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09.28.11

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Foul and Fair

Oregon Shakespeare Festival ends season with three shows about death

By David Templeton


As the summer gasps out its last warm breaths, and the air gradually fills with hints of the coming fall, the impossibly beautiful town of Ashland Oregon prepares for the concluding two months of its long, leisurely Shakespeare season. Last weekend, I made my final road trip of the year up to the tiny town just over the Oregon border. The six-hour drive seems shorter than I remember, though I make the trip over the Siskiyou pass at least three times a year. That's what it takes to see all eleven plays in a season that opens in February, then gradually adds new shows, and new venues, for nine-and-a-half-months.

I've described eight of the season's eleven shows in earlier reports.

Several of them are still running, and for those inclined to take advantage of fall's smaller crowds and lower hotel prices, I still highly recommend the remarkably powerful 'Measure for Measure,' and the nasty-wonderful 'August Osage County,' running through November 6 in the Angus Bowmer theater, and the youthfully romantic 'Love's Labors Lost,' running through October 9 in the outdoor Elizabethan Theater.

As the season gets ready for it's final stretch to an end, with one final theater-going marathon behind me, I am now able to tell about the final three shows to open at OSF. Was it an accident of programming or some fiendish plan by artistic director Bill Rauch that the season ends with three shows about notable historical assassinations?

Probably just coincidence, but taken together these three shows, ranging in quality from not-so-hot to absolutely un-missable, form an interesting triumvirate of musings on untimely death—both in the literal and artistic sense of the word.

First, there's Carlyle Brown's surprisingly rousing drama with an unwieldy name: 'The African Company presents Richard III,' directed by Seret Scott, tells the story of a historical footnote in theatrical history, describing events that lead to the premature destruction of America's first all-black theater company. Set in pre-civil war 1821, in New York City, the richly detailed, cleverly streamlined story follows the real-life James Hewlett (Kevin Kennerly), the country's first professional black actor, who performed primarily with William Henry Brown's African Theater Company. When Brown (Peter Macon) produced a production of Shakespeare's Richard the III, starring Hewlett in the legendary role, an accidental competition was launched between the small, under-funded African Company, and the opulent Park Theater, which was preparing to launch its own version of the same play.

A David and Goliath story with a surprisingly moving twist in its final moments—both heartbreaking and deeply rousing—this lovingly staged and beautifully acted play is partly about racial injustice in the supposedly tolerant North, but is also about the power of art, both to foment social change, and to inspire individuals to reach into the deepest parts of themselves to express truths that can be told no other way.

Similar artistic struggles present themselves in Tony Taccone's world premiere 'Ghost Light,' running through November fifth in the wonderfully intimate New Theater. Unfortunately, this OSF commission fails by being too ambitious, and far too cluttered with confusing pseudo-psychology and self0indulgent theatrical flourishes. That's too bad, too, because the subject matter is immediately powerful and popping with possibility. A messy collaboration between Taccone and Jon Moscone, who also directs the play, the play explores the emotional damage carried by Moscone, whose father was the assassinated Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone.

The basic concept is a strong one. While preparing to direct a production of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,' Moscone (Christopher Liam Moore) is haunted by strange dreams, unable to decide how to represent the character of Hamlet's dead father. With his own traumatic dead-father issues causing a mighty case of creative block, Moscone wrestles with his buried emotions through conversations with students, colleagues, and his best friend and costume designer Louise (Robynn Rodriguez).

If the story had remained tightly focused on this struggle, there might have been a worthy play here. But Taccone layers on an endless stream of unconscious phantoms, fantasy lovers, childhood imaginary spirit guides, zigging and zagging here and there, seemingly unwilling to leave out any idea that popped into the playwright's head. Confusing, preposterous, self-indulgent, and overly preachy, the thing is a mess, which is frustrating because there is a good play buried under all this flotsam and jetsam and endless psychobabble.

Finally, the best of the new shows is director Amanda Dehnert's laser-sharp, fast-and-furious, entirely riveting staging of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' Performed in the round, on a stripped down stage with all the lights, cables, ladders and other theatrical detritus in full view of the audience, the play begins with the actors all hanging out in the theater as the audience arrives. In a breathtaking start, the viewers are plunged right into the middle of the action (I won't reveal how), and without making any attempts at traditional stage magic and hide-and-seek trickery, the story of Caesar's famous assassination and its bloody aftermath is told with an intimacy and clarity of purpose that makes this the best, most powerful and moving production of Caesar I've ever seen.

The fact that Caesar is played by a woman (Vilma Silva, magnificent), played as a woman, only adds new impact in the well-worn tale. It's a change that sends ripples all through the famous text, calling for little changes that send the story in surprising directions. For example, the lines usually given to Caesar's wife—begging Caesar to listen to dire warnings of bloodshed, and to stay home from the capitol on the Ides of March—are now given to Mark Anthony (Danforth Comins), which adds significant additional power to their friendship. That directorial choice is just another fascinating move in a production that ultimately allows us to see this story of conspiracy and revenge in a deeply personal, highly accessible and immediate light.

This is the one to see, and yes, it's well worth the trip.

The full schedule can be found at www.osfashland,org


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