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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, June 26, 2001
 The 66th Ashland Shakespeare Season in Full Stride
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 Richard Hay's Scenic Designs Over Two Decades
 "The Merchant of Venice"
 "Troilus & Cressida"
 " The Merry Wives of Windsor"
 "The Tempest"
 "Life Is a Dream"
 "Enter the Guardsman"
 "Fuddy Meers"
 "The Trip To Bountiful"/strong>
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O Remember the Rogue River Valley—
And the Actors Who Served You So True!
Another Opening of Another Show!
The Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2001
Already in February 2001, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had opened its 66th season. But this June, it launched its summer season with three premieres in its outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.
THE NEW THEATRE--Model of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new playhouse, opening February 2002.
Photo: ©Jennifer Donahoe/2001.
Founded in 1935 by Angus Bowmer—a lifelong acolyte of the Bard—this amazing Salute to Shakespeare in the Far West has continued to grow & thrive.
Gradually, it established itself as a peak-summer tourist-attraction in the Rogue River Valley, with a rotating repertory of three of Shakespeare's dramas. The local slogan, flaunted on banners on every lamp-post, was: STAY THREE DAYS/SEE THREE PLAYS!
From Chautauqua's Moral Improvement To Bardic Mummery—Beginning with an improvised open-air arena—inside the shell of a burnt-out Victorian Chautauqua Pavilion—with a fixed facade to suggest that of the Bard's Globe Theatre on London's South Bank, this evocation has evolved over the years into a state-of-the-art outdoor theatre.
But it still proudly carries the title: America's First Elizabethan Theatre. Bowmer was careful, however, not to claim too much authenticity for his Oregonian Globe Theatre, which of course has never been known by that name.
Even in London, the late Sam Wanamaker's wonderful Third Globe, a recreation of Shakespeare's Second Globe—near the actual site of the original—is in fact only a well-educated and much-disputed guess about its prototype's stage-form & fittings.
So Angus Bowmer was content that his Ashland Shakespeare Stage was a handsome approximation—with its impressive mock-Tudor facade and varied acting-areas. At least it gave modern audiences—notably students & teachers from all over the West—the opportunity to discover how the Bard's comedies, tragedies, and chronicle plays could work on a stage similar to Shakespeare's. And how they could speed along to their climaxes, unimpeded by curtain-closures and long pauses for scene-changes.
As Ashland summer audiences grew, so did the demand for tickets, more plays, and longer stays in this natural paradise, in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. Over time, many who have come solely to see the plays have decided to relocate or to retire in the Rogue Valley!
To meet the annually increasing summer needs—adding to the 1,190 seats of the outdoor theatre—the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre was built, seating 601. And, for intimate and experimental plays, the small black-box Black Swan Theatre was constructed, with the unfortunately limited capacity of only 138.
A Play a Day Keeps the Doldrums Away—The tourist-luring slogan changed to: STAY SIX DAYS/SEE SIX PLAYS!
With two indoor theatres—and a growing year-round audience of theatre-lovers in Ashland & the Rogue Valley—the season expanded. It now begins in February and extends to the end of October. This year, the season lasts for eight months and features a repertory of 11 plays. As is the custom, four dramas are by Shakespeare. The remainder are classics or contemporary plays.
So many forlorn oldsters—and hopeful teenagers as well—were being seen outside the Black Swan every day begging for performance tickets in recent seasons, that something finally had to be done.
Next season the number of seats available for the more avant-garde Ashland productions will at least double. The New Theatre will open on the site of the former parking-lot in February 2002.
It has been designed to accommodate from 260 to 350 spectators in flexible seating. This will permit production-conformations of arena, three-quarters thrust, or more conventional "avenue" configuration with an "end-stage."
Lost parking has in fact been regained & increased with the adjacent construction of a three-story parking-facility, with 144 spaces. Total cost of theatre, new production facilities, and parking is set at $10.8 million.
There was once even a special winter program for students & teachers of "See & Ski," combining winter-sports, college-credit Shakespeare Seminars, and attendance at indoor productions. This now seems in abeyance, but it is too good an idea to be abandoned.
Instead, the Festival now sends company actors into some 275 schools, offering performances and workshops in Shakespeare and Modern Literature. Some 165,000 students are served in six Western states. And also in Kansas—possibly in memory of Dorothy & Toto?
Theatre Is Good for the Economy, Stupid!From its beginnings, the not-for-profit Oregon Shakespeare Festival has operated in the black. Even before major financial and corporate sponsors discovered the goodwill value of supporting the seasons.
Currently, it covers 78% of its budget through earned income. The operating budget this year is almost $18 million, as there is a company of performers, directors, designers, technicians, administrators, and assorted staff numbering 450. In addition, there are no less than 750 volunteers from the area—and as far away as Portland.
In addition to its considerable contribution to the cultural life of Southern Oregon—some would say of the West Coast as well—its economic impact on the area is immense. The "trickle-down" factor—as a result of employment, construction, ticket-sales, souvenir purchases, and spectators staying in hotels & motels & eating in the many good restaurants in the area—has been calculated for last season as well over $100 million.
That makes the Festival almost the biggest business in Southern Oregon—which is also famous for its pear-orchards, personified by the Harry & David trademark. [The Siegfried & Roy of the Fruit Industry…]
Ashland Hosts ATCA: A Quibble of Critics on the Wing!Mid-July much of the membership of the American Theatre Critics Association will descend on Ashland to sample this year's repertory. The last time they came to the Rogue Valley for their annual conference was in 1984, the year after they had successfully nominated the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for a Tony, awarded in 1983.
There is some local hope that the excellence of the current season—under the artistic leadership of Libby Appel—may inspire these influential critics to another Tony Award nomination.
ATCA—as the critics' organization is anagramatically known—has very high standards for performance. Some measure of its standing may be taken from the fact that its current president, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, critic for Seattle media, has just been made Editor of the prestigious BEST PLAYS American Theatre Annual.
