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Rauch's Annotated Shakespeare

September 07, 2010

Dan Donohue as Hamlet Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2010

With all of the exciting new plays at this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival it might be easy to actually overlook the Shakespeare part of the festival. That is, it would be if it weren’t for the fact that two of this year’s four Shakespeare productions are being helmed by the festival’s Artistic Director, Bill Rauch. Of course, this isn’t Rauch’s first turn at Shakespeare here or elsewhere, but this year is notable considering he’s chosen two of the more important plays, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, in his first Shakespeare directorial efforts as part of a season he himself planned since taking leadership of the festival in mid-2007. (He directed Romeo and Juliet in the summer of 2007 for OSF just after moving into the job as well as Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2006 and The Comedy of Errors in 2004.) I saw both of the Rauch-directed productions last weekend, and his direction indicated some things he sees as important not just for these works, but the festival as a whole. As with 2006’s staging of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Rauch is most concerned with making these classic plays not only relevant, but in fact urgent to a contemporary and, I would argue, somewhat youthful audience. Of course, this is stock and trade in the opera world these days, and certain “updating” techniques are by no means new to OSF itself. But there’s an aggressive edge to Rauch’s vision that has both a political and aesthetic aspect to it.

l - r: Jonathan Haugen, Anthony Heald, and Danforth Comins Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

One technique on display in both of this year's productions is the desire to make audiences relate more to the plays by making things look more familiar and contemporary. In The Merchant of Venice, characters are dressed in a hodgepodge of Elizabethan and 20th-century garb of various kinds. Bassanio wears both a doublet and jeans as he woos Portia. There are swords and laptops side-by-side in this Venetian courtroom. And while this kind of aesthetic updating can be a rather hollow and oversimplified maneuver, I can appreciate the gesture here. Rauch wants to highlight the notion of Venice as a multi-cultural city where the characters are exploring the limits of tolerance at a confluence of crossroads both in the here and now as well as the past. Rauch is also willing to do a little tweaking of temporal elements for effect. In his vision, The Merchant of Venice opens with a scene from Act IV, when Portia arrives, disguised as a young judge, to a courtroom complete with microphones to rule in the case between Antonio and Shylock with the opening question, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” The action rapidly shifts back in time at this point to the start of the play as if with a backward tape loop sound effect. But the point is made. Rauch adds his voice to a long litany of directors interested in salvaging this perhaps most problematic of plays by recasting it as a call for tolerance. There are many wonderful performances here and it would be wrong not to single out Anthony Heald’s Shylock and Velma Silva’s Portia.

The players perform "The Death of Gonzago" in Hamlet Photo: David Cooper/OSF 2010

Meanwhile, Hamlet has arisen as perhaps the hottest ticket of the summer in Ashland. Here Rauch goes for broke nearly abandoning any trace of things stereotypically Elizabethan with the exception of the castle’s stone wall that makes up the back of the set. Everything else on stage matches the turquoise lacquer floor underneath. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become two old female college buddies, the whole castle is equipped with closed-circuit TV and the traveling acting troupe is now a hip-hop ensemble complete with a rap-influenced “Murder of Gonzago”. Some of this works, and some of it doesn’t, although all of it is interesting. When Hamlet appears to Ophelia in the opening of Act III, she is wearing a wire so Polonius and the King can eavesdrop. Half way through Hamlet’s rambling confrontation, she reveals the wire to Hamlet who proceeds with his ranting while kissing her. There are more of these confusing amendments throughout and Rauch again tampers a little with temporal elements. Nearly all of Hamlet’s soliloquies are moved in the play –typically into either the tail end of the scene before or the first few lines of the scene following them. They are instead presented as asides to the audience while the rest of the players stand in frozen poses highlighting the address as an inner thought process. Soliloquy finished, the action resumes right where it left off. This strategy helps keep the energy level high and things moving along at a ripping pace.

But while some of these changes may seem confusing or simply cosmetic, they do create a youthful energy and urgency at times. Rauch may try a little too hard at times to make a connection with the audience, but his efforts pay off more often than not. Dan Donohue, who is perfectly cast as Hamlet, seems young, fragile, and burning hot and fast. It’s rather an "emo" version of Hamlet reminiscent in many ways of Alex Timbers’ characterization of Andrew Jackson in the recent Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson. This Hamlet is a rock star in his red T-shirt and skinny jeans, his ambivalence about revenge linked to a sort of contemporary adolescent malaise about the world. Not many Hamlet's succeed in making you feel that Hamlet and Ophelia are of a different and younger generation than their parents, but there is no mistaking it here. This is a good looking production and despite its flaws, it is undoubtedly a Hamlet for today. It also makes it clear that Bill Rauch’s Shakespeare is not one that is going to take anything lying down.

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