Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Almost Paradise

September 13, 2009

Mark Murphey, Leo Gordon, Michael J. Hume, and Richard Elmore
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

I wish I could say that my second day at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year was better than the first, but apparently that is not to be. I should note that Ashland, Oregon, is unbelievably beautiful as it always is, and regardless of anything else, it’s worth a visit here whether you’re into theater, outdoor activities or none of the above. I was very appreciative of all that natural beauty today after some more underwhelming theater. This afternoon was OSF’s current revival of Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost. It would seem perhaps the perfect time to bring this Depression-era drama riddled with its patriotism and proto-Socialist leanings to the stage. And it does resonate; though, it is supremely ironic to hear some of the very same calls for community action in the face of perceived government abuses espoused by characters from the left within the play now co-opted some 70 years later by the kinds of clueless Americans from the Right that fill news coverage these days.

But so it is, and Odets’ drama is given a thoughtful and loving treatment from director and former Festival artistic director Libby Appel. Perhaps it’s a little too loving, though, in that the pacing often seems overly slow and meticulous. This is a play of ideas, but it is also an exceedingly realist work that suffers from appearing too much like a play. The performances from Linda Alper and Michael J Hume, among others, were quite good, maintaining some focus in a play that gets watered down from a few too many storylines and characters crammed into the proceedings before patriarch Leo Gordon gets to his call-to-unity speech in the home stretch. Despite being a bit sleepy, it was not all together unpleasant.

But as slow as Paradise Lost may have been, it was nowhere near as lifeless as this season’s adaptation of a literary work, Don Quixote, which is playing outdoors on the Elizabethan Stage. Octavio Solis was brought in to adapt Cervantes' novel into a coherent evening of theater to no avail. It seems that episodes from the picaresque work were chosen at random with little regard to how they fit together or might construct a coherent narrative for a single theatrical evening. There is virtually no forward motion in the piece, which seems to wander from topic to topic at will. It’s also filled with every mild, audience pleasing gag you can think of right down to boob jokes and exposed asses. The only thing missing was a fart joke, which seemed somewhat of an oversight given the tone of the evening. There was some lovely puppetry work designed by Lynn Jeffries around the many animals that appear in the adaptation from waddling ducks to Quixote's horse. But it's not enough to hold things together. Cervantes himself is dragged into the production for some contemporary meta-fictional purposes that remain a mystery to me. It's a long, dull dud of an evening.


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