In addition to White-Water Rafting on the Rogue River, fresh-water and Oregon Coast fish-dinners, and other attractions of the area, ATCA members will be seeing as many as ten Ashland plays in impressive and variously designed productions in the three theatres.
The Repertory in Ashland's Three Theatres—
The repertory in mid-July will feature Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Troilus & Cressida, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, all played in rotation in the open-air Elizabethan Theatre.
The Merchant of Venice--Robin Goodrin Nordli as Portia pores over the fatal bond with Jeff Cummings as Bassanio.
Photo: ©David Cooper/2001.
In the Bowmer, Shakespeare indoors will be represented by The Tempest, with a female Prospero! Also playing in rotation are Calderón's Life Is a Dream, Regina Taylor's Oo-Bla-Dee—which the American Theatre Critics have already given an award as a Best New American Play.
The Bowmer will also offer a new musical—based on a Molnár comedy—Enter the Guardsman. This was shown briefly in Manhattan two seasons ago at the Vineyard Theatre. Now, after the reworking at Ashland, it may begin to play its way back to New York—and possibly to Broadway. Chekhov's Three Sisters will open in the Bowmer in late July, too late for the ATCA scribes.
In the intimate Black Swan, Horton Foote's The Trip To Bountiful and David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers currently complete the repertory program.
ut when the critics descend on Ashland en masse, Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano will be on view in the Swan. It was still in rehearsal when I was in Ashland for Opening Week. As was Three Sisters.
After Rogue Valley Shakespeare,When my fellow-critics are in Ashland, I will be in Mittel-Europa at the Bregenz Festival, "giving a paper" and showing slides of John Steinbeck Sites in another Western valley—the Salinas Valley—the "Long Valley" of much of the fiction of this thoroughly Western American Nobel Prize-Winner.
Salinas Valley Steinbeck in Bregenz—
This will be part of the annual Festival Opera Workshop, focusing on this season's productions in Bregenz of Carlisle Floyd's opera, Of Mice and Men—based on Steinbeck's novel—and Puccini's La Bohème, which will be astonishingly produced on a great purpose-built open-air stage in Lake Constance, with the amphitheatre audience of seven-thousand separated by water from the actual stage!
Ashland & Shakespeare Await You!It is by no means too late to order tickets for the current season—but motels can be a problem, so some stay in nearby towns. Or in Medford, the nearest major air-connection. For tickets, call: 541-482-4331. For more information on the Ashland Festival, log onto the website: www.osfashland.org
If you've already made your vacation plans for this year, consider discovering Ashland in 2002! Already announced for the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre are Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, & The Winter's Tale.
Scheduled for the Angus Bowmer are the Bard's Julius Caesar and more modern fare. Such as Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Sherwood's Idiot's Delight, Michael Frayn'sNoises Off, and De Filippo's Neapolitan comedy, Saturday, Sunday, Monday.
With the inauguration of The New Theatre, Artistic Director Libby Appel is increasing the number of Shakespearean plays on view to five. She will stage Macbeth in the new playhouse. Also planned are two new dramas: Robert Schenkkan's Handler and Mustapha Matura's Playboy of the West Indies.
This Insubstantial Pageant—A very special feature of the 2001 Festival is the impressive exhibition of the design projects of Richard L. Hay, who has been working with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 1950. He began as a lighting assistant in 1950, while a graduate student in theatre at Stanford University.
Scenic Design of Richard L. Hay
Hay created his first Ashland scenes in 1953—just before I went into the US Army at Fort Ord, to train to become a "Professional Killer" for Uncle Sam in the "Korean Police Action."
At this time, I was more interested in Ashland Shakespeare and Dick's designs than I was in the nefarious plots of North Korean Communist despots. Hay and I had been classmates in Stanford's then celebrated Department of Drama.
He began a distinguished career as a designer of theatres and for theatres. I—at least for the next two years—went on to master all infantry small-arms weapons and such horrors as the School of the Bayonet-Fighter, the Infiltration Course, and Combat-in-Cities.
This military instruction may have prepared me for the long-haul in drama criticism.
But Richard Hay's growing body of design-projects for Ashland prepared him for a long and eventful career creating stage-environments for such other American stages as the Denver Theatre Center, Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, San Francisco's ACT, the Berkeley Rep, the Missouri Repertory, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Most important in Hay's resumé, however, is his achievement designing the plays of Shakespeare. He is the only designer in theatre-history who has designed the entire canon of the Bard's dramas at least once. And many of the Bard's most popular plays a number of times. Ashland is the only place any designer could conceivably have done this.
Hay's design-retrospective details the process of creating specific productions for theatres as varied as Ashland's three unusual stages. All of which he designed, in collaboration with professional architects.
The Ashland exhibition demonstrates the design-process from the first jottings & sketchings, through the trials & errors of later imaginings and inventions, to the actual set-models, elevations, ground-plans, and color photographs of completed, constructed productions.
As Hay himself notes, set-models are much used—even ill-used—in the process of construction, so much so that many do not long survive a show's opening. The current show—which does include the models in the process-demonstration—therefore does not begin with Hay's 1953 Ashland beginnings.
Instead, its framework is Hay's designs over the last two decades—from 1980-2001. Models from these decades have largely survived.
Among the memorable achievements highlighted are such shows as his 1980 Coriolanus, his 1986 Tempest, his 1996 visions for Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, and his 2000 designs for Steven Dietz's challenging Force of Nature, inspired by Goethe's Elective Affinities.
Hay has over time shown a special affinity for re-imagining the world of comedy of other periods and styles. Outstanding are his projects for Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer in 1987 and his 1998 inventions for Sheridan's School for Scandal.
Fortunately, I had seen these designs in production at Ashland, so I can vouch for their excellence and imagination. But I have to admit I did not manage to see the actual exhibition.
I mention it, however, because of its importance as a testament to the quality of Ashland productions over the past twenty years.
