Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Till There Was You

September 14, 2009

Peter Macon and Robin Goodril Nordli in Macbeth
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

My final day in Ashland culminated in some relief after a number of disappointments at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. To be honest, this reprieve may have stemmed from seeing two of the strongest plays in and of themselves of the six I caught. The afternoon featured a contemporary and well-done Macbeth. The play takes so easily to any number of updated settings. Here, the set was post-apocalyptic McMansion foyer complete with a half destroyed staircase, black tile floor, and shadows from a reflecting pool dancing across the backstage scrim. Surrounding the foot of the stage was a relief of many bodies encased in something once molten but now iron solid for a Han Solo-feel. It looked good, and provided an appropriately creepy air. There were other nice touches as well, including the spirits summoned by the witches in their second meeting with Macbeth appearing as small children with misshapen alien heads speaking telepathically through the witches mouths. Granted it’s not Fangoria , but certainly creepy. Director Gale Edwards also elects to go with the more ominous interpretation of the final scene with the witches reaching out to beacon Fleance as Malcolm addresses the crowd as their new king implying that the bloodshed may not quite be over yet.

But plays do not run on atmosphere alone. There’s acting to consider and Peter Macon was cast as Macbeth against Robin Goodril Nordli’s Lady Macbeth. They both gave large, grand-gestured performances, which didn’t work so well in the first parts, but came into their own in the home stretch as the play itself crazily eclipses any subtle emotion in the final scenes. Macon’s Macbeth was much more convincing on the cusp of sanity than when marveling and reviling at his wife's calls to action. There seemed to be a little lack of chemistry here as well, and I often felt like this devilish duo operated on completely separate realms to one another. The rest of the cast kept the energy up and moving higher as the plot unfolded. Some scenes seemed haphazard in their arrangement including the appearance of Banquo’s ghost who ambles down a nearly empty banquet table in a manner that created more fear about falling off a table than for Macbeth’s sanity. But on the other hand, the later scenes were more and more unhinged, frightening, and at times even sexy.

Richard Elmore, Machael Elich, and Linda Alper
Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2009

Sunday’s other performance, of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was also a crowd-pleaser although it too was incredibly slow to warm up. There is something potentially lost in a repertory system such as the one in Ashland with plays only receiving a performance two to three times a week over several months. OSF has not traditionally produced many out-and-out musicals, and that may be in part to the fact that maintaining consistent musical quality may depend on a more rigorous schedule for everyone involved. On Sunday, the first twenty minutes or so sounded awful with a chorus completely out of sync and overpowering what amounted to the chamber orchestra used to proved background noise. It hurt some of the earlier crowd numbers, but luckily as things wore on, the singing and timing improved. Bill Rauch directed the production which was burdened with the precious black-and-white turning into color concept from such places as the film Pleasantville. It didn’t always work here either. The nicest surprise of the evening was Michael Elich’s Harold Hill, which was handsome, smooth and strong sounding. Sadly his Marian, Gwendoly Mulamba, had a little too much vocal unsteadiness throughout whether the source was fatigue or something else. By the second act, however, I was sold on the energy of the good spirit of it all. Even despite the Shipoopi making me long for the days of Monica Lewinski, I couldn't help but be won over in the end.


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