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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 8.4.11

 

oregon shakespeare festival 2011

Planned by History

By Suzi Steffen

Actors don’t have to do anything but look pretty, some think. Those who tread the boards at something like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival might have to memorize iambic pentameter and speak it convincingly, but the directors and designers and dramaturges do the intellectual heavy lifting.

That’s bollocks. 

Just ask John Tufts and Christine Albright, two members of the OSF company who spent their spring traveling on what they call “The Royal Road.” On the way, the actors blogged and made video of their time researching and retracing the steps of Henry V, king of England from 1413-1422, as he went from Prince Hal to a monarch who conquered the French on their own territory at Agincourt. 

OSF actors John Tufts and Christine Albright try their hands at the longbow while travelling “The Royal Road”

Tufts has played Prince Hal for the past two summers in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and he’ll be playing Henry V in next summer’s finale to the Henriad. Albright, who has played Lady Elizabeth Percy in the same plays, will play the Boy in Henry V (you may remember Kenneth Branagh crying over the body of the Boy in the 1989 film of Henry V).

The duo married in 2009 and has co-starred in Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Equivocation and The Cherry Orchard at OSF (along with The Seagull at Marin Theatre Company, just before this trip). Because they married in the three days between the time Equivocation closed in Ashland and the day it opened in Seattle, Albright and Tufts never had time for a honeymoon. So they considered this trip a way to celebrate their wedding in nerd-tastic style.

 “It  might seem funny to other people,” Albright says, “but for us, it was perfect.”

She says it was also the perfect opportunity to combine their love for travel and history while letting others peek in on the experience. Tufts wanted to bring the audience along with him during the research phase of his character-building process, and that’s obvious from the videos and the warm tone of the blog posts. (See all of those at http://wkly.ws/13e

He and Albright both talk about playing people who lived, who once walked the same ground the couple now wandered in the two countries that fought the Hundred Years’ War. And they have the usual OSF actorly passion for their characters and Shakespeare’s plays as well.

“Audiences can be turned off by the term ‘history play,’” Tufts says. “But these plays are enormously entertaining and exploding with life.” 

Speaking of entertaining, the trip mixed fun with research. One of the videos shows Tufts explaining the challenges of driving in London on the wrong side of the road. “We were honked at more than if I’d had an ‘I Heart Sarah Palin’ bumper sticker driving through Ashland,” Tufts says.

Once they made it out of London to Shrewsbury Battlefield, where Prince Hal killed Harry “Hotspur” Percy in a civil conflict, things got both more fun and more serious. They met a man called Robin Spencer, an ancient artillery expert and medieval re-enactor who taught them how to shoot the longbow (the longbow, a Welsh-created instrument of war, gave the English superiority in battle for decades). Tufts says that when he finally started shooting at the targets, “Spencer called me a natural, but it made me wonder if ‘natural’ meant something different in British English.”

They also walked through the one-room Shrewsbury Battlefield museum, where Albright discovered the gruesome fact that King Henry IV had Hotspur’s body exhumed, drawn and quartered, his body parts sent to all the corners of England and his head returned to be impaled on the gate at the Percy home. Lady Percy spent six months recovering his body so she could rebury him. 

In Part 2, Lady Percy (played by Albright) tries to convince her father-in-law not to fight anymore, despite the death of Hotspur. Albright says that this summer, as she speaks the words, she knows that if Lady Percy ever actually did say something like that to her father-in-law, “she did it with her husband’s head pitted on their front gate.”

On that quiet, rainy day they also entered the chapel there, built over a mass grave of English soldiers who died in the rebellion that day. “The fog was thick; there was no lighting inside the chapel, just the little bit of light that filtered in through the stained-glass windows,” Albright says. “I know it sounds clichéd, but it felt haunted.”

Shrewsbury isn’t the only battlefield to have that effect on the actors. They took the ferry to France and drove to the site of the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, in French). That’s where, in 1415,  Henry’s few thousand British soldiers defeated at least 20,000 French, thanks to the longbow. The battlefield was so huge that even now the couple had to drive around it, with a driving map from the Agincourt museum. 

“This is a small farm that, 600 years ago, was a muddy, rain-soaked bloodbath,” Tufts says. “I couldn’t stop imagining the sounds, the fear, the exhaustion, the anxiety and the ultimate triumph of the battle itself.” 