But—as the show is mounted in the art gallery of Southern Oregon University—my attempts to visit it on a Sunday and on a late weekday afternoon were in vain. Imagine an art gallery that is closed on Sundays? Or which shuts its doors at 4 in the afternoon when it is open?
To his credit, Hay did volunteer to drive me out to see the show on what was to be my last day at the Festival. A last-minute change of plans, however, required me to rush off to Oregon's capital, Salem, early that morning.
In the meantime, for the benefit of Regular Readers—and any ATCA fellow-critics who log-on—here are my personal reports of much of the current Ashland repertory.
Shakespeare Under the StarsBecause Ashland's outdoor theatre is open to the skies, if there is a dip in spectator-interest for a moment or two, one can always look up and see the Big Dipper overhead. Actually, most stagings are so energy-charged, you don't dare take your eyes off the stage for fear of missing something important or unusual.
In America's First Elizabethan Theatre—
Those who first see the interior of the recently enclosed theatre—with an added balcony and wind-shield—on a sunny festival morning may well wonder what a designer needs to do with a permanent Tudor Architectural Facade already in place.
Actually, each staging requires alterations and differencings of this facade to meet the needs of the action, as well as to set the time, place, and mood of the drama. Sometimes these changes are minimal, or almost undetectable. But they are often major in terms of structural substitutions and set-decorations.
Theatre-buffs & drama-students will find it interesting to sit a while during the daytime change-overs of setting. This season, as usual, each of the three Shakespearean dramas plays in rotation, so no set can be left in place for several days.
The Merchant of Venice—Shylock No Greenspan!Any time a theatre ensemble decides to produce Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, it runs the risk of being accused of Anti-Semitism, or—at the very least—of Being Insensitive To Jewish Sensitivities.
Now it is just possible that the Timothy McVeigh Memorial Repertory Theatre would deliberately stage an outrageously racist Merchant to offend almost everyone. Possibly in tandem with their Regional Theatre version of Springtime for Hitler…
But that is certainly not the case at Ashland. The OSF is no more racist than the Bard himself. In fact, Artistic Director Libby Appel is Jewish and is as sensitive as anyone to the sensibilities of potential OSF subscriber-spectators. Not to overlook the sponsors!
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has long had the policy—even the intellectual & artistic obligation—of producing its way through the entire Canon of Shakespeare's works. This it has already done twice. It takes years to accomplish, for audiences for Timon of Athens will be thin on the ground—and in the seats. So there have to be many more Lears & Twelfth Nights than Timons or Troiluses.
Objections to productions ofThe Merchant by outraged Jews—as voiced or published—unfortunately often reveal ignorance or misunderstanding of the actual drama in its totality. A phrase or a description—taken out of context—may inflame a fiercely Orthodox rabbi, who seldom or never goes to the theatre. Some there are for whom theatre itself is anathema, even the Purimspel.
After centuries of controversy—and enlightened scholarship & criticism—by now it should be agreed that the personae & utterances of Shakespeare's characters are their own—as required for the dramas to achieve their effects & catharses.
No matter how pithy or powerful the quotes, they cannot all easily be put into the Bard's mouth as examples of his real beliefs & attitudes, although they once issued from his pen.
For that matter, Moroccans, Muslims, Africans, Latinos, & Hispanics can all write Letters to the Editor to complain of the way Shakespeare has humiliated and attacked them in this very same play. The Princes of both Morocco and Aragon—is that the root-word for "arrogant"?—are deeply, permanently wounded in their pride.
In Michael Donald Edwards' current staging of Merchant it is clear that "the opinions expressed are not those of the management." Nor—in the more disputed passages—opinions of Shakespeare himself.
In the original drama, Shakespeare presented on stage ideas & attitudes of his own time & audience. Few if any of his spectators had ever seen or talked with a Jew. They had been forcibly expelled from England—some even burnt alive. In 1293, the Jewish Community of York had its own Masada mass-death in one dark night, imprisoned in Clifford's Tower.
Elizabethan audiences—and playwrights like Marlowe—were dealing with superstitions, folklore, & racial stereotypes.
Shakespeare rose above these, and his portrait of Shylock—while still a formulary villain in a comic drama—towers above other period caricatures of The Jew.
Nonetheless, the structure of the drama is that of comedy, and it was constructed for an audience prepared to laugh at Outsiders such as Dusky Moors, Jewish Money-Lenders, & Flamboyant Spaniards.
Under their previous Queen, the rigorously Roman Catholic Bloody Mary, they nearly had a Spanish King to contend with. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada also made Spaniards less fearsome, now safely laughable.
Shylock is driven by his almost understandable passion for vengeance, which has blinded him to all else. Yet, with the accursed elopement of his daughter, the loss of his dear dead wife Leah's ring—"I would not have traded it for a wilderness of monkeys"—a deeply wounded, suffering, humiliated, spurned human-being is revealed.
In the OSF production, however, the fierceness of Shylock's determination to have his "pound of flesh"—and clearly to have Antonio's life in the bargain—causes even his previously silently supportive kinsman, Tubal, to turn from his side and leave the court.
Shylock is offered his money with interest many times over, yet he will not accept this generous discharge of his bond. This is not only not Good Business, but also Bad Faith. Shakespeare does not give Tubal lines filled with the hatred and violence with which Shylock vents his rage against Christians.
Shylock stands alone as a man driven mad by a demonic thirst for vengeance. If he is to be viewed as a Stereotypical Jew, why, then, does Shakespeare not also present Tubal in the same mode?
This contrast between two observant Jews is very important, for Shylock's rage & fatal plot are in no way consistent with a truly devout observance of The Law.
Both Jews & Christians in Shakespeare's Age knew the Ten Commandments very well. So audiences could have readily understood how different Shylock was from pious Jews such as Tubal.
Shylock stands alone—not as a Jew or as a Loan-Shark—but as a man consumed by anger & hatred. His insistence on the execution of his bond is not that of the stereotypical Jewish money-lender of Shakespeare's time. That character would far rather have had his money and his interest, not the death of a potential future-client.
