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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 4.10.08




Out With a Bang

Wild is the right word for Oats

BY SUZI STEFFEN

Funny? Yes. Poignant? For sure. All of a piece? Nope. But Wild Oats, the Willamette Rep's first (and last) full-on collaboration with the UO Department of Theater, serves as a fine and possibly fitting end to the nine-year run of the Equity company.

Of course, it's impossible to review this play without the shadow of sadness hanging over every moment: The Willamette Rep has announced the end of its professional life. In this case, undercapitalized beginnings, a falloff in ticket sales after September 11, 2001 and the impossible space of the Soreng combined with costs of operating in the Hult Center and programming that never fully hit with Eugene audiences, to eat the company alive. The irony of having Wild Oats as the final show becomes clear during a production that waves off Soreng's limitations with an insouciant wink and appears to be drawing a much larger crowd than usual.

John Dory (Wade Hicks) restrains Sir George Thunder (Bill Hulings). Photo: CLIFF COLES

Wild Oats was probably Irish playwright John O'Keeffe's most popular play in his day — just before the turn of the 19th century — but fell so thoroughly out of fashion that it was forgotten for more than a century, until a 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company production brought its machinations out of mothballs.

Since then, the play has been staged at Willamette Rep Artistic Director Kirk Boyd's former Oregon Shakespeare Festival stomping grounds a few times. But the large cast and costume demands perhaps scared off Eugene theater groups until the opportunity for collaboration arose thanks to the UO's "orphan season," so called because the university kicked its mainstage season out while it builds the new Miller Theatre Complex.

This means the UO's many student actors needed something to do. So Boyd, using 19 UO students, a retired UO professor and five professional actors, plus costume and set design by UO profs, set off to provide a comedy that hearkens back to lively Restoration and Elizabethan scripts with a joyful flair. Those who love Shakespeare — those who know plays like Hamlet, Henry V, Othello and most especially As You Like It — may expel the heartiest laughter in the house as quotations fly thick and fast, but anyone with a decent sense of humor can enjoy Boyd's staging of this ridiculously overstuffed musical farce.

The plot, too convoluted to recount in any short fashion, involves Sir George Thunder (Bill Hulings) and his son Harry (Kevin Coubal), their cousin, Lady Maria Amaranth Thunder (Meredith C. Ott) and a traveling actor, Jack Rover (Andrew DeRycke). Then ensue mistaken identities, jokes at the expense of a sanctimonious if lascivious Quaker elder, theater students gamboling around the stage pretending to play games as they move UO prof Jerry Hooker's marvelously mobile set … and of course, a happy ending that ties up every last loose thread. Lovely.

DeRycke, a Seattle-based Equity actor, provides a steady hand at the tiller of this word-drunk vehicle, and Coubal stands out from the UO crowd with his calm skill. Though the script provides little emotional depth in their first scene, Coubal and DeRycke need somehow to convince the audience of their deep friendship for each other. But in this lengthy romp, that affection eventually becomes more clear.

In a goofy subplot, Sarah Ragle, Daniel Tuch and UO professor emeritus Jack Watson make a fine triangle of preposterousness, but I grew tired of physical and sight gags like the ones that surround Hulings' massive hat (though Hulings himself plays the bluff Sir George with a nicely balanced hearty wink and nudge). And last-minute replacement Jim Bradford as Twitch must stop his uncalled-for mugging and hand-waving. Finally, some of the UO cast members simply aren't up to the demands of this play and suck energy from their dialogue (though the energetic Brittany Bilyeu as Harry's servant Muz counters that trend effectively).

Thanks among other things to DeRycke's astonishing ease in his role, the play survives, thriving somehow in all of the chaos and tangled relationships, music (ably, and often brilliantly, delivered by Ruth Ames and Joel Kenney) and wild costumes by UO professor/costume doyenne Sandy Bonds.

The spectacle of Wild Oats isn't meant, like much dramatic theater, to transform the lives of those watching. But in this time of loss, playful theater has a place. This one's for fun, and as the run of Wild Oats continues, I'd urge everyone in the area to pack the Soreng for some sorely necessary joy.

 

Wild Oats continues through April 20. Tix available at www.hultcenter.orgor 682-5000.