Of course, both actors feel that it deepened their connections to their characters. But beyond that, they feel passionate about making sure that audiences see and experience that connection as well. “OSF audiences are special,” Albright says. “They are uniquely attached to the actors they see year after year, and the blog was a little window into a part of the process they don’t see.”

Tufts says that other actors in the company have given them great feedback, even as everyone waits for them to edit the final two videos of the trip (which may be a challenge; they also both have roles in Love’s Labor’s Lost and this season’s twelfth play, WillFul, opening just after EW goes to press). 

Albright says that audience members stop them on the street to thank them for the blog.

“The festival as set up by Angus Bowmer has had a long tradition of bringing the audience into the process,” Tufts says, “and I think the company sees that projects like this expand pretty dramatically on that vision.”  






I’ll Have the Family Dysfunction Plate, Please

Violet Weston (Judith-Marie Bergan) sinks into the darkness of her world. Photo by Jenny Graham

August: Osage County overflows with screw-ups, lost loves, mistakes, missed connections, addictions, depressions, poor choices, creepy potential in-laws, creepy actual in-laws and secrets so layered and maliciously revealed that it’s a miracle the Bowmer beam didn’t crack earlier under the sheer weight of the Weston family’s issues.

But don’t get me wrong: It’s also hilarious, shockingly funny while also simply shocking, flinging the audience around the tornado that is Violet Weston (Judith-Marie Bergan, in what I’d call a tour de force turn if that weren’t what any critic would say about any Violet, so I’ll just say that she almost always manages, with finesse, to present as realistic the histrionics the part requires). She combines the peculiarly devastating insults of a Southern (in this case, Oklahoman) gentlewoman with the neediness and manipulation of an addict, her howls of naked need vying with calculated spite for the attention of her daughters, her sister, her granddaughter and even the maid/cook/servant, Johnna (DeLanna Studi). 

The play’s not perfect — Robynn Rodriguez’ performance needs more emotional shading, and the script definitely hits a few too many sitcom buttons — but this is a knockout of a play, complete with uncomfortable racialized interactions between Johnna and almost every member of the white Westons. It’s disturbing, cracklingly amusing and deeply sad. 

August: Osage County runs through Nov. 5 at the Bowmer Theatre. ­ Suzi Steffen

 

 

Life and How We Live(d) It

Falstaff (Michael Winters) doing what he does best. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Falstaff: knight, corrupter, swindler, liar, cheat and far more.

Far, far more. In last year’s Henry IV, Part 1 at the OSF, David Kelly played Sir Jack as the buffoon, his jokes as broad as the fat suit encasing Kelly’s slender frame. Though that was successful enough, Falstaff gets a depth upgrade this year with Michael Winters, who played Big Daddy in last year’s sensationally good Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Falstaff makes us love him despite himself, and Winters makes this Falstaff a contemplative rogue who knows himself well enough to know he will never reform. The tragedy of Henry IV, Part 2 comes not just when old King Henry IV dies, having seen his hard-won kingdom fall to shreds of civil war, but later, when the new king must take up his mantle.

For kings aren’t, can’t be, solely human; they can’t simply whore and drink and make or ruin plans to steal money from travelers, as Prince Hal (John Tufts) did with his friends Poins (Howie Seago) and Bardolph (Brent Hinkley) and his mentor Falstaff in Part 1. Shakespeare knew that his audiences, familiar with the Great Chain of Being, would understand why. Kings are touched with divinity. Prince Hal must amputate the undisciplined part of himself to become Henry V. So he wastes no time at his coronation creating the most heartbreaking scene in all of Shakespeare, the famous public denunciation of Falstaff. 

Tufts, with help from costume, set and lighting designers, looks otherworldly in this scene, and Winters evokes the shock, pain and wounded tiger pride of the aging Falstaff. The audience may remember Falstaff’s speech to Hal from Part 1: “For sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff … banish him not thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” As prince, Hal could fool around in that world and befriend this merry rogue; as king, Henry will not.