Seeing the new Ashland staging, some spectators were upset at the flamboyance & ferocity of Venetian Carnival Maskers, who parodied The Jew and transformed him with a demonic mask into The Devil. That this choreographed & mimed action seemed to be set in a mixed 17th-19th century period—complete with designer William Bloodgood's stock-market quotation boards—distanced this folkloric manifestation from our times, customs, & beliefs.
Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity at the close of the comedy is presented as almost a benign resolution. For Shakespeare's audience, that could even have been cause for mild rejoicing: Another Soul Saved for Christ!
Far worse punishment for his infamous & murderous plot is the loss of his monies & properties. He could have been put to death, after all. For Elizabethan Christians—who had no other religious options to consider anyway—saving Shylock's wicked soul was a divine pardon.
From its beginnings, the Christian Church was dedicated to Winning Souls To Christ. Especially those souls who were still waiting for the First Coming of the Messiah.
Even in the mid-20th Century, devout Christians were still striving for The Conversion of the Jews. As a child, I had to donate my ice-cream money for Home Missions, which included Christian Outreach to unconverted Jews.
When I began teaching at Brooklyn College—where many students at that time were Jewish—Christians stood at the Main Gate offering New Testaments "to any Jew who will promise to read it."
So some of the Elizabethan Ideas & Attitudes about Jews were not just quaint misconceptions which died out in time. Unfortunately, they are still potent in some quarters…
If you are a theatre-director who feels compelled to produce a Shakespearean drama every so often, stay out of Venice!
Visit Verona instead! You can stage either R&J or Two Gents without bringing down on your head the Wrath of B'nai B'rith.
But, if you already have a Rialto Bridge set in storage, at least remember that Antonio is the Merchant—not Shylock!
In Ashland's new production, Tony DeBruno is a formidable Shylock. Alan Greenspan couldn't come anywhere near his authority and presence as a financial adviser and money-lender.
Robin Goodrin Nordli is a lovely, witty Portia, foil for both Shylock and unwanted noble suitors. Jeff Cummings is the handsome young suitor Bassanio, on whom the older bachelor merchant Antonio [Michael Elich] so curiously dotes. There were no angry protests from Gay & Lesbian groups about the representation of this loving Triad of Antonio-Bassanio-Portia, however.
Linda K. Morris & Julie Oda play Nerissa & Jessica with grace, both ladies in somewhat subject positions in that society.
I pass over in relative silence the performance of the clowns. As written, Lancelot Gobbo, for me, has always been one of the most unfunny elements of this alleged comedy. As performed, he is almost always insufferable.
The Lighthouse, the Braille Society, and others concerned about the welfare & treatment of the Blind ought to write angry letters denouncing Shakespeare's buffoonish caricature of Old Gobbo.
Next case on the docket!
Troilus & Cressida—War & Lechery?
Many who consider themselves Shakespeare aficionados—or experts, even—have not read this problematic play. Fewer have seen it, for it is seldom done, even by Shakespeare Festivals, for fear there won't be bums on seats.
Troilus & Cressida--James J. Peck's Ajax thumps James Newman as Thersites.
Photo: ©David Cooper/2001.
But, if you are dedicated to working your way through the Canon, sooner of later, both Troilus & Timon must hold your stage. Not to overlook Coriolanus…
Fortunately, Kevin Kenerly—as the heroic, passionate, cheated, baffled, betrayed young Trojan prince, Troilus—is a magisterial powerhouse. He is, for once, almost the center of the drama. Together with Kenerly's Prince Segismundo—in OSF's current Life Is a Dream—he is showing shining Star-Quality.
In Peter Hall's recent Manhattan staging of T&C, his Troilus was a wimpy kid—whom no one, either on stage, as directed in the text, or in the audience, would remotely mistake for a younger Hector.
Unfortunately at Ashland, the Hector is so stocky, he seems anything but Heroic. He looks rather like a barrel in stage-armor. Achilles, though imposing in stature, has a different problem. His voice is curiously light-weight, so it lacks the ring of authority—which is also a problem for this actor in the Calderón drama.
Even the wily Ulysses—a dream-role for most actors—seems more like a Used-Car Salesman than the legendary intriguer of Homeric Epic.
If there was ever any tabloid-doubt about the nature of the bosom-friendship of Achilles & Patroclus, the affectionately clinging postures of Cristofer Jean—also OSF's Ariel—make this liaison quite clear. But poor Patroclus was cruelly punished for his sexual transgressions by being slaughtered & left hanging above the stage until the end of the drama.
Shakespeare's intercut dramatic structure, his deft characterization of the legendary figures involved, and the barbed textual comments of Thersites [James Newcomb] demonstrate repeatedly the Folly of War and the Power of Lust. Or "War & Lechery," the formula Thersites keeps repeating to the audience…
In the Bard's formulation, lustful Paris has stolen a lovely but whorish Helen from her rather stupid husband. The Greek chieftains are willing that thousands of their men should die to avenge Menelaus' dubious honor.
At a crucial point in the drama, Hector insists Helen be returned. This would end the Trojan War, and the Greek Hero Achilles could marry the Trojan Princess to whom he is already sworn. And the blustering, foolish semi-hero Ajax—who is half-Greek, half-Trojan—would not have to humiliate himself before kin on either side.
But Hector is dissuaded, on no other basis than his fellow Trojan Princes' Honor.
Tyler Layton is a sweetly submissive Cressida, thrown to the male Greek wolves. She has no experience of men, having had only one night previously with Troilus, egged on by some broad hints from Uncle Pandarus.
In Peter Hall's production, her submission to the leering sexual insults & overtures of the Greek chieftains—when she was forcibly brought to their camp—was clearly a desperate measure to survive and find among these macho-men one who would be her protector.
Although she is instantly characterized in the text as a whore by the cynical Ulysses, that could well be his own character speaking, not Shakespeare's fundamental evaluation of the Cressida character. Much here depends not only on how Cressida is played, but also in how she is perceived and received by the men around her in an actual production.
