Eugene Weekly : Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2010 : 7.15.2010


Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Ready for the Big Stories OSF’s Alison Carey brings the drama of U.S. history to the stage

Beyond the Plays OSF’s value increases with additional events

Three Days, Five Plays Late nights and long afternoons at the OSF


Three Days, Five Plays
Late nights and long afternoons at the OSF
by Anna Grace and Suzi Steffen

The Merchant of Venice On the Elizabethan Stage, through Oct. 10

The Barber (Howie Seago), Antonio (Jonathan Haugen) and Salerio (Cristofer Jean) in The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a wonderful comedy with a very uncomfortable tragedy set smack in the middle of it. It is unquestionably anti-Semitic while exposing and questioning the anti-Semitism of its own time. 

Rather than softening it up, director (and OSF Artistic Director) Bill Rauch spotlights the anti-Semitic parts of the play. The young men of Venice are jerks, viciously attacking the Jewish characters, making it clear how un-Christian they themselves are. Anthony Heald does not play Shylock as a misunderstood good guy, either. He is maligned, but he is ultimately an angry, selfish and unwavering antagonist. 

For some, nothing will ever redeem the courtroom scene, where an angry Jewish man pulls out his scales and knife, demanding his pound of flesh. But Rauch balances that out with a number of equally uncomfortable scenes where the outrages are performed by Christian characters. 

Further unsettling us, this production makes the point that we haven’t changed much. With scenes set in cafés and barbershops, Venice could be any mid-sized city. Costume designer Shigeru Yaji mixes 16th century Elizabethan with modern day clothing. Antonio (Jonathan Haugen), the prosperous businessman, wears a ruff and robe with his double-breasted suit. Bassanio (Danforth Cummins) is rakishly adorable in jeans and Elizabethan doublet.

Rauch is unafraid to deal with a difficult play, embracing the light and dark of the script, and rooting every choice he makes neatly in the text. Shakespeare wrote what, even for his time, was a difficult and contradictory play. Rauch delivers that play. — Anna Grace

Twelfth Night On the Elizabethan Stage, through Oct. 8

Maria (Robin Goodrin Nordli), Olivia (Miriam Laube) and Malvolio (Christopher Liam Moore) in Twelfth Night

Froth, flirtation, identity mix-ups and the wealthy dealing high-handedly with their servants — those who want to stage Twelfth Night, which has often seen the lights of the Elizabethan or Bowmer at the OSF, often consider setting it either in the 1980s or in the pre-French-Revolutionary 18th century. 

Choosing the latter, director Darko Tresniak and scenic designer David Zinn block the actors into various beautifully framed Rococo tableaux. The costumes (by Linda Cho) of the Lady Olivia (Miriam Laube, whose patented low, growling voice walks the edge of overuse) and her ladies on the one hand, and Duke Orsino (Kenajuan Bentley, who doesn’t act as sexy as one might wish of a bisexual nobleman) and his gentlemen on the other, provide gorgeous-as-cotton-candy fabrics, buttons and bows. The fool Feste (Michael Elich, our cover boy) shines in Harlequin colors, and Malvolio (Christopher Liam Moore)’s Puritan-to-lover switch-up wins deserved applause for the sunburst riot of clothing.

Twelfth Night, written for a Christmas celebration at the Court of England, contains layers of social commentary about one’s rightful place in the world, mixed in with rollicking good times from Feste, Sir Toby Belch (Michael J. Hume), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Rex Young) and the maid Maria (Robin Goordin Nordli). Serious moments tiptoe in, and tenderness finds its way onto the stage when Elich sings as the stars pop out overhead in the Ashland sky. Brooke Parks doesn’t make a splendid Viola, but she gamely attempts to keep the antic play grounded in Viola’s tragedy (the loss of her brother) and the comedy of her cross-dressing life as Orsino’s servant. The music of Mozart enlivens this production, which has a far too obvious foreshadowing of the French Revolution. The show’s enjoyable, as usual with Twelfth Night, with Young and Elich providing wonderful, standout performances amid a generally competent cast. — Suzi Steffen

Ruined At the New Theatre, through Oct. 31

Sophie (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), with Chic Street Man and Kelvin Underwood in Ruined

Ruined left several — perhaps many — people near me gasping for breath and sobbing for almost its entire two-act performance. 

