose name, by the way, I finally know how to pronounce, thanks to Stabler) David Stabler thinks that's a great idea too:
Behind the scenes at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The OSF doesn't seem to have any videos about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which we see at 1:30 pm, but here's a photo with mostly naked Danforth Comins:
Maggie (Stephanie Beatriz) tries to make some connection with her husband Brick (Danforth Comins). Photo by David Cooper
And there is a video about adapting Pride and Prejudice for the stage.
Here you go!