Poor Legendary Cressida! To bear the Brand of a Faithless Lover & a Sexually Abandoned Whore down the long corridors of Myth & History!
Her father, the renegade Trojan Priest, Calchas, is to blame. He fled Troy well before its towers were toppled. Like the Prophetess Cassandra, he could foresee its doom.
But his psychic powers proved devastating to two young women. One was his own daughter, happy in her newfound love Troilus at home in Troy. But he demanded that she be brought to him in the Greek camp, as the price of his prophecies for the Greeks.
The other was Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon & Clytemnestra. Calchas foresaw that the long becalmed Greek ships could never fill their sails with wind and attack Troy until the eldest daughter of Atreus was made a human-sacrifice upon Diana's altar.
What was a poor girl to do in such a world, dominated by power-hungry, sex-starved, and often stupid men?
Kenneth Albers—a nervous, urgent, plump butterfly of a Pandarus—is the best I have ever seen in this difficult role. And I have seen more T&C productions than most critics…
When I told him this, he confided he never wanted to work under this T&C director again because he's such a demanding sonofabitch.
As it happens the director is none other than the same Kenneth Albers. His rehearsed Pandarus, Bill Leach, was felled by an ankle accident. So Albers stepped in at the last moment, getting off-book in only a day or so.
Albers has done very well in orchestrating the intercut scenes and the many characters of this difficult and very dark comedy. That his Greek & Trojan Heroes are not as convincing as Peter Hall's in New York is the nature of repertory with a fixed ensemble. Hall could audition the best talents for the specific roles. At the OSF, these challenging roles must be cast from the available actor-pool.
The Merry Wives of Windsor—Small-Town Hi-Jinx!
At the OSF opening-week press-conference, Lillian Groag, director of Merry Wives, indicated an over-view which sounded something like The Waning of the Middle Ages.
The Merry Wives of Windsor--Ray Porter's Falstaff supports Judith-Marie Bergan's swooning Mistress Ford.
Photo: ©David Cooper/2001.
She seemed to see—in this small-town domestic drama—the Decline & Fall of the former Feudal System. And the Emergence of a new Merchant Middle-Class.
With the foolish fat old knight Falstaff—repudiated by Henry V, with no more wars to pretend to fight—finally forced to curb his aristocratic privileges and free-loading ways, to fit into the village life of Windsor.
That summary fairly well fits the events of the actual drama, but making it emblematic of the End of an Era is not only asking too much. It's also inaccurate, for the system which spawned fellows like Falstaff continued, with some alterations, for a few centuries more.
Windsor-town, in fact, was virtually in the shadow of Windsor Castle. So this intimate community was hardly ignorant of the perks of the nobility and their often imperious manners.
As staged & performed, however, this is anything but a period social comedy with situations, characters, and commentaries which illustrate the Class System.
Instead, it is a knockabout farce, in the mode of early Marx Brothers. Not a trick of shtick—from Burlesque to Vaudeville—has been overlooked. Actually, it was reported to me that some excess of the funny-business had been cut in previews.
Much more should never have been encouraged in the first place. When pratfalls and slapstick are the aim in rehearsal, social comedy will never emerge on opening-night. Nor will cutting some of the distracting buffoonery make the event other than it was in the planning.
I suspect the director didn't trust the play. Or more accurately, did not understand its potential powers, possibly viewing it as a pen-for-hire Xmas Entertainment, written to order for Queen Elizabeth & Her Court.
Even if those were the circumstances of its origin, Shakespeare was incapable of an entire evening of hack-work. Which is what, unfortunately, the current OSF production suggests he produced.
Similarly, set-designer Michael Ganio has used every possible area, nook, cranny, pillar, or post of the architectural stage-front to support all the sight-gags. Never have there been so many set-decorations, set-props, and set-to's.
Indeed, the set in motion is rather like a wonderful Black-Forest Cuckoo-Clock on the hour of twelve!
Deborah M. Dryden's colorful costumes complement this effect handsomely, as does Robert Jared's lighting.
Fortunately for the audience—which I must report was in stitches & hysterics most of the evening—the entire cast entered into the spirit of An Evening with Buster Keaton with a manic vengeance.
Nonetheless, directors ought not to forget Hamlet's cautionary advice about the low tastes & elemental understanding of the Groundlings: "capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise…" That was what seemed to be on offer most of this frenetic evening.
Ray Porter was wonderful as Falstaff. Obscenely obese, he saw himself—not as he was—but ideally in his tall glass, where a handsome young knight, in similar courtly clothing, mirrored his every move and admiring glance.
Judith-Marie Bergan & Suzanne Irving were a proper pair as the amusedly insulted village dames, Mistress Ford & Mistress Page.
But Richard Howard stole the show as the insanely jealous Ford, disguised as Master Brook, striding about in a crouch, as though he were an Elizabethan Toulouse-Lautrec.
In the Angus Bowmer—
The Tempest—But Not Exactly in a Teapot!
There is at least one relevant contemporary consideration for casting an actress in the role of Shakespeare's mysterious & magisterial Magus, Prospero, deposed Duke of Milan.
The Tempest--Cristofer Jean as Ariel up a tree. Photo: ©Andrée Lanthier/2001.
In an on-going era of Political Correctness and Equal Rights for Women, replacing the John Gielguds of old with the Susan Sarandons of our own troubled times in The Tempest makes good sense.
There simply are not enough roles for women in all of Shakespeare's plays—comic or tragic—and The Tempest is even more deficient than most. It has only one female role as written—Prospero's lovely daughter Miranda—and this was in fact played by a boy on the Bard's own stage.
Transforming Prospero into the unjustly ousted Duchess of Milan increases the feminine body-count by two, not one. For the dramatic parallels to work, Prospero must have a supplanting sister-duchess.
For my taste, it would have been more fitting to call Demetra Pittman's island monarch Prospera, just as her usurping sibling has been renamed Antonia, for Antonio.
