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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 3.27.08




Sensationally Mixed

Reviews of OSF's early season

BY SUZI STEFFEN AND ANNA GRACE

The Clay Cart. PHOTO: DAVID COOPER
Fences. PHOTO: DAVID COOPER
A Midsummer Night's Dream. PHOTO: JENNY GRAHAM
Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter. PHOTO: JENNY GRAHAM

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival sports a new artistic director in Bill Rauch and a lot of lit about his New! More Diverse! plans for the seasons to come. Some of this succeeds; some of it isn't quite up to par — and the two of us passionately disagreed about at least two of the plays. Tix are available at www.osfashland.orgor by calling 1-800-219-8161. — SS & AG

 

Saturation Point Reached

The Clay Cart at the Bowmer Theatre

The play opens on a stunning set strewn with shimmering pillows, backed by the enormous foot of a god and the hem of his robe; a set topped with rich, glowing lanterns and filled with people wrapped in the lush costumes. Lighting tricks bewitch us as sound draws us in. This is a good thing because for all that happens in the 2000-year-old Sanskrit epic The Clay Cart, not much of substance occurs.

OSF literature describes the play as a love story set against a backdrop of political upheaval. That implies a complexity and depth of character not evident here. While the script does question the ancient Indian caste system, and two people fall in love, the play seems to be more about mixed-up carriages and character triumphing over bad luck. The characters of extreme virtue or vice are at times funny or sweet, but they are wholly unreal and not terribly interesting.

To make up for the lack of depth, director Bill Rauch turns up the visual sensation. For the first act, the large cast rings the stage, serving as occasional props and reacting to the action played out before them. Dance, fight scenes and inspired mime-like movement push the lengthy play along. Deborah M. Dryden's incredible costumes contain fun modern touches — a handbag for the mother-in-law, a pair of Dalai Lama glasses for the gambler-turned-Buddhist monk — that add levity to the play.

As if Clay Cart were a large meal of little nutritional value, I was filled up with the theatricality of the production, and I did enjoy myself. But after a couple of hours, I wanted to go see a play. Clay Cart continues through November 2. — Anna Grace

Suzi says: I found Clay Cart much stronger than did Anna. A splendid spectacle, it also shone with excellent performances from Michael Hume as Maitreya and Brent Hinkley as Samsthanaka and an outstanding, complex portrayal of courtesan-in-love-and-danger Vasantasena from Miriam Laube. I'd gladly sit through this three-hour play again anytime. More analysis from me at www.artsjournal.com/flyoverSS

 

Mending History's Wrongs

Fences at the Bowmer Theatre

Wounded fathers create more wounded fathers. Bitterness begets alienation.

And Charles Robinson, a newcomer to the OSF but experienced stage, TV (Night Court, Home Improvement) and film (Antwone Fisher) actor, smoothly fits his considerable talent into the OSF crew for this production of August Wilson's Fences. Robinson plays Troy Maxson, whose life has been blighted by a combination of his own mistakes and the kind of racism that made his sharecropper father a miserable man.

Wilson doesn't shy from those effects — and uses Troy's efforts to become a garbage truck driver as a sign that more equal opportunities are slowly coming around — but he doesn't let Troy off the hook for his own tragic flaws. The contrast of Troy's buddy Bono (Josiah Phillips, perfect in this role) provides an example of a good man focused on community, family and friendship. Troy treats his son Corey (OSF newcomer Cameron Knight) and wife Rose (Shona Tucker) as anchors that both settle him and weigh him down, and his consequent actions destroy more than one life.

After the first act, I thought Fences the best play I'd ever seen at OSF. But the second act, thanks to a few too many monologues — combined with an attitude change for Rose that the otherwise strong Tucker doesn't quite pull off — fell flat. But acting filled with nuance and depth makes Fences a command performance. The play runs through July 6. — Suzi Steffen

 

Sex, Tutus and a Disco Ball

A Midsummer Night's Dreamat the Bowmer Theatre

Mark Rucker's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in the 20th century at the height of the sexual revolution. That's fitting for a play about a world out of whack and hormones raging out of control. Purists will find plenty to hate about this production, but everyone else should have a great time exploring themes of lunar madness with the spirit of David Bowie reigning over them.

Watching this play felt like attending a rock concert of exceeding poetic value. The problem with such sensationalism is a lack of consistency. The audience might burst into applause over costume and set tricks or a particularly well-delivered line but is then faced with a Nick Bottom (Ray Porter) who isn't even making donkey sounds. I found as the show played on that I was longing for another spectacle, for Titania to come back with her microphone or the disco ball to start whirling once more.

Much has been made of the sexiness of this show. The four lovers strip down to their perfectly modest undergarments, which somehow begin to glow in neon colors as the kids progress deeper into the forest. The fairies consist of five buff young men in tutus and platform boots (one of whom, sadly, was not blessed with the gift of rhythm). Kevin Kennerly and Christine Albright smoke as Titania and Oberon. But the sexy feel comes from the pace and rhythm of all the action. Watching this play feels like having a mad crush, where the audience is brought to ridiculous highs and then surprised, disappointed and left with a sweet memory of all the drama. Midsummer ends with its famous apology "If we shadows have offended…" It is a director's prerogative to get away with whatever he can, and Rucker gets away with more than I would have thought possible. Midsummer continues through November 2. — AG

 

The Best-Laid Plans

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter at the New Theatre

Wounds both physical and emotional scar the inhabitants of a California dystopia, and when everybody's wounded, they offer each other solace and patch their missing parts.

Or so seems to be the message of Julie Marie Myatt's new play, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter. I hope that's not truly the message the playwright or director Jessica Thebus intended to convey, however, for the play nominally concerns the return to the U.S. of a wounded Iraq war veteran. Jenny Sutter (Gwendolyn Mulamba), a Marine who lost a limb, can't bring herself to get back to her home. Where is that home? Who's waiting for her? Answers slowly emerge as Jenny, in a liminal space where she can't find refuge, interacts with the people of Slab City. Myatt makes those people a bit too wacky-fun! but lets some of them — Lou (Kate Mulligan), Buddy (David Kelly) and Donald (Gregory Linington) — develop as the play progresses.

The acting is solid, and other stage business works well. But Jenny's withdrawn self makes the character a cipher even when she explains why she's so traumatized — and the situation in which she was wounded seems manufactured by a FOX News team to dehumanize Iraqis. The script calls for Buddy to sing songs that might have worked for a Vietnam vet returning home, but we're living in 2008. And while I don't want to elevate the trauma of war veterans over others' trauma, it's quantitatively and qualitativelydifferent.

"Just once I'd like to do something good," Lou tells Buddy after a party for Jenny goes awry. "It was well-intentioned," Buddy says. So is Jenny Sutter. Well-intentioned — and a failure. The play runs through June 20 before moving to the Kennedy Center. — SS

Anna says: Jenny Sutter is a window into an imperfect world of people trying in any way to get ahold of themselves. As characters attempt to connect with one another, each one offers herself or himself to the audience members, who can see their own futile search for sense in the characters. It is a beautiful play. — AG