Eugene Weekly : Theater : 7.5.07

Theatrics at the OBF
Collaberation key to glittery pageant

In the Willamette Repertory Theatre’s costume shop, Tina Schrager is making hair. Actually, Schrager is cutting long strips of leopard-print polyester fabric, and Andra Barrow, strictly speaking, is making the hair by tying those strips into knots — and more knots, and more knots. Across the table, Caroline Barnes takes bits of plastic egg cartons, found bottle tops (painted black), gold curtain rings and dollar-store gold-colored bling and makes a gorget, a fancy collar, for the king of Israel.

Measuring hair for KIng David

But why are the WRT costume people so busy? It’s late June, and the WRT doesn’t have a play until September. Yet Willamette Rep Artistic Director Kirk Boyd has been working with actors all week. The answer, as usual at this time of year, comes from the Bach Festival. Everyone is involved in a collaboration stretching from the mind of the OBF’s Royce Saltzman to Portland to France and, as usual with the OBF, to Germany.

French playwright René Morax came up with a dramatic presentation of the life of the biblical King David. David, a shepherd boy, may have lived around 3000 years ago. According to the story, God decided that David should become king and, using the prophet Samuel, got him into the household of current king Saul as a sort of bard. Then David slays the giant Goliath and starts winning battles. David eventually becomes king of Israel and has many adventures, including some sexy interludes with a married woman (Bathsheba) and various conquests of territory. Oh, and did we mention the Witch of Endor?

“Yeah, you’ve got the Witch of Endor, you’ve got the shade of Samuel — you’re going to dramatize that,” Boyd says. And when he says dramatize, he means something like “set up very exciting special effects that are top secret.” Everyone associated with the production speaks in hints and with mysterious glances about those special effects. And for that, we can blame Boyd and Lewis & Clark theater professor Michael Olich, not to mention Swiss composer Arthur Honegger.

Morax had written his play and wanted music for it, but composers including Igor Stravinsky let him know that two months wasn’t quite enough time for a composer to come up with incidental music for the entire script. But young Honegger took it on, and the play opened to great success in 1921. For a smaller stage in Germany, Honegger stripped the play down to a narrator and an oratorio, which became the more often performed version. A few years ago, Royce Saltzman saw a slightly expanded version in Minneapolis and returned to Eugene with ideas for the OBF.

“It’s not accurate to say that I wrote this, but it is accurate to say I adapted it,” Boyd says. “What we have here is a hybrid.” It’s not the original play; it’s not the stripped-down oratorio. It’s something that uses a narrator but, Boyd says, adds “elements of the actors, scenery, costumes and lighting for the most compelling relationships.”

With 18 orchestra members, 50 chorus members and three soloists along with six actors playing nearly 20 roles, Boyd and the stagehand team had quite a challenge ahead.

So Boyd called on Olich — they spent years working together at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland — to create the design. “I looked at how to sandwich the actors between the orchestra and the choral performers,” Olich says, and he eventually came up with a design that lifts the actors up, “almost like they float.” Then he and a research assistant looked at what people wore in 1000 BC. “It’s historically based,” Olich says, “but it’s very much stylized … like a biblical pageant.”

Lighting designer Michael Peterson put in a large lighting truss so that what Boyd calls the “Las Vegas biblical” shine can be seen all over the cavernous Silva. German music director Robin Engelen and chorus master Kathy Romey also play key roles in this massive collaborative effort. “The style is super classic melodrama, with large emotions and bold, simple gestures,” Boyd says. The OBF has presented spectacles before, but this is something new.

“It’s so unique that it’s hard to describe,” Boyd says, “but I’d like to think that Honegger would be proud.”