Throughout the script, "he" has been replaced with "she." But there is one questionable reference to Lord Prospero, where Lady Prospera would certainly have been more fitting.
Pittman initially appears in a basic semi-Hindu suit, with a gossamer shawl around her shoulders. This drape is covered with mysterious cabalistic symbols, the keys to conjuring the Unseen. She looks rather like Indira Ghandi presiding over the unquiet masses of the Indian sub-continent.
She has conjured up a tempest and wrecked a ship bearing the rulers of Milan and Naples. Dramatic resolutions prove this storm a tempest in a teapot—although a healing one. Perhaps the storm was brewed with Indian tea?
Once the conceit of a woman ruling Renaissance Milan is digested, this production moves forward with energy and charm. Director Penny Metropulos has chosen her cast with an eye for visual contrasts, as well as for variable emotional temperatures.
William Bloodgood's starkly simple, but striking, setting raises the proceedings from the fairy-magic milieus of many a Tempest staging to a plane altogether more metaphoric & mythic.
Over an unevenly raked forestage hang uneven drapings of crinkled fabric of basic bold colors: black, white, maroon. These suggest mountains, clouds, or ominous storms, but, in changing position, they also help define the mood and atmosphere of various scenes. Robert Peterson's lighting heightens their effects, but not obviously.
The young lovers, Gregory D. Linington & Linda K. Morris—as Ferdinand & Miranda—not only make an attractive couple but also are very convincing in their discovery of this Brave New World.
John Pribyl is remarkably affecting and interesting as the savage Caliban. Lest he be seen in this production as a Nature Boy of African Heritage, he is entirely white. And he looks perpetually fearful of Prospero's punishments. Possibly also of having to take off all that white body make-up, long-fingernails, and snaggly hair after each show…
The other major desert-island being subject to Prospero's magic & commands—the airy sprite Ariel—is sleekly, seductively played by Cristofer Jean. His lithe, electric movements are a choreography in themselves.
Only the bawdily comic scenes, with the drunken clowns & Caliban, are heavy-handed and obvious. But they are already that in their writing. Marx Bros. mugging and shtik don't make them seem any fresher or funnier.
Life Is a Dream—
Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction!
Life Is a Dream--Kevin Kenerly stands tall as Segismundo, freed from a wilderness prison by rebels. Photo: ©Andrée Lanthier/2001.
Astrology & Kings:The momentous events which make Calderón's Life Is a Dream such a powerful emblematic drama are set in motion years before the actual action by a horoscope!
In the Siglo d'Oro & Modern Nepal!
The aged King of Poland, Basilio—an esoteric philosopher, a demi-Magus, but no Prospero—depends on Astrological Forecasts to determine how his kingdom shall thrive. Convinced even before the birth of his sole son & heir that this babe will grow up to depose him and rule with cruelty & chaos, he has the child locked away in a forbidden wilderness cave far from human habitation.
His neurotic dependency on the Stars in Their Courses as Infallible Guides for the Future may recall former First Lady Nancy Reagan's obsession with horoscopes to help her husband, Ronnie Reagan, govern the United States.
To some sophisticated critics, that seemed merely laughable. But consider the recent traumatic & tragic events in Nepal. The late King Birenda of Nepal—slain by his son & heir, Crown Prince Dipendra, as Basilio feared he would be—was such a believer in astrology that he delayed his own ascent to the throne for three years, waiting for the most auspicious day, prescribed by Court Astrologers.
The general reportage of the bloody carnage—unleashed when the furious prince opened fire on his parents and siblings at dinner—explained his murderous fury as caused by his father's refusal to let him marry the woman he loved. And his mother's disapproval of her as being unsuitable, a member of a different religious sect, among other defects of character.
Actually, the initial impetus was the forecast of the Court Astrologers that the fiery, impatient prince should not be allowed to marry until he became 35 years old.
As things have turned out, Truth Is [once again] Stranger Than Fiction—even though the King of Poland and the King of Nepal had a lot in common!
At least in Life Is a Dream, at the close, the raging angers of the prince have been transformed into restraint and a wary understanding of the dream-like quality of what seems to be life. And he pardons & embraces King Basilio, who has treated his savage son so savagely all his life.
The King of Nepal was not so fortunate. Even having given the Crown Prince almost every advantage, including an Eton education—except the freedom of whom & when to marry—he ended as a bloody corpse.
Maybe he should have locked up the Nepalese prince and thrown away the key? Or changed astrologers…
Laird Williamson's adaptation & staging of Calderón's La Vida es Sueño—thanks in large part to the elegantly abstract mobile elements of Robert Blackman's setting—raised this masterpiece of Spain's Siglo d'Oro to a mythic level.
It might have remained a curious but handsomely costumed historical artifact, apparently concerned primarily with Renaissance Codes of Honor and the relative power of Nature over Nurture.
But the Ashland interpretation reveals it for what it really is: a mighty moral fable—with resonances for today and ages yet to come.
The drugged and violent prince is removed from his distant prison and made King for a Day. His aging father must choose a successor, having the princely son of one sister and the noble daughter of his other sister as likely candidates.
His advisors—learning of the imprisoned prince—have insisted that the True Heir must be enthroned. Waking, the befuddled prince almost immediately violently murders an officious courtier. He humiliates his father. He prepares to rape the brave lady who has befriended him in the wilderness.
Drugged and returned to his prison, he believes it was all a dream. When he is freed by peasant rebels and defeats his father's armies, he has learned to treat each moment of his perceived experience as though it is a dream. And to curb his immediate passions, considering rather the wisest and most compassionate course of action.
America's so-called Compassionate Conservatives might want to see this production—or at least read the play—to see if they have anything to learn from King Basilio, Prince Segismundo, or the poor Clown—Bocazas—who dies from a stray bullet at the moment of triumph.
Richard Howard was noble but neurotic as the Polish King. Vilma Silva was noble and passionately obsessed as the wronged Russian lady, Rosaura. Jeffrey King was noble in bearing but vocally light-weight as tutor-jailer Clotaldo.
