Friday, September 19, 2014

return to Ashland

B. and I visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in June, to see some non-Shakespeare plays. I saw something else in their repertoire list that attracted my interest, so I decided to return later on. That was this week's trip. I drove up by way of the coast, so was able to pay a visit to old friends David #17 and K. in their remote fastness before heading over the mountains: a 5-hour drive, much of it on twisty back roads, to Ashland.

The play in question was a Shakespeare, The Tempest by name, and the reason for my interest was the casting of Denis Arndt as Prospero. Arndt was a regular at OSF in the wayback, some 30 years ago, and a truly great Shakespearean actor. A production of Coriolanus with him in the title role, depicting the dictator as a reasonable if impatient man driven to exasperation, was the finest Shakespeare production I've ever seen anywhere.

Arndt's ability to speak the words with a fully natural inflection was the secret of his success, and he hasn't lost it, though his Prospero wasn't the marvel he might have been in a tougher role. Still, he kept the show moving, and not mired down in waiting for the denouement to roll around, and that's a notable achievement. Otherwise it was a decent, unexceptional production. The lovers were a little dull, the lords a little pack-like. Caliban was somberly earnest, and well-done in that style; Ariel achieved non-humanity through a slightly eerie touch of roboticness; this could have been borrowed from the simultaneous production of A Wrinkle in Time (which we saw in June), where the actress played Mrs. Murry. The Stephano and Trinculo could have given the guys I saw in Boston Common's Twelfth Night more than a few lessons in how to play Shakespearean buffoonery.

The set in the indoor theatre was the most striking thing about the play. It consisted of a shag carpet with a ramp in the back. Trap doors surfaced only as invisible slits in the carpet; this enabled both Ariel and Caliban to make their initial appearances slithering up through the slits as if the earth was voiding them forth. Four silent male dancers, hairless and painted gray, wearing loincloths, represented the spirits that Prospero and Ariel command.

While I was going to be there, I decided also to see The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan. This is the first production of his sequel to All the Way, the play about LBJ that Bryan Cranston has been playing in on Broadway, and which also premiered at Ashland two years ago. (I didn't see it.) Jack Willis had played LBJ here; he and other OSF actors reprised their roles in the sequel, which covers the four years of the presidency after the 1964 election.

This was an awesome play, simply amazing in its impact. It's all about public policy; there's no time to waste on private shenanigans or other incidentals. But it's not lofty or high-minded: these were brutal times, and the tale is brutal. Yet few characters are simply evil: everyone has their policy goals, and the competing pressures they bring on Johnson are the story. As someone who remembers those days, I can testify that Schenkkan, who remembers them too, has caught the air and feeling that the news gave at the time, without any sense of artificiality, and that's a rare gift. To see this play is to remember, or to learn, what it was like to live through it.

What's most remarkable is how very Shakespearean it is in construction and approach, like a historical tragedy on the lines of Richard III or Macbeth, though with very different types of characters. Like Shakespeare, Schenkkan packs in a long sequence of events into tightly-wound scenes that run each after the other without feeling like a rushed fast-forward. As with Shakespeare, there's a few major characters who reappear throughout the play; besides LBJ, these are primarily MLK and RFK, sometime colleagues and sometime antagonists, and HHH, who's sort of the Buckingham or Banquo of the play: though his fate is very different, in all cases uneasy lies the head of the confidante. As with a typical Shakespeare production, the other roles who pop in for a scene or two or three here and there are played by an ensemble cast who take up to five or six roles each.

And, as with the protagonists of those plays, this one is about the decline and fall of an initially confident man. LBJ begins with a folksy story comparing himself to a bull-rider at a rodeo: he knows he'll get thrown eventually, so the point is the joy and triumph while he's still on. He masterfully manipulates the AMA on Medicare and Governor Wallace on the Selma march, but as the pressures mount on him from either side - and Vietnam is just one thing here, the increasingly urgent quest of the blacks for justice (which MLK can barely control) and the growing white backlash against it, with LBJ unable to satisfy either side, takes more of the attention - the president, like Macbeth and Richard before him, grows megalomaniac and paranoid, loses his touch, and is finally crushed by events. The only difference is his fate. In the last line of the play, he wraps his arm around his wife (another continuing character, though less present than some) and says "Let's go home, Bird."

And that was it. Three hours of bitingly intense drama, brilliantly done.

On the way home I stopped off in San Francisco for an SFS concert, conducted by MTT. Bach's Brandenburg Third (without conductor) was the Brandenburg Third. Henry Brant's Ice Field was spatial music: a lot of bleeps and twitters coming from various parts of the hall. Tchaikovsky's Fifth was a gritty performance. Like Menard's Quixote, this was as if the music had been written by a modernist maverick and the notes had just happened to coincide with those of Tchaikovsky's Fifth. Another awesome performance.

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