If you didn’t see last year’s play or don’t know Part 1, no problem: Watch Part 2 as a tale about sexy, energetic Elizabethan life, mixing pleasure and cynicism, drink and food and friends —  or watch it as a tale about aging, inheritance, loss and grief, the changing of the generations. The sadness comes leavened with Falstaff’s bawdy, iffy humor; in this production, James Edmondson’s gorgeously acted Master Shallow adds more than a jot of fun. 

This play’s about life. See it. 

Henry IV, Part 2 runs through Oct. 7 on the Elizabethan Stage. — Suzi Steffen

 

 

Shenanigans, Ringers, Pirates!

Enter the Pirate King (Michael Elich). T. Charles Erickson

The smash hit of the summer at the OSF, Pirates scores another one for artistic director Bill Rauch, whose desire to bring singing to the hallowed grounds of Ashland won him sellout crowds with The Music Man in 2009.

In this Gilbert and Sullivan piece, where the stakes could hardly be lower or the outcome more assured, the sheer goofiness of the plot means little. Pirate apprentice Frederick is turning 21 and plans to devote himself to a life of eradicating his former friends and employers; he falls for an aristocratic girl named Mabel; there’s fooferol involving Leap Year; some London bobbies get involved; and also, pirates! 

But the Pirate King (Michael Elich, marvelous as usual) brandishes his sword; Frederick (Eddie Lopez) looks appropriately innocent and torn between his group of friends and his true love; David Kelly talk-sings “The Major-General’s Song” with glee and panache; and Mabel … ah, Mabel.

The Elizabethan Stage gained a bank of speakers over the off-season, and that was a good change. Actors like Lopez and Elich sound just fine as they sing without straining, and the daughters of the major-general dance a splendid little song around ever-moving boulders. Then Mabel (Khori Dastoor) starts into “Poor wand’ring one,” and it’s immediately apparent that Dastoor’s a ringer, an operatic star. She can also act, but she provides flights of song lovelier even than Pirates’ fabulous costumes and choreography. 

If you have the slightest sense of humor or delight, get your tickets now, for Pirates has sold out almost all its run (the OSF added several Monday night performances, listed below). 

Pirates of Penzance runs through Oct. 8 on the Elizabethan Stage. Extra Monday performances: Aug. 8, 29; Sept. 19;

Oct. 3. — Suzi Steffen



 

Some Slight Zany

The King of Navarre (Mark Bedard) pleads with the Princess of France (Kate Hurster). Photo by Jenny Graham

For young King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three best friends, swearing off women and all other pleasures in a quest to become famed scholars is about the stupidest thing they could contrive. Their foolishness is compounded when a beautiful princess and her quick-witted friends arrive, sending the young men into a frenzy of maudlin love poetry and awkward attempts at wooing. And we all get it, because most of us have had the pleasure of being 20 years old and stupid, or are looking forward to it.

Director Shana Cooper’s production sets the young aristocrats up as frat boys, replete with boom box, expensive shades and a food fight. Gregory Linington has a particularly thoughtful performance as Berowne. The exuberance of their youth and wealth is mirrored in their slightly smarter ladies. All are delightful as they interact on a set and in costumes that look like Henri Rousseau’s cheerful painting The Football Players come to life in the 1950s.

As the nobility frolic in fields, the commoners imitate their actions. Emily Sophia Knapp plays a sharp Moth to Jack Wills’ hulking Muppet of a Don de Armado.  

Seriously smart actor Jonathan Haugen is cast as the simpleton Costard, making the character over into one of Shakespeare’s wise fools. It’s interesting, and it works.

Much of the direction makes Love’s Labor’s Lost a charming, sweet and fun evening, just as it should be. The plot provides a warm home for the roaring silliness running rampant at OSF this summer. 

Then there were the things that make you go hmmm …  Moderately clever ideas were unnecessarily stuffed into the action. Cooper needs to give her audience more credit. Costard’s lines are funny enough, there’s really no need to wrap him in shiny blue fabric. Ultimately, many of the bits distracted from the humor and romance inherent to the play.

Love’s Labor’s Lost has one of the least satisfying of all Shakespeare’s complicated endings. Here Cooper’s greater instincts as a director shine through, crafting what was the nicest finish I’ve seen to this play, leaving us not with rich kids who didn’t get their way, but young people who are finally growing up. — Anna Grace