Armando Durán played the proud Muscovite prince appropriately as a fiercely stylish Spanish Grandee, a personage Calderón's own audiences would well have recognized. Tyler Layton was elegant as Estrella, the other royal candidate for the throne.
But towering over all was Kevin Kenerly as the powerful, enraged Prince Segismundo. As he matured from moment to moment in self-control and self-awareness, he almost visibly seemed to grow in stature, nobility, and compassion.
Also outstanding this season as Troilus, this young Ashland veteran is sure to be discovered by Hollywood very soon. That would be a clear loss for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—but also for Kenerly, if he allows himself to be swept away in a TV series or a trendy Action Film.
He should be even more impressive on the screen than on the stage. But he shouldn't give up live performance because he brings such vitality to his roles and his interaction with other fine actors. Film & TV can never offer such immediacy of performance and reaction.
Oo-Bla-Dee—Young Woman With a Horn!
The American Theatre Critics Association gave Regina Taylor's new play a major award even before it had achieved a definitive professional American production.
Oo-Bla-Dee--G. Valmont Thomas as Shorty, with Andrea Frye as Evelyn. Photo: ©Jennifer Donahoe/2001.
They did the same for Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan, although it was not exactly a "new American play," having been produced ten years before in London—at Wyndham's Theatre in the West End. I didn't admire it even then, and it had a very short run last season on Broadway.
When I scanned Taylor's "new American" script, I was immediately put off by the fantasy framework of a Mythic Lady Luna C, observing & orchestrating the brief career of a young woman with a shiny sax and a passion to "find her own voice" as a jazz musician.
This seems on the page—and on the Bowmer stage as well—only a trendy, arty device. It actually detracts from the power of the passions of the four disparate & almost desperate women jazz-musicians onstage.
They are trying to get their act together and get to Chicago to make their mark and get a record contract.
Finally in the Windy City—in this sometimes windy script—on one magical night they discover Be-Bop. And jazz is never the same thereafter. And Gin Del Sol, the little girl with the big sound, disappears, never to be heard on the horn again…
That scenario may not sound entirely original, but the four women—plus their portly sporty manager, Shorty—are so effectively drawn in dialogue exchanges and so very well played by BW Gonzalez, Deidrie Henry, Maya Thomas, and Andrea Frye—as Evelyn, the musical mainspring of their combo, that they command interest and empathy.
But the Crescent Moon Billie Holiday Lady—despite Demetra Pittman's best efforts—doesn't enable or enhance the real drama on the stage below her. She belongs in some other play, possibly one devised for a Grad Playwriting Seminar.
This Expressionist/Symbolist Special-Effects Cathartic Character might have strayed out of a forgotten Tennessee Williams script: Daughter of Camino Real…
Luna is rather like those ghastly, ghostly mythic/symbolic characters of Man in the Moon, Coyote, & Cat in the Public Theatre's recent staging of References To Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.
As with the encounters between the real characters in Oo-Bla-Dee, the passions & needs of an "outsider" minority wife on an American military post—conflicting with her career-obsessed soldier-husband—are powerful enough to sustain the drama. Without any Poetic Devices.
Rosie Perez was astonishing in that play at the Public. She would do wonders for Oo-Bla-Dee as well. But then, BW Gonzalez could also make Salvador Dali her own, given the chance and the right director.
Regina Taylor may have been inspired to write a jazz-drama—or Birth of BeBop saga—after reading August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith, or even Warren Leight's Side-Man. They are all worthy models, though of different orders.
As with her heroine, Gin Del Sol, Taylor needs to Find Her Own Voice. But she should be very wary of Following Her Star. Lady Luna—apparently also active in the dramatic firmament, to judge by this play—has brought her dangerously near eclipse…
A riff on CPT—or Colored Peoples' Time—goes on entirely too long. And too much action—or, more accurately, inaction—is confined to a box of a motorcar, bound for Chicago.
The veteran stage-designer Richard L. Hay did what he could with the fractured script and the two-level linear stage-environment. This surely must have been a visual solution dictated by the director, Timothy Bond.
Enter the Guardsman—Molnár Sings Again!
The late Ferencz Molnár may still well be Hungary's Greatest Modern Playwright. In time, he may come to challenge the musical-theatre laurels of his countryman, Franz Lehár. But only if they continue to turn his plays into musicals. Carousel, based on Liliom, has certainly proven its worth.
Enter the Guardsman--The Actress [Suzanne Irving] is overwhelmed with roses. Photo: ©Andrée Lanthier/2001.
Now his stylish backstage comedy, The Guardsman, has been adroitly adapted into the new musical, Enter the Guardsman. Actually, it's not all that new, for it was shown at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan briefly last season.
I liked it then, and I like it now. Down at the Vineyard—just off Union Square—I was sure it "had legs," despite a marginally shabby production. Its legs have walked it all the way across the nation to Ashland!
At the OSF, however, it has been recast with members of the Oregon Shakespeare repertory, not especially noted for their skills in musical comedy. They do quite as well—in some cases, even better—than their Manhattan counterparts.
Michael Elich & Suzanne Irving play the Actor & Actress who discover that marriage—like long-runs in the theatre—can gradually decline into routine & boredom. Unless the performers use some theatrical magic & tricks to keep the illusions and romance alive.
As in Kiss Me, Kate—which the structure of this show slightly resembles—the stars are performing in a costume-drama on stage, while their drama in the wings is becoming minute-by-minute more interesting than that they have memorized.
Thanks to shops such as The Pleasure Chest—and mail-order firms like Frederic's of Hollywood—trendy couples have learned the varied uses of sexy costumes & disguises in adding interest to a rather basic act.
In The Guardsman, the Actor discovers the magic of an ornate Austro-Hungarian uniform. But does his beloved wife really know that this romantic, passionate officer of the Emperor's Elite Guard is in fact her husband? She will never let him know…
Other admirable actors in the well-matched ensemble are Richard Farrell, Linda Alper, David Kelly, Christine Williams, and Charlie Kimball.
