Monday, April 4, 2016

The Oregon whatchamacallit Festival

Attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland this early in the season meant that only one of the five Shakespeare plays they're putting on this year had opened yet. This was Twelfth Night, in a wholly delightful production. Not as maniacally fast-paced as some of their recent Shakespeare comedies, it was nevertheless full of high spirits and warm cheerfulness from actors who knew what they were about and not just spouting off Elizabethan verse without comprehension. Particular highlights: The incredulity of Cesario (Sara Bruner) on realizing that Olivia is in love with him (Act II, Scene ii). The duel between the terrified pair of Cesario and Sir Andrew (Danforth Comins), which was extremely extended and highly amusing, ending with them fencing with lilies and a sofa pillow. Malvolio's final exit: instead of the usual furious denunciation which leaves a sour taste at the end, Ted Deasy smilingly seemed to accept his tormenters' "bygones be bygones" attitude as he headed offstage, then turned at the door to deliver, almost casually and offhandedly but with hidden menace, his famous final line, "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you."

The elaborate and impressive costumes and the sketchy, almost non-existent sets were taken from 1930s Hollywood, a setting treated as completely detached from anything else going on, until it paid off at the end in two ways: the use of a kind of film negative screen to create the illusion that Viola and Sebastian were on stage simultaneously when they were played by the same actor, and Feste's final song, which was turned into an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style tap-dance production number featuring almost the whole company. We left with a song in our hearts, and that was the song.

Of the other three plays we saw, by far the best was The River Bride, a short one-act premiere by Marisela TreviƱo Orta. Set "once upon a time in a small Brazilian village along the Amazon River," it attracted our interest by a blurb description of it as a fairy tale. And it is that ... a fairy tale in which the supernatural element enters in a quite subversive and sly manner and then dominates the action. But more than that it's a story of romantic love: how you know that you've found true love, and what happens when you settle for something less. But if I had to pick one over-riding theme for this play, it would be sisterly rivalry. The author, though young and inexperienced, is superb at characterization, as I realized when I tried summarizing the plot (which I'm not going to do here), and found I had to keep going back and adding in character points that had been revealed earlier. This show was fantastic in both sense of the word. If it were a novel written with the excellence with which this play was composed and performed, I'd nominate it for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award like a shot.

A new adaptation of Great Expectations (a novel I've never read) professed itself faithful to Dickens' story, which I guess is why it was long and meandering. As Dickens was writing a novel, not a play, he observed no theatrical unities, so rather than build a dozen rotating sets, the play did basically without any sets, performed on a bare stage with occasional props. The costumes, however, were, like those for Twelfth Night, superb. A costuming fan could come to Ashland for the clothes alone, and leave feeling satisfied. The main problem for me with this play was, I guess, inherent in Dickens rather than the fault of the adaptation: while most of the other characters seem almost excessively fond of Pip, I could see no reason why I should care anything about this self-centered weasel at all, and even less about his hideous girlfriend. This wasn't the fault of the actors playing them, OSF newcomers Benjamin Bonenfant and Nemuna Ceesay, who were strong and purposeful, though the young actor playing the juvenile Pip lacked shading. In general I found it pretty tedious, a reaction I've had to Dickens before.

Something that claimed to be Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard would be better described as a free fantasia based on themes from the original. The setting was changed (to the jail in some Wild West town), the characters were changed (some dropped or merged or even killed off, and others added to replace them, or their sexes changed), the plot was condensed down to 80 minutes, and whereas most G&S adaptations play freely with Gilbert's lyrics but leave Sullivan's music alone, this one mauled the music (into old-time C&W, sometimes unrecognizably so) more than the words. A few songs sounded pretty good this way, notably "I Have a Song to Sing, Oh", but mostly not. The one addition I did like was having Fairfax (Jeremy Johnson, the cast member who most conspicuously couldn't sing) constantly forget that he's impersonating Leonard Meryll, and look blank when he's addressed as such until suddenly remembering, jumping and exclaiming "Yes! I am Leonard Meryll!" I think that Jack Point was changed into Jan Point purely so that she and Elsie could bill their act as The Point Sisters; you may groan now.

The show was given in the tiny third theater, and the strangest aspect involved the seating. We were in the regular seats, fortunately, but there was also provision for audience members on stage. Supposedly they were to walk around and interact with the actors, but there were so many of them this would have been impractical, and although they were permitted to get up and move and a few did, and occasionally an actor would draw one into the action briefly, they mostly sat tightly wedged on the edges of the wooden platforms onstage, scurrying out of the way like cockroaches whenever an actor indicated a need to pass through a particular spot, and then scurrying back again afterwards. The only thing this added to the play was to enable more people to fit in the theater to see it, though I'm doubtful what the fire marshal would have said about this. In general, however funny it may have seemed at moments, this adaptation was a complete disaster the likes of which I hope will never be seen again.

So, after a long period in which their Shakespeare tended to be routine or ill-conceived, and their modern period work was their best suit, in the last few years OSF has recovered its status as a great Shakespeare company, and it's the other work which is hit or miss.

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