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Much Ado and Secret Love, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oct. 22-23, 2015

Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland consistently delivers up ancient texts in modern, fresh ways. Their Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, is no exception, delighting – and ultimately transcending – with an interpretation as fresh and relevant as anything on the contemporary stage.

First, the design: Oh, Ashland, how you court us with your twinkly parks and mellow deer, your dappled maples and dulcet rolling hills. This backdrop is a lulling, bewitching backdrop, and Scott Bradley’s gorgeous net of roses kisses the audience’s imagination from the get-go. But there’s a foreshadowing here, as a character, hooded, is wheeled onstage, the last moments of the play’s doubt laid bare, before a word is uttered.

That’s the trick here, the weight that Blain-Cruz discovers, even in between these funny, ribald lines. This is comedy, against the backdrop of war – Like “South Pacific” – the mood is elevated as soldiers return for leave, make connections, break hearts – But will they live to see their loves again?

 Beatrice is spot-on, played with powerful humor and great spirit by Chistiana Clark. Benedick – Beatrice emphasizes the ‘dick’ when they first meet – is also perfect, exuding a devil-may-care charm, coupled with an adorable insecurity. The chemistry between these two is palpable, and bless ‘em, even though these workhorses have performed the show umpteen times this season, their interplay felt vibrant and alive.

The entire cast shines here, knowing full well where they are and where they’re going – in agreement with the story they are telling.

 Cristofer Jean as Don Pedro, and Regan Linton, as his illegitimate sister Don John, are particularly strong.

Jean is also a central figure in Stan Lai’s “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land”, a very different tale, but equally well told.

I love a good play-with-a-play Pirandello-mix up, and “Secret Love” provides plenty of schtick within its form: (Two plays are booked in the same theater for rehearsal on the same night, challenges ensue.)

There’s a winning formula throughout OSF, a cozy rapport with the audience, in these shows that let their guard down a bit. The actors allow themselves to bounce off the audience, to reveal themselves, which is what it’s like to visit this small town: You might be walking down the street, and see Skye Masterson getting in his car, or Don Pedro himself, breezing by the bookstore. It’s exciting, and also very human, the way theater should be.