Set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a theoretical peace co-exists with one of history’s most brutal wars over resources, often enacted on the bodies of women, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece plays well in the New Theatre. That’s a space that’s recently seen plays like Coriolanus and King John — like Ruined, large-cast, broad-sweep plays that use the small theater as a grim reminder that war runs over and poisons everything in its path.

Nottage clearly refers to Mother Courage, in which nothing made sense and a strong woman would give up even her own children to survive, with the central character, Mama Nadi (Kimberly Scott). Mama keeps a small bar, open to everyone, rebel or soldier, and rescues, by housing and feeding and giving work to, suffering women. 

But what kind of work? The kind that retraumatizes women whose lives were destroyed by the Congo’s most common weapon of war. Mama Nadi’s refusal to live the way any man tells her to live, even when that man threatens her and her girls, seems admirable even though her success rides on her ability to serve others. The complex morality she must present smacks into the violent ideas of both rebel and government forces, but the scenes between Mama and Christian (Tyrone Wilson, in one of his best roles yet at the OSF) make survival feel tenuously hopeful. 

Director Liesl Tommy says in the program that she wants to present more African stories, and this is certainly a well-directed, well-acted, well-written play. I worry that Ruined is the only play about any part of the narrative-filled continent that most OSF audience members will see. As Tommy says, we need to think about the fact that our cell phone materials come at a great cost — but we also need to hear all kinds of stories about Africa. Let’s hope for more, soon; meanwhile, get a ticket to Ruined if you can, and be prepared to ache for the women of the Congo. — SS

She Loves Me At the Bowmer Theatre, through Oct. 30

Head Waiter (Dan Donohue) and the Busboy (Eddie Lopez) in She Loves Me

Georg (Mark Bedard), the shop manager of an upscale parfumerie, can’t stop squabbling with Amalia (Lisa McCormick), the adorable new hire. Through a series of delightful songs, expected twists and endearing characters, the plot skips predictably towards a satisfyingly happy ending. So very sweet.

Not everyone goes to Ashland to see musicals, but in this staging of She Loves Me I see two potential benefits to the continuation of the trend. First, directors are under pressure to make the musicals as meaningful and beautiful as the festival’s weightier works. We go to theater to think, to be moved, to be swept away. She Loves Me certainly nailed the second two. A gorgeous Art Nouveau set, lush costumes and a beautifully executed musical score had me feeling like I was being pampered at an art spa. 

An even more compelling reason to see this show is that it shows off the true range of some of OSF’s best actors. Mark Bedard sure cleans up nicely after his scruffy turn as Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant. Dan Donohue, miraculously still standing after his epic Hamlet, has the most hysterical cameo as The Waiter, a brief performance in and of itself worth the price of a ticket.

Director Rebecca Taichman nicely places the action, and the audience, in the simple parfumerie of 1930s Budapest. As compelling as the love story are the ins and outs of a small group of people working together in a shop. If you have time during your trip to Ashland, treat yourself to this sweet show. — AG

Henry IV, Part One On the Elizabethan Stage, through Oct. 9

Poins (Howie Seago) and Prince Hal (John Tufts) revel in Henry IV, Part One

“So shaken as we are, so wan with care/Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,” read the first lines of this history play, which could hardly be more fitting for a country in the middle of two wars and a tragic, ocean-killing disaster. Though Part Two (on the schedule for next year) might be the better play, Henry IV, Part One demonstrates Shakespeare’s range and the slow development of his theory of history, which eventually made his queen (Elizabeth I) look like the natural apex of royal achievement.

For Shakespeare purists, this play will meet your “Please produce it straight!” needs, with Elizabethan doublets, Elizabethan whores and Elizabethan Mystic Welsh Folk filling the stage. In addition, the fight scenes should make sword-and-blood lovers happy. You want comedy? Watch Prince Hal (John Tufts) and Falstaff scoring points off of each other. You want tragedy? Watch King Henry (Richard Howard, in a sadly lackluster performance of this poignant role) hearing about the accomplishments of young Hotspur (Kevin Kenerly) even as heir-to-the-throne Hal scums around with lowlifes at the whorehouses of London. True, this play could hardly have fewer or more boring women, and as is director Penny Metropulos’ wont, certain scenes need reining in instead of excessive clowning, but audiences should hang on through intermission for physical and emotional payoffs at the end of the play (and, indeed, to make next year’s Henry IV, Part Two clearer). If you’re a Falstaff fan, you’ll probably also enjoy David Kelly’s self-aware, self-mocking depiction of the fat, funny, problematic knight. — SS