Peter Amster has tautly & wittily staged this show, with lyrics by Marion Adler, score by Craig Bohmler, and book by Scott Wentworth. Daniel Ostling & Galina Solovyeva designed sets & costumes respectively.
There are some charming songs in this show, but they don't represent any interesting advances in wit or style or characterization.
Nor is there a chorus, which is a liability if this show hopes to be Broadway-Bound. Its current competition would be The Producers and the revival of 42nd Street, both thundering with dancing-singing chorus routines.
In its present format, this show would be attractive as an Off-Broadway production—should it return to New York.
The Guardsman is rather like a period pastiche. But not as stylish as an operetta by, say, Emmerich Kalmán or Ferencz Lehár. The popular taste for operetta-revivals has long-since waned. Can The Guardsman rekindle it? Is that even necessary?
In the Black Swan-Its Swan-Song Season—
Fuddy Meers—Muddy Fears or Funny Mirrors?
Who was it who first said: "All happy families are alike…"?
Fuddy Meers--A fight for the phone involving Ray Porter, Catherine E. Coulson, and Hinky-Binky the Puppet. Photo: ©Jennifer Donahoe/2001.
Was it Tolstoi? Dostoievski? Martha Stewart?
The contradicting corollary—that all unhappy families are different—is not, however, quite exact or correct, as Fuddy Meersand a long line of farces, comedies, & tragedies demonstrates.
Unhappy Families—even those desperately trying for happiness—are all Dysfunctional. At the Epic End of the Scale, they can be murderously dysfunctional—as in the House of Atreus.
David Lindsay-Abraire's hilariously bizarre—but almost heartbreaking—family in Fuddy Meers seems to be at the other end of this scale. Possibly even off the charts…
Before the opening of this play in New York—at the Manhattan Theatre Club—I tried to make sense of its announced title. The press-release told of a dysfunctional family and an unfortunate woman in total confusion.
So I guessed the title might be a kind of Spoonerism, possibly an example of verbal dyslexia. Something on the order of "Muddy Fears," instead of "Fuddy Meers."
But when I finally saw the MTC production, I realized that the central character, Claire, was suffering from Amnesia.
The puzzling title referred to her unfortunate mother, Gertie, who had had a stroke. Her speech was impaired—and she was trying to articulate: Funny Mirrors. She was remembering some distorting Fun-House mirrors Claire and her long-dead brother had experienced in childhood.
But now it was Claire's life which was quite as distorted.
[It should be noted that—at least on the Eastern Seaboard—people tend to compress the two-syllable word "mirror" into one, often rendered as meer.]
In a new film, Memento, an amnesiac has to take Polaroid photos to remind him of where he is and what's happening, as he cannot retain mental images or make sense of them.
In Fuddy Meers, Claire's patient but definitely peculiar husband, Richard, has done something similar. He's made a book with photos & texts to remind her at the beginning of each new day who she is. Or was…
This is an outrageously hysterical comedic satire about Abuse: Child Abuse, Spouse Abuse, even Puppet-Abuse!
OSF veteran James Edmondson has staged with a sharp sensitivity for both the deeply human and the wildly quirky. The acting ensemble—most of whom have already been variously praised above, in quite contrasting roles & productions—is composed of Judith-Marie Bergan, John Pribyl, Gregory D. Linington, Richard Elmore, Catherine Coulson, Ray Porter, & Eileen DeSandre.
Veteran stage-designer William Bloodgood has created an effective environment with minimal means in the Black Swan's all-too-intimate & minimal black-box arena. Alex Jaeger & Ann Wrightson justly earn their respective costume & lighting-design credits.
The Trip To Bountiful—Salute To Horton Foote!
Thomas Wolfe was a Small-Town North Carolinian. He moved to the Big City and became a Celebrity. He discovered that You Can't Go Home Again. It just isn't there anymore.
The Trip To Bountiful--Dee Maaskeas Mrs. Carrie Wattsbuys the bus-ticket to Bountiful.
Photo: ©David Cooper/2001.
Horton Foote—while also effectively a Southerner—over the long years has become the Bard of Small-Town Texas. Sometimes seen, however, from the disadvantage-point of Big City Houston or Dallas. In Horton Foote's world, you can go home again, and some folks absolutely have to do that.
But, after long absence, they often find that things just aren't the same. The Past can never be recaptured. You cannot "step twice into the same river."
Nonetheless, even in a "home" or a clinic, Foote's displaced oldsters cannot let go of the Past: Old Joys & Undying Resentments linger on. Where they grew up has formed them. Even though now far distant, it is still very much a part of them. And, as they say, Distance Lends Enchantment…It was different for Gertrude Stein. She could easily leave Oakland behind for the Avenues, Alleys, & Arts of Paris. After all, there was no there in Oakland, California. There still isn't…
Now that Horton Foote is himself one of the most senior of Senior Citizens, The Trip To Bountiful may still be his finest, most sensitive work: the drama by which he will be remembered.
I was looking forward to seeing the new Ashland production of this moving drama as the final experience of my visit to the Festival. A sudden change of plans spirited me off to Salem, Oregon's capital, where I photographed The Acid Ball and the Lewis & Clark Gazebo. Followed by photography of dunes & driftwood on the impressive Oregon Coast…
The American Theatre Critics will surely soon appraise the Ashland Trip To Bountiful in their varied views & styles. In the meantime, for the record:
Libby Appel has staged Horton Foote's bus-trip. Dee Maaske plays Mrs. Carrie Watts. Michael J. Hume & Robin Goodrin Nordli are Ludie & Jessie Mae Watts. Julie Oda plays Thelma. Brad Whitmore, Christopher DuVal, Michael Meyer, & S. A. Rogers complete the cast. Dick Hay designed the black-box setting, and Constanza Romero's costumes provide visual enhancements for this touching drama of simple people.